Quick tour of the new wing at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

  • December 01, 2010 14:46

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Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery of works by John Singer Sargent. Photo © Chuck Choi
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

With only three hours to take in the magnificent, $504 million-dollar Art of the Americas Wing addition to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, first impressions made all the difference.

Beginning in the clean-lined and airy Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard, an impressive new feature soaring next to the museum's 1909 Beaux-Arts structure, the ARTFIXdaily entourage entered the First Floor gallery dedicated to colonial America.

What is old seemed new again. Oft-viewed artworks have been reinterpreted in inspiring settings with decorative arts, new acquistions, and wall trimmings evoking the period to tell the story of America, particularly New England, through visual arts.

Valley of the Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt (American (born in Germany), 1830–1902) 1864. Oil on paperboard. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865.
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Befitting Boston, patriotic silversmith Paul Revere, as depicted by John Singleton Copley, greets visitors with a direct gaze at the gallery entrance. Painted in the politically-charged year of 1768, when colonists began to divide over their allegiance (or lack thereof) to the crown, this famous portrait is positioned near Revere's own silver creations.

Displayed front and center is Revere's most storied piece, the Liberty Bowl. Used for toasting with rum punch at secret meetings of the Sons of Liberty, whose members included Revere and other Whigs, the bowl was inscribed with patriotic slogans, along with the names of its joint owners, and therefore it was a treasonous object kept hidden away at the eve of the Revolutionary War.

Room vignettes incorporating silver, needlework, ceramics, furniture and objects, are interspersed with images of early Americans painted by Copley, Joseph Blackburn and others, and decorative arts sections devoted to regions such as Philadelphia and New York.

Of particular interest was a display of 18th-century chairs accompanied by educational wall texts. Phrased in layman's terms, the text offers comparisons and distinguishing characteristics of carving styles from various regions. The Portsmouth, New Hampshire, chair was memorably described as having a "backsplat like Batman."

Cabinet, about 1880. Herter Brothers, American, 1865–1905. New York City, New York, United States. Maple, bird's-eye maple, oak or chestnut, stamped and gilt paper, with gilding, inlay, and carved decoration; original brass pulls and key.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Kristin and Roger Servison Gallery, distinguished by images of Founding Fathers, is especially goosebump-inducing. An impressive focal point is the monumental floor-to-ceiling "Passage of the Delaware," depicting a heroic General Washington leading his men, as painted by Thomas Sully in 1819.

For lovers of brown wood, there is a gallery dedicated to furniture made in the busy colonial port of Newport, Rhode Island, featuring revered pieces by Townsend and Goddard. Considered the pinnacle of 18th-century American cabinetmaking, two rare and complex desk and bookcases, with carved shell motifs, are on view. This more intimate room setting is far more alluring than the MFA's previous display of the furniture collection in a long hall.

A wealth of Copley portraits of America's early movers and shakers, as well as his dramatic "Watson and the Shark," which has fascinated viewers since it was shown at the Royal Academy centuries ago, seem fresh repositioned in their new gallery.

On Floor 2, John Singer Sargent is feted in a lush silvery wall-papered gallery featuring his renowned 19th-century society portraits, impressionist landscapes, studies for major works, and scenes of Venetian canals and cavorting Capriotes.

"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," Sargent's enigmatic image of four young sisters, is still bracketed by the enormous Chinese vases depicted in the painting. Portraits of the girls' parents are also on view in this Sargent-centered gallery augmented by loans.

Adjacent is an Aesthetic Movement gallery chock-full of a satisfying mix of late 19th-century fine and decorative arts. Vibrant glass windows by rival artisans La Farge and Tiffany jockey for attention, while a wonderful Herter Brothers cabinet, with elaborate inlays of butterflies, flora, and fauna, melds with subtle works by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, J.W. Alexander, J.A.M. Whistler, among others. Tucked in the room vignette is a gorgeous John La Farge oil "Vase of Flowers" from 1864.

The Croll Gallery features some of the MFA's most cherished paintings by Impressionists associated with Boston such as Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell, and Frank Benson.

Mary Cassatt reigns supreme in the next room, including her charming 1896 portrait of her niece, "Ellen Mary in a White Coat."

Neoclassical sculpture is well-outlined by dark red walls adorned with paintings hung salon-style in the Penny and Jeff Vinik Gallery. An eyeful of Albert Bierstadts is altogether impressive as is the gargantuan George Inness "Blue Niagara" of 1884.

A gallery with an informational touch screen gives the low-down on the Karolik collection, truly the backbone of the MFA's mid-19th century art collection with signature works by Thomas Cole, Bierstadt, William Sidney Mount, and others. The serene Ruskinian landscape "Sunset on the Meadow," painted by William Trost Richards in 1861, was a pleasant surprise in a gallery of familiar images.

Luminist masterworks of harbors, hummingbirds, and haystacks by Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Henry Lane get their own space. Next is the Barbara and Theodore Alfond Gallery of Winslow Homer paintings which is shared with three works by Thomas Eakins. Here are Homer's iconic images "Fog Warning," "Long Branch, New Jersey," and "Dinner Horn," among others, along with his Maine seascape "Driftwood," depicting storm-driven waves, for which the artist missed Thanksgiving dinner to paint in 1909.

Frank Stella's enormous "Hiraqla" is the centerpiece of the 3rd Floor galleries devoted to 20th century and contemporary art. Rockwell Kent's "Maine Coast, Winter, 1909" and Maxfield Parrish's gemlike "Hill Top Farm" of 1949 stood out as well as signature works by Grant Wood, Norman Rockwell, and Edward Hopper.

Art, objects and furniture of the 1920s and 30s, in the gallery named for John Axelrod, an avid collector of this period who gave several key pieces to the museum, presents a sharp slice of American modernism. Of note is the blue-and-black glazed porcelain "Jazz Series" punch bowl designed by Viktor Schreckengost (1906–2008) , a striking piece of which another (damaged) version sold for $158,600 at a Rago's auction in October.

Folk art, maritime art and antiques, Victorian-era furniture, abstraction of the 1940s to 70s, ancient Mesoamerican art, and much more round out the themed galleries, but time did not allow us to view these. In fact, we only saw about one-third of the new wing and its 5,000 works of art on display, which is double the amount shown previously.

Designed by Foster + Partners (London), the 121,307 square feet of new construction, which opened on Nov. 20, includes 53 new galleries, including nine period rooms and four Behind the Scenes education galleries.







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