Visiting the MFA’s Art of the Americas
How a first-class museum just got better
The Museum of Fine Arts new Art of the Americas wing took more than a decade of fundraising, five years of construction, and more than half a billion dollars to complete. So it’s easy to see why the official opening of the wing last November was hailed as one the most significant cultural events to hit Boston in recent memory.
Now for the good news. It was all worth it. The new wing adds 53 galleries and 51,000 square feet of exhibition space, enough to display over 5,000 American objects, more than double the number the museum could previously show.
But that’s only the logistical part of the story. The Art of the Americas wing does something at once radical and revelatory. It asks us to rethink our assumptions of what constitutes “American” art. In many museums, American art is confined to North American art. But by grouping within one wing ancient pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art, Native American art, 17th-century art, and North American art from the 18th century on, visitors have an opportunity to think about how one culture influences another, especially after the introduction of sailing vessels and trade.
The collection is exhibited over four floors, for the most part in chronological order, with pre-Colombian art (some of it dating to 300 BC) on the lower level, and 20th-century art on the top floor.
Upon entering the Mesoamerican gallery, visitors come face-to-face with five massive burial urns from Guatemala, dating from AD 650-850. Other galleries display tomb figures from West Mexico as much as 2,300 years old and gold pendants, arm cuffs, and necklaces from Costa Rica and Panama. There is a gallery devoted to Native North American art, much of it made in the last 70 years.
Visitors will be mesmerized by the collection of ship models populating the lower level’s George Putnam Gallery. Used originally as presentation pieces to secure shipbuilding contracts or as guides for builders, the models today serve as reminders that the late 17th through 19th centuries were a time of enormous exploration, conquest, and trade, and that the art of one culture had newfound influence on others. Dominating one wall, as if to emphasize those points, is Fitz Henry Lane’s wonderful scene of a bustling New York Harbor, ca. 1855 (above).
Walk up a floor and you enter the particularly impressive world of 18th- and 19th-century North American art. The first painting you encounter is native son John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of Paul Revere (1768), showing the future Revolutionary War hero at work as a silversmith. Among the other wonderful Copley portraits here are those of American founding fathers Samuel Adams (1762) and John Hancock (1765), but it’s his sprawling narrative painting Watson and the Shark (1778) that will stop you in your tracks with its dramatic depiction of a real-life shark attack.
Nothing in the collection can compare to the grandeur of Thomas Sully’s towering 1819 masterpiece The Passage of the Delaware (below), with a mounted George Washington preparing to lead the Continental Army in a surprise attack against the British in December 1776. Historic on many levels, the huge painting took more than 4,000 hours to restore and 11 days for staffers to hang, and it reunites the painting and frame for the first time in more than a century.
Most visitors will find themselves wanting to linger on the new wing’s second floor. One whole gallery is devoted to the work of John Singer Sargent, arguably the most important American portrait painter of the late 19th and early 20th century. Stand before The Daughters of Edward Boit (1882) to be transported back to the gilded age when wealthy Americans traveled back and forth between America and Europe. Sargent was just 26 when he painted this masterpiece of four young sisters in the foyer of their Paris apartment. But there is a sense of foreboding here in the shadowy background that takes this to a realm beyond portraiture. The enormous painting is flanked by the two actual Japanese urns in Sargent’s portrait. The Boits so loved the urns that reportedly they packed them up and took them to and from Europe a total of 16 times.
Another gallery not to be missed is devoted exclusively to American Impressionists’ images of Boston, most notably Childe Hassam’s magnificent (and much reproduced) Boston Common at Twilight (1885-86), which shows the park bathed in a dusky pink light. The MFA’s American Impressionism collection is one of its strongest, and the new wing shows it off beautifully.
Other galleries on this floor display glorious stained glass panels from Louis Comfort Tiffany and his competitor John Lafarge and the work of two of the country’s most celebrated artists, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, both of whom bridged the 19th and 20th centuries and ushered in a new kind of realism in American art. Paintings like Homer’s Boys in a Pasture (1874) (below) and Eakins’ portrait of a young man in a scull show how the two painters captured everyday American life in a realistic, unsentimental way.
Ascend to the top floor of the new wing to view 20th-century paintings, furniture, and sculpture. Here, unfortunately, lovers of modern art may be disappointed. The collection includes a smattering of work by Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Joseph Stella, but compared to collections in other major American museums, it is definitely on the thin side. No Jasper Johns? No Andy Warhol? There are, however, some wonderful surprises, including Horace Pippin’s Country Doctor (Night Call) (1935). The grandson of slaves, Pippin was completely self-taught as an artist. This painting, with its subtle palette of blacks, grays, and whites, leaves you longing to see more of his work.
In the end, isn’t that what any museum hopes to aspire to?
The Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, is open Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. The museum is accessible by public transportation by taking the Green Line E trolley or 39 bus to the Museum of Fine Arts stop or the Orange Line train or bus routes 8, 47, or C2 to the Ruggles stop. Admission is free for full-time BU students with a valid ID; $20 for adults; $18 for seniors (65 and older) and students 18 and older without a valid ID; free for children 6 and under. Youth ages 7 to 17, $7.50 on weekdays before 3 p.m., free on weekdays after 3 p.m., weekends, and public school holidays. Wednesdays after 4 p.m., admission is by voluntary contribution. More information can be found here or by calling 617-267-9300.+ Comments