My Visit to MFA, Boston — Part 1 American and European Art

The temporary space for American Art at MFA, Boston features two artists: Copley and Sargent
The temporary space for American Art at MFA, Boston features two artists: Copley and Sargent

Thanks to Feng Wah bus, Geo and I finally paid our visit to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Although Friday rush hour traffic added another 30 minutes to the trip, we were blessed by the mid-week late-hour schedule (Wed – Fri opens till 9:45 p.m.) and walked leisurely through American Galleries on Friday night and then European and Egyptian Galleries on Saturday.

It seems that Geo and I are having bad luck with American Art Exhibitions. Over years we have encountered the construction in Cleveland Museum, National Gallery of Art (American Wing), Metropolitan Museum of Art (American Wing) and two more on this trip — MFA Boston (American Wing) and Harvard Art Museum (again it is the Fogg Museum which we really wanted to see).

With two rooms and one hallway available for the vast collection of its American art, MFA, Boston cleverly features two artists – Copley and Sargent instead of a motley collection of everything. Except the dramatic painting of Watson and the Shark, the rest of John Singleton Copley’s paintings are portraiture. With a wall filled with faces of most prominent figures in Colonial period such as Paul Revere, Samual Adams or John Quincy Adams, the patriotism undertone is obvious. But Geo commented that Copley, influenced by family members who were all loyalists, left America before the revolution and never returned. The Liberty Bowl made by Paul Revere is displayed not far from Revere’s portrait. A piece of silverware that symbolizes the birth of a nation and the start of Revolutionary War, it is also beautiful and well crafted. Yet would it be the same if the bowl were made by John Doe? Will its artistic virtue claim a firm spot in the galleries? I don’t know because there is no way for me to view the punch bowl without being influenced by its nationalized status. The tangible value of a famous piece of art lies not only in its own beauty, but also in all provenance and research with extra layers of historical significance and technological insights.

The other room is more democratic with John Singer Sargent taking the leading role and one of the walls. Other paintings by Sargent’s contemporaries such as Dewing, Whistler, Tanner, Tarbell made for a splendid presentation of the Gilded Age. The hallway gives a concise encyclopedic show of American Art spanning from Hudson River School to abstract expressionism. Geo was attracted by a painting by Edward Hopper. “Room in Brooklyn” is neither totally depressing nor cheery and bright. Even without the Manhattan skyline in the backdrop, the Brooklyn architectural can be felt immediately. Interestingly, while I first noticed the lonesomeness from the barely furnished room, Geo craved to sit at a sun-filled corner as depicted in the picture.

On the next day, in a few rooms of the European Galleries that I visited, I noticed more works by American artists such as Stuart and Homer. The surprise came from a small painting by Gerrit Dou, the first pupil of Rembrandt and founder of the Leiden School. “Dog at Rest” was auctioned at Christie’s “Old Master Paintings” sale on May 25, 2005 for an astonishing price of $4.72 million. This little gem is the finest painting that I have ever seen. When mundane objects are rendered with meticulous details with the highest degree of perfection, it leads the viewer into a different psychological realm. In this case, it was somehow an absurd experience in that the most familiar objects were observed from a different world. Yes, the window to that magnificent world where everything shines was small (literally 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 inches), but it gave me the biggest satisfaction of the museum visit, or to be conservative, the biggest satisfaction per square inch.

Below is a slide show of our visit to the American and European art galleries.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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