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American Paintings Highlights

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  • Margaret Gibbs

    1670

    Freake-Gibbs painter

    Description

    Not long after Boston was settled, a wealthy merchant named Robert Gibbs commissioned three paintings of his young children. They are among the finest of the few extant portraits made in New England in the seventeenth century. The artist who painted Margaret Gibbs, the eldest at seven, and her brothers—Robert [69.1227], age four and a half, and Henry, age one and a half (Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, Charleston, West Virginia)—is unknown. However, it is thought that the same artist created likenesses of John and Elizabeth Freake and their baby Mary (in two portraits now at the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) in 1674. The artist is thus known as the Freake-Gibbs painter and is considered one of the most skilled portraitists of the seventeenth-century colonies, possessing an exceptional sense of design and an admirable feel for color. Probably trained in provincial England, the Freake-Gibbs painter worked in a flat style derived from Elizabethan art, which emphasized color and pattern. As was customary for portraits at the time, the children appear like adults in pose and manner.

    Robert Gibbs, the father, was the fourth son of Sir Henry Gibbs. With Sir Henry’s title and estate destined to pass to his eldest son, Robert opted to make his own fortune in the colonies, emigrating from England to Boston in 1658. He married Elizabeth Sheafe of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1660; in the same year, Elizabeth received a considerable inheritance from her grandfather. Two years later, the couple began construction of a sizeable home on Fort Hill; built at an estimated cost of £3,000, it was one of the most expensive houses in seventeenth-century Boston. Wealth also allowed the Gibbses to commission portraits of their three children in 1670. The depictions of Margaret and her brothers in all their finery are evidence of both the materialism and the prosperity of an early Boston family.

    In the portrayal of Margaret, the Freake-Gibbs painter meticulously renders the seven-year-old’s lace, needlework, silver necklace, and red drawstrings and bows. Her sleeves have the single slash allowed by strict Puritan sumptuary laws, rules intended to regulate family expenditures and thus prevent people from wasting needed income on extravagant personal ornamentation. Such finery was permitted by Massachusetts law only if the man of the house possessed either a liberal education or sufficient annual income to justify the expense. Margaret’s fan indicates her gender; children of both sexes were dressed similarly until the age of six or seven, and an attribute was used to differentiate between images of boys and girls.

    The pattern on the floor in both portraits is either black-and-white tile or, more likely, a wooden floor or floor cloth painted to simulate tiling. This checkerboard floor, the dark neutral background, and the inscription of the year and ages of the sitters are indications of seventeenth-century Dutch influence on English and subsequently American art. The period frame of the picture is painted black and is made from eastern white American pine, thus indicating that it was crafted in New England.

    This text was adapted and expanded by Cody Hartley from Carol Troyen and Janet Comey, Amerika kaiga kodomo no sekai [Children in American art], exh. cat. (Nagoya, Japan: Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2007), and from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    102.87 x 84.14 cm (40 1/2 x 33 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1995.800

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Daniel, Peter, and Andrew Oliver

    1732

    John Smibert, American (born in Scotland), 1688–1751 American

    Description

    By the 1720s, Boston, a thriving port whose population had more than doubled in the preceding two decades, was in need of an able portrait painter to commemorate members of its wealthiest families. In 1729 the forty-year-old Scottish artist John Smibert arrived in the city. Having trained and worked successfully in London and spent three years in Italy, Smibert brought with him knowledge of the latest British and Continental styles. He rapidly attracted an eager following, and his work was in great demand. Patrons traveled from as far away as Newport and Albany to sit for him, and he became the first colonial portraitist able to make a living from commissions in one city for several years, although he did also sell artists’ supplies in his “color shop” in Boston to supplement his income. In 1740 Smibert traveled to New York; Philadelphia; and Burlington, New Jersey, where prosperous patrons also commissioned portraits. Smibert’s cosmopolitan background and his marriage in 1730 to the daughter of a physician and schoolteacher elevated his own social status and raised the standing of artists in the colonies.

    The Olivers were among Smibert’s most faithful patrons, commissioning eleven portraits from him. Daniel, Peter, and Andrew Oliver was probably the second group portrait painted in the colonies. The first was Smibert’s masterpiece The Bermuda Group (1728–39, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), a portrait of Bishop George Berkeley (the man who encouraged Smibert to come to the colonies) and his family that served as a model for subsequent group portraits [1983.34]. In the Oliver painting, as in The Bermuda Group, the figures are arranged around a table, are placed close to the picture plane, and fill up the entire canvas, giving the portrait a bold, sophisticated presence. Smibert’s ability to convey believable poses, individualized features, and the costly, yet unostentatious, clothing of his sitters far surpassed that of any previous colonial painter.

    The sons of Daniel Oliver, a prosperous merchant and member of the Governor’s Council, and Elizabeth Belcher Oliver, sister of Governor Jonathan Belcher, Daniel, Peter, and Andrew all graduated from Harvard. In addition to the challenge of depicting the three brothers on one canvas, Smibert also had to borrow the image of the eldest son, Daniel (who had died of smallpox five years earlier in London), from a 1727 miniature painted by an unidentified English artist. Although Smibert depicted Daniel, on the left, in a rather wooden manner, typical of a posthumous likeness, he succeeded in capturing the personalities of the other two brothers. The youngest son, Peter, in the center, confronts the viewer with an air of confidence and worldly sophistication. Andrew, reportedly a serious student during his Harvard days, is portrayed on the right in a contemplative pose, his hand to his head, his elbow resting on a book.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis, et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    99.69 x 144.46 cm (39 1/4 x 56 7/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    53.952

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Isaac Winslow and His Family

    1755

    Joseph Blackburn, American (born in England), active in North...

    Description

    After John Greenwood and Robert Feke, the next painter to portray Boston’s increasingly wealthy citizens was the British-born Joseph Blackburn. Blackburn, who was probably trained in England, came to Boston in 1755 by way of Bermuda and Newport. He brought with him a rococo palette of pale colors, a repertoire of graceful poses and compositions from recent English portraiture, and a talent for capturing lace and other materials in paint. He arrived in Boston at an opportune time: John Smibert had died in 1751, Feke and Greenwood had departed, and John Singleton Copley was only seventeen. Blackburn painted more than thirty portraits over the next four years, flattering his sitters with graceful gestures and exquisitely painted costumes.
    Isaac Winslow, a member of Boston’s mercantile elite who had been painted by Feke just seven years before [42.424], was wealthy enough to afford this stylish group portrait of his family. While Blackburn had little interest in expressing the character of his sitters, he produced an accomplished painting in the latest London style with pleasing likenesses and elegant, undulating drapery. He presented Isaac Winslow in a cross-legged pose of studied nonchalance as the proud paterfamilias, deferring to his wife, Lucy Waldo Winslow, and family. By way of lighting, color, and placement, the figures of Mrs. Winslow and the children become the focus of the composition. The mother holds a coral-and-bells teething toy for Hannah, one of the livelier babies of pre-Revolutionary painting, who sits on her lap. Hannah has distinctively babylike feet and reaches intently for the fruit held by her sister, Lucy. Behind the elder girl stretches an idealized garden with a swan pond, alluding to the family’s prosperity.

    Blackburn displayed his talent for depicting lace and shimmering satin in Mrs. Winslow’s informal rose-colored gown. Neither Mrs. Winslow nor her daughter Lucy is dressed in contemporary fashion, giving the portrait a timeless quality. Mrs. Winslow’s dress, simple hair style, and pose are reminiscent of English artist Godfrey Kneller’s early-eighteenth-century portraits, and Lucy’s dress, with its swagged sleeves and floating drapery, would not have been seen in Boston in the 1750s. The fruit Lucy holds in her apron was a common attribute for girls in the eighteenth century, symbolic of abundance.

    By 1758, Copley had absorbed the vocabulary of Blackburn’s lighthearted rococo style and began to move beyond it to become Boston’s premier portraitist. It may be for this reason that Blackburn moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He worked there for five years before returning to England, where he continued to paint portraits until at least 1778.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    138.43 x 201.29 cm (54 1/2 x 79 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    42.684

    Collections

    Americas

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  • The Greenwood-Lee Family

    about 1747

    John Greenwood, American, 1727–1792 American

    Description

    When John Smibert’s health began to fail in the early 1740s and Boston was once more in need of a competent portrait painter, John Greenwood, along with Robert Feke, stepped in to fill the void. The American-born son of a Harvard graduate, Greenwood was forced at age fifteen to apprentice with Boston engraver Thomas Johnston when his father died, leaving the family short of funds. After three years, Greenwood turned to painting. A man of ambition, he would ultimately complete some fifty-five commissions from sitters in Boston and Salem. However, he seemed to realize that his career and fortune would be limited in the colonies, and he immigrated first to Surinam in 1752, and later to Amsterdam and London, where he became a prominent auctioneer.
    At the age of twenty, Greenwood undertook the extraordinary challenge of painting this imposing group portrait of his family. Group portraits were relatively rare in mid-eighteenth-century America, because they were both more difficult to compose than single-figure canvases and more costly. The models for Greenwood’s project were Smibert’s famous Bermuda Group (1728–39, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), then on view in Smibert’s Boston studio, and Feke’s Isaac Royall and His Family (1741, Harvard Law School Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts). As in those two paintings, Greenwood’s figures are arranged around a table. They are united through a lyrical arrangement of hand gestures, and their heads are tilted rhythmically, producing a charming, if naive, ensemble. The basket of needlework and the flame-stitch canvaswork displayed on the table suggest the accomplishments of the women. Their literacy and sophistication are implicit in the volume of The Spectator, the popular early-eighteenth-century English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. The linearity of Greenwood’s style and the abrupt modulations between light and dark undoubtedly reflect his earlier training as an engraver.

    The artist has portrayed himself standing behind the woman on the right, with palette and brushes in hand and a velvet turban protecting his shaved head from the cold, as he was not wearing a wig. Although a nineteenth-century note attached to the back of the painting indicates that the figure in the center was Greenwood’s betrothed, it is more likely that the woman on the right in front of the artist is his fiancée and cousin Elizabeth Lee. Her white dress and blue bow complement Greenwood’s jacket, and furthermore, his hand is intimately juxtaposed to her head. The other figures are, from left to right, the artist’s youngest sister, Hannah; his mother, Mary Charnock Greenwood; his sister, either Mary or Elizabeth; and his cousin Martha Lee.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    140.97 x 175.58 cm (55 1/2 x 69 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1983.34

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Isaac Winslow

    about 1748

    Robert Feke, American, about 1707–about 1751

    Description

    Robert Feke proved to be the most talented native-born North American painter prior to John Singleton Copley. He was also a major influence on Copley himself, who would become the greatest North American artist of the colonial period. Feke was born in about 1707 in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, and worked in Newport, Philadelphia, and Boston. Although he had no formal training, his style indicates the direct influence of John Smibert and an awareness of contemporary British and Continental painting. Approximately sixty paintings by Feke are known today, of which twelve are signed and dated. This portrait of Isaac Winslow is representative of Feke’s linear style, rococo palette, and accurate characterization of his sitters.

    The commissioning of likenesses was a Winslow family tradition; Isaac’s father, Edward Winslow, a distinguished Boston silversmith, had earlier sat for John Smibert, as had his older brother, Joshua. After graduating from Harvard in 1727, Isaac apprenticed in the counting room of merchant James Bowdoin, another patronof Feke, before entering the shipbuilding and import/export business with his brother. The MFA owns three portraits of Isaac, painted by the leading colonial artists of his day: Feke, Joseph Blackburn [42.684], and Copley [39.250].

    Feke’s portrait probably commemorated Winslow’s marriage in 1747 to Lucy Waldo, whose pendant portrait by Feke is in the Brooklyn Museum. Winslow’s father-in-law, General Samuel Waldo (who was the subject of a full-length painting by Feke now at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine), soon brought Winslow into the Kennebec Proprietors, a group that owned vast tracts of land in Maine. Feke portrayed Winslow in a dignified pose, pointing to a harbor with a ship in the distance and a small boat with two figures landing at the shore. This background may refer both to Winslow’s efforts to settle the Maine properties and to his mercantile business.

    Feke captured the richness of Winslow’s clothing, lavishing attention on his fashionable ivory-colored satin waistcoat, embroidered with metallic thread. His ability to convey the status of his sitters through stately poses, elegant attire, and pastel-colored background vistas led to the commissioning of numerous portraits by Boston’s elite during Feke's visit to the city in 1748.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al.,American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    127 x 101.92 cm (50 x 40 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    42.424

    Collections

    Americas

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  • A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham)

    1765

    John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815

    Description

    John Singleton Copley grew up in Boston before formal artistic training was available anywhere in this country. Largely self-taught, by the mid-1760s he was the most sought-after portraitist in New England. He aspired, however, to more than provincial success and wanted to know how his work would be gauged by sophisticated English standards. To find out, in 1765 he painted a portrait of his stepbrother, Henry Pelham, not as a commission but rather for exhibition in London.
    A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham) was calculated to demonstrate everything that Copley could do. It differed markedly from his commissioned portraits in its subtly complex composition. Here, Copley chose to paint his sitter in profile rather than using a typical frontal likeness and has placed him behind a table that seemingly juts out into the viewer’s space. Pelham dreamily gazes upward with parted lips, as if in a reverie. Copley masterfully unified the composition with his use of color: the rich reds of the drapery and the mahogany table are picked up in the boy’s ruby lips and the skin tones of his face, as well as in the pink collar. Most brilliant of all, perhaps, is Copley’s ability to depict a variety of textures—for example, the boy’s skin and the soft fur of the squirrel, the highly polished table, and the reflections of the glass of water.

    Copley sent A Boy with a Flying Squirrel to London for exhibition in 1766. It garnered much praise, perhaps most importantly from Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the leading English artists, who called the painting, “a very wonderfull Performance.” Reynolds’s words were both encouraging and condescending: he wrote that Copley could be “one of the first Painters in the World,” but he tempered his enthusiasm by adding that, to ensure such a result, Copley must receive proper training by studying abroad before his “Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in [his] little way at Boston.”[1]Copley was encouraged by the positive response the painting received, and he aspired to travel to Europe for proper training. However, he remained in Boston until 1774, when he finally left the colonies for good.

    Notes
    1.Captain R. G. Bruce to Copley, August 4, 1766, in Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739–1776, ed. Guernsey Jones (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1914), 41.

    This text was adapted from Elliot BostwickDavis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    77.15 x 63.82 cm (30 3/8 x 25 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1978.297

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Watson and the Shark

    1778

    John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815

    Description

    John Singleton Copley departed from Boston in 1774 and traveled to Europe, where he spent a year studying Renaissance and baroque paintings and classical sculpture. After settling in London in 1775, he continued to paint portraits, but he also attempted more complex compositions. Watson and the Shark was the first large-scale history painting he executed. The dramatic composition depicts the attack of a shark on fourteen-year-old cabin boy Brook Watson in the waters of Havana Harbor in 1749. The heroic rescue was ultimately successful, but only after the youth lost the lower part of his right leg; Watson went on to become a prosperous merchant and hold numerous important political posts in London. Copley’s choice of subject was innovative, for tradition limited history paintings to themes from the Bible or mythology. Even when artists selected subjects outside the bounds of religious or classical narrative, they typically celebrated events of national rather than personal significance, such as military victories.

    Copley’s boldness paid off, and Watson and the Shark established his reputation in England. His dramatic rendering of the climax of Watson’s story—the sailor thrusting a boat hook at the shark lunging with jaws agape at the helpless, terrified boy in the water while other sailors struggle to reach him—appealed to the English public. That Copley drew on old-master paintings by Raphael and Rubens for his composition, echoing their grandeur and themes of salvation, likewise found favor with his contemporaries. He was elected to full membership in the Royal Academy in 1779. His popular painting was made into a print for wider distribution to the public in 1779 and, proud of his accomplishments, Copley painted a second full-scale version of the painting that he kept to display in his studio. That version is the MFA’s picture.

    This text was adapted from Elliot BostwickDavis et al.,American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    183.51 x 229.55 cm (72 1/4 x 90 3/8 l

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    89.481

    Collections

    Americas

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  • George Washington

    1796

    Gilbert Stuart, American, 1755–1828

    Description

    At the time Gilbert Stuart painted the portraits of George and Martha Washington [1980.2], he was the foremost portraitist in the United States. He was, in effect, the unofficial painter to the new nation. He portrayed many leading political figures and wealthy citizens, and his sitters also included James Monroe, James Madison, and John Adams [1999.590]. Born in Rhode Island, Stuart had studied with Benjamin West in London, developed a fluid painting style based on contemporary English portraiture, and then successfully competed for commissions with British artists. He returned to the United States in 1792 and established studios in both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He also worked in New York before permanently settling in Boston in 1805.
    This most famous image of George Washington was commissioned from Stuart along with its pendant of Martha Washington shortly before the president retired from public service. Both portraits were painted in Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia, in 1796. Stuart never delivered the portraits. Washington’s popularity as a national hero escalated after his death, and Stuart used this painting of the president as the model for the numerous replicas ordered from him over the years. One visitor to the new United States commented, “Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have images of God’s saints.”[1]Stuart, however, reportedly referred to the image irreverently as his hundred dollar bill—the price he charged for a copy. Over sixty copies survive, and the portrait ultimately became the source for the face of Washington (in reverse) on the U.S. $1 bill.

    Frames for both Washington portraits were made by John Doggett, a cabinetmaker, frame maker, picture dealer, and entrepreneur, when the Boston Athenaeum purchased them from Stuart’s estate in 1831. Doggett also owned and framed Thomas Sully's gigantic Passage of the Delaware [03.1079].

    Notes
    1. AvrahmYarmolinsky, Picturesque United States of America, 1811, 1812, 1813: Being A Memoir on Paul Svinin, Russian Diplomatic Officer, Artist, and Author (New York: W. E. Rudge, 1930), 33–34.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    121.28 x 93.98 cm (47 3/4 x 37 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1980.1

    Collections

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  • Martha Washington (Martha Dandridge Custis)

    1796

    Gilbert Stuart, American, 1755–1828

    Description

    At the time Gilbert Stuart painted the portraits of Martha and GeorgeWashington [1980.1], he was the foremost portraitist in the United States. He was, in effect, the unofficial painter to the new nation. He portrayed many leading political figures and wealthy citizens, and his sitters also included James Monroe, James Madison, and John Adams [1999.590]. Born in Rhode Island, Stuart had studied with Benjamin West in London, developed a fluid painting style based on contemporary English portraiture, and then successfully competed for commissions with British artists. He returned to the United States in 1792 and established studios in both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He also worked in New York before permanently settling in Boston in 1805.

    This most famous image of Martha Washington (1731–1802) was commissioned by her from Stuart along with its pendant of George Washington shortly before the president retired from public service to return with his wife to their plantation at Mount Vernon. The portraits were painted in Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia, in 1796. Mrs. Washington was sixty-five years old when Stuart painted her; she appears in a modest lace cap that speaks to her preference for the resumption of a quiet life rather than one filled with elaborate occasions of state. Stuart never finished or delivered the paintings, making use of his likeness of the president to create numerous replicas. Martha Washington, despite traditional reports that she did not care for Stuart’s depiction of her husband, tried repeatedly to acquire them, to no avail. Stuart’s representation of George Washington provided the source for his image on U.S. dollar bill; his depiction of Martha was also once used on currency—her face appeared on the $1 silver certificate in 1886.

    Frames for both Washington portraits were made by John Doggett, a cabinetmaker, frame maker, picture dealer, and entrepreneur, when the Boston Athenaeum purchased them from Stuart’s estate in 1831. Doggett also owned and framed Thomas Sully’s gigantic Passage of the Delaware [03.1079].

    This text was adapted and expanded by Erica E. Hirshler from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    121.92 x 94.3 cm (48 x 37 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1980.2

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Colonel Richard M. Johnson

    1818

    Anna Claypoole Peale, American, 1791–1878 American

    Description

    Female artists were as rare in the United States as elsewhere in the nineteenth century; few women had the opportunity to become artists if they were not related or married to one. Anna Claypoole Peale had apprenticed under her father, James, who painted miniatures in addition to full-sized portraits. She made her own reputation solely on miniatures, exhibiting her first groups at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1814.
    Richard Mentor Johnson, a native Kentuckian, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1802. He served in Congress for three decades in both the House (1807–19, 1829–37) and the Senate (1819–29). When Peale painted this portrait, Johnson was a hero of the War of 1812 and was serving in the House of Representatives. Johnson, a war hawk, had supported the War of 1812 and fought brilliantly with a mounted regiment of Kentucky riflemen against the British and Native Americans at the Battle of the Thames, in Ontario, Canada. He was severely wounded there, but he may have killed the great chief Tecumseh, who perished at this battle. In keeping with the function of the miniature as a personal memento, Peale presents the private man here rather than the public persona, showing none of the symbols associated with his career.
    Peale’s unusual approach assured her popularity: she used rich, dark colors—such as the luscious red of Johnson’s jacket—that resemble oil paints rather than the pale washes of watercolor more typical of miniatures. In addition to the portrait of Johnson, Peale was commissioned to paint James Monroe, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson, among others, while she was in Washington. Upon her return to Philadelphia, she wrote to her cousin, “I have so much work to do that I hardly know what to do with myself.”[1]She would be elected an academician at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1824 and would exhibit there regularly until 1842, when she married and quit her career.
    Notes
    1. Anna Claypoole Peale to her cousin Titian Ramsay Peale, April 7, 1819, in The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, ed. Lillian B. Miller, Sidney Hart, David C. Ward, and Rose Emerick, vol. 3, The Belfield Farm Years: 1810–1820 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 714.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    6.98 x 5.46 cm (2 3/4 x 2 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Watercolor on ivory

    Classification

    Miniatures

    Accession Number

    68.619

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Timothy Matlack

    about 1790

    Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741–1827

    Description

    One of the most acclaimed painters of eighteenth-century America, Charles Willson Peale was as important to Philadelphia as Copley was to Boston. In 1767 Peale became one of the first students of the expatriate American artist Benjamin West in London. There he studied contemporary portraiture, including the work of West and the leading English painters Joshua Reynolds and Allan Ramsay, and incorporated the delicate color and graceful poses that characterized the British style into his own work. Returning to America in 1769, he produced portraits in Annapolis, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. He also served in the Continental Army for three years, and then finally settled in Philadelphia in 1778. In addition to painting, Peale organized exhibitions and helped to found the Columbianum, the earliest (though short-lived) art academy in the United States. The patriarch of a large, extended family, he also encouraged eight of his children, his brother, four nieces, one nephew, and three grandchildren to careers in the fine arts. Beyond the art world, Peale pursued interests in natural history, paleontology, and taxidermy, among other things. He was truly a man of the Enlightenment—that great age of science and reason in the United States that spawned such accomplished intellectual leaders as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

    Peale’s portrait of Timothy Matlack honors the sitter’s distinguished public career. A radical Whig, Matlack played an active role in Revolutionary events in and around Philadelphia: he was the engrosser who hand-lettered the original Declaration of Independence, he led a rifle battalion at Trenton and Princeton, and he was elected to the Continental Congress. The items with which he is shown reflect his role in forging the new nation and include the great seal of Pennsylvania and the constitution of that commonwealth, which he helped draft. Also pictured are law books, which attest to his political life, and a Bible, which may refer to his activity in founding the Society of Free Quakers, an alternative form of Quakerism whose followers had been expelled from the pacifist Religious Society of Friends for participating in the Revolutionary War.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting[http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    121.92 x 101.6 cm (48 x 40 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1998.218

    Collections

    Americas

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  • King Lear

    1788, retouched by West 1806

    Benjamin West, American, 1738–1820

    Description

    framed dimensions: 10' 5" x 13' 5"

    Details

    Dimensions

    Overall: 271.8 x 365.8cm (107 x 144in.) Framed: 317.5 x 408.9 cm (125 x 161 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1979.476

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Engagement Between the "Constitution" and the...

    1813

    Thomas Birch, American (born in England), 1779–1851 American

    Description

    Thomas Birch was America’s first marine painter and thus the founder of a long and great tradition. He studied under his father, William, a painter and engraver, and in 1794 the two emigrated from England to Philadelphia. The War of 1812 inspired the younger Birch to produce a series of over a dozen naval pictures based on actual battles, each executed within months of the event—exemplars of the type of contemporary history painting initiated by Benjamin West. The unexpected American victories in the war against Great Britain—the first test of the nation as a military force—were a source of great pride to its citizens and provided a worthy subject for history painters to promote the new republic. Birch’s compositions were as accurate as he could make them. He carefully rendered the ships’ portraits and also included details of the fighting gleaned from interviews with participating crewmembers. His paintings were acclaimed not only for their sense of immediacy, but also for their appeal to the patriotic fervor of the young country.
    This painting documents the first great American naval victory of the War of 1812, the defeat of the British frigate Guerrière by the USS Constitution off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on August 19, 1812. At the right, the helpless Guerrière, her last mast broken off and crashing into the ocean, is driven up against the Constitution, whose cannonfire relentlessly continues to pound the British ship. American flags proudly wave above the conflict, while the British banner sinks into the waves. This was Birch’s first War of 1812 subject, and it established his reputation.

    The USS Constitution got her nickname, “Old Ironsides,” during this very battle. A British sailor, upon observing that their cannonballs appeared to bounce off of the ship (her hull is made of layers of oak up to twenty-five inches thick), exclaimed, “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!”[1]The Constitution went on to win other engagements in the War of 1812. The oldest active ship in the United States Navy, she is permanently docked at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston.

    Notes
    1. Naval History and Heritage Command, “USS Constitution: History,” accessed August 30, 2011, http://www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/history.html [http://www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/history.html].

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Highlights, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    71.12 x 92.07 cm (28 x 36 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1978.159

    Collections

    Americas

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  • The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill,...

    after 1815–before 1831

    John Trumbull, American, 1756–1843

    Description

    Called in his day the “patriot-artist,” John Trumbull served in the Continental Army from 1775 to 1777 and became known for his images of the Revolutionary War—a prime source of material for contemporary history paintings. After resigning his commission, he went to London to study with Benjamin West, returning to the United States with the plan to immortalize the country’s struggle for independence in a series of paintings based on the critical events of the conflict and thus create to a new iconography for the new nation. He ultimately completed eight compositions, and in 1817 Congress awarded him a commission for four large canvases to decorate the United States Capitol.
    The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June 1775 was the first Revolutionary War subject that Trumbull completed. (The scene was not chosen for the Capitol, however.) Joseph Warren [95.1366], perhaps today less well known than Paul Revere [30.781], John Hancock [L-R 30.76d], or Samuel Adams [L-R 30.76c], was one of the key players in the events leading up to the outbreak of war. A popular and innovative physician—among other things, he advocated inoculation and cleanliness in the treatment of his patients—Warren plunged into politics in the late 1760s as an author of persuasive anti-Crown literature, an orator of eloquent speeches, and an underground leader of the growing revolutionary movement. He accepted a commission as a major general on June 14, 1775, but it was as a volunteer that he was killed three days later at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

    Warren’s heroism immediately captured the imagination of the American public. He was so idolized that in the decade following his death there were more towns and streets named after him than after George Washington. John Trumbull, who himself was at Bunker Hill, immortalized the tragedy in dramatic fashion in a composition that, like Benjamin West’s iconic Death of General Wolfe (1770, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), refers to old master images of the Lamentation of Christ. In the thick of the turbulent battle, Warren collapses in the arms of a comrade who holds off a further bayonet thrust. Actual participants, both American and British, in the surrounding fray are recognizable, including William Howe, Henry Clinton, and William Prescott (who allegedly gave the order to his American soldiers not to fire until “you see the whites of their eyes”). Trumbull also included two African American enlisted men, representing the significant participation of black soldiers in the event. When Abigail Adams viewed the original sketch for this composition she claimed her “blood shivered” at the sight, so vivid was Trumbull’s depiction of the tragedy. [1]He painted several versions of the subject; the Museum’s descended in the Warren family.

    Notes
    1. Abigail Adams to Mrs. John Shaw, March 4, 1786, in Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston, 1840), 324.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    50.16 x 75.56 cm (19 3/4 x 29 3/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1977.853

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  • Elijah in the Desert

    1818

    Washington Allston, American, 1779–1843

    Description

    A South Carolinian by birth, Washington Allston attended Harvard College. After graduating he went to London in 1801, where he studied with Benjamin West. He also traveled the Continent, making extended visits to Paris, for almost a year, and Rome, where he stayed for over three years and painted himself in the guise of an intellectual and passionate traveler[84.301]. After another trip abroad in the 1810s, he returned to the United States and settled in Cambridgeport, near Boston.
    Allston is considered America’s first Romantic painter. He took the subject for Elijah in the Desert from the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 17:1–7, God ordered the prophet into the desert where he was miraculously kept alive by ravens, which brought him bread and meat. Allston conveyed Elijah’s experience and appealed to the viewer’s emotional rather than intellectual response through the bleakness of the vast, inhospitable landscape, painted in a sober palette of browns, steely blues, and grays. The mood of desolation and abandonment is underscored by the tiny size of the figure. The sources for Allston’s work here reflect his study of the old masters during his time abroad and include the Venetian Renaissance artist Titian, for his subtle manipulation of expressive color, and the Baroque painter Salvator Rosa, for the drama of the composition.

    Allston was held in the highest esteem in nineteenth-century Boston, where his work appealed especially to literary figures and intellectuals. When plans to establish an art museum in the city evolved after the Civil War, Alice Hooper (who, with her mother, was the donor of this painting) wrote to one of the founders, Martin Brimmer, “We thought we couldn’t better testify our interest in this new art movement at home than by adding a really fine Allston to our public collection.” She went on to suggest that the museum be named after Allston, “the one great artist of America,” although in fact it became the Museum of Fine Arts. [1]Elijah in the Desert was the very first object to enter the collection in 1870, even before the Museum had a building.

    Notes
    1. Alice Hooper to Major General Charles Greely Loring, July 24, 1870, object files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    Overall: 125.1 x 184.8cm (49 1/4 x 72 3/4in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    70.1

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  • The Passage of the Delaware

    1819

    Thomas Sully, American (born in England), 1783–1872

    Description

    Admired for his lively brushwork, Thomas Sully was the leading portrait painter in Philadelphia in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Historical subjects such as this one were rare in his oeuvre of well over two thousand portraits. Sully studied first with a succession of miniature painters, including his brother Lawrence. In 1807 he moved from Virginia to New York City, and later that year he traveled to Boston to meet the portraitist Gilbert Stuart. He settled permanently in Philadelphia in 1808 but soon afterwards made a trip to London to study with Benjamin West. In England, Sully also familiarized himself with paintings produced by other contemporary artists. He was especially influenced by the fluid style of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portraits.
    The Passage of the Delaware was commissioned by the state of North Carolina for the Senate Hall of the State House in Raleigh—one of many contemporary history paintings sponsored by the young American government. According to the register of paintings that Sully kept, he began the canvas on August 7, 1819, and finished it a little over four months later on December 15 (some three decades earlier than Emmanuel Leutze’s more famous version of the subject at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Sully had suggested the subject, “the passage of the Delaware, preparatory to the battle of Princeton,” to the governor of North Carolina. [1]This event, a turning point for the American military during the Revolution, took place on Christmas night 1776. General George Washington and his troops unexpectedly crossed the dangerously ice-clogged Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey in a snow storm to surprise the English forces. They engaged the next day at the Battle of Trenton, a crucial victory for the Americans. Paying close attention to accounts of the unfolding of events that fateful December night, Sully depicted the moment before George Washington dismounted to join his lieutenants in crossing the river; the general has sent a brigade with artillerymen across first, as evidenced by the cannon visible over the crest of the hill. Sully’s image of Washington is that of the composed and decisive leader, dramatically highlighted and isolated from the surrounding flurry of activity.

    Sully’s painting was never hung in the State House. Although Sully had corresponded with the North Carolina governor regarding the dimensions of his canvas, he had already begun painting by the time he received a reply. The final composition was too large to fit in any of the spaces of the Senate Hall. Instead, shortly after its completion, the artist sold the painting to John Doggett, a Boston frame maker who also exhibited pictures; Doggett made the current frame and showed the painting to the public. It was purchased from Doggett before 1841 by the Boston Museum—no relation to the Museum of Fine Arts, but rather a theater with a picture gallery located on Tremont Street—where it remained until 1903, when the owners gave it to the MFA.

    Notes
    1. Governor William Miller to Daniel L. Peck, Esq., Raleigh, North Carolina, April 19, 1817, quoted in Philipp P. Fehl, “Thomas Sully’s Washington’s Passage of the Delaware: The History of a Commission,” Art Bulletin 55, no. 4 (December 1973): 596.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    372.11 x 525.78 cm (146 1/2 x 207 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    03.1079

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  • Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

    1828

    Thomas Cole, American (born in England), 1801–1848

    Description

    Thomas Cole first exhibited Expulsion from the Garden of Eden along with his Garden of Eden (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas) in 1828 at the National Academy of Design in New York, of which he had been a founding member. Writing to his patron Robert Gilmore, Cole noted that his submissions aimed for a higher form of landscape painting. Although the works failed to sell, Gilmore supported Cole’s travels abroad and set him on his way to receiving a major commission from New York art patron Luman Reed to paint a series of five monumental canvases depicting the Course of Empire (1836, New-York Historical Society).
    Immigrating to the United States from England at the age of eighteen, Cole was likely inspired by contemporary British art when he conceived his scene of the Expulsion. He had relied upon British drawing books and prints for the rudiments of his artistic education, and his scene of Adam and Eve dwarfed by promontories of terrifying proportions recalls British painter and printmaker John Martin’s illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. [1]Cole’s dramatic use of light streaming through the rocky portal to Paradise is clearly reminiscent of Martin’s history paintings [60.1157].

    In his 1835 Essay on American Scenery, Cole would describe the beauties of the American wilderness and its capacity to reveal God’s creation as a metaphoric Eden. He considered European scenery to reflect the ravages of civilization, for which primeval forests had been felled, rugged mountains had been smoothed, and impetuous rivers had been turned from their courses. In contrast, Cole believed the American wilderness to embody a state of divine grace and lamented that the signs of progress were rapidly encroaching. In his Expulsion, Cole vividly portrays both Paradise and a hostile world replete with the consequences of earthly knowledge. These opposing realms meet near the center of the canvas. The profusion of flora and fauna evokes the beauty and harmony of Eden; outside the portal to Paradise, Adam and Eve are cast into an abyss marked by blasted trees, desolate rocks, and an ominous wolf.

    Notes
    1. John Milton, Paradise Lost, with illustrations designed and engraved by John Martin (London: Septimus Prowett, 1827).

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    100.96 x 138.43 cm (39 3/4 x 54 1/2 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    47.1188

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  • Niagara Falls from Table Rock

    1835

    Artist Samuel Finley Breese Morse, American, 1791–1872 American

    Description

    The great falls at Niagara captivated and challenged numerous American and British landscape painters during the nineteenth century. Samuel Finley Breese Morse portrayed the now much-eroded Table Rock on the Canadian side of the falls, describing the varied hues of the water, the spectacular spray, and the arching rainbow that crowned one of the world’s natural wonders. Tiny figures—Native Americans and white tourists to Niagara—indicate the immense scale of the falls; the presence of Native Americans also locates the site clearly in the New World.
    Although the reverse side of the canvas bears Morse’s signature and the date of 1835, several historians have debated the attribution. Because the style of this painting is so unlike Morse’s other landscapes of the 1830s, several scholars proposed that the inscription and date on the reverse must have been added later. The composition resembles a painting of the falls by American artist John Vanderlyn, and this canvas was once thought to be one of Vanderlyn’s long-lost works. [1]Vanderlyn had sought to capitalize on the popularity of Niagara by being the first American to paint the site and to sell prints made after his views of the natural wonder. When he reached the falls in 1801 he was overwhelmed by what he saw. He produced numerous sketches of Niagara from the Canadian shore and eventually had two of his compositions reproduced abroad in an edition of two hundred prints (unfortunately the series proved to be an economic failure).

    The MFA’s painting was also at one time attributed to Vanderlyn’s assistant in Paris, Benjamin Champney, who made copies from the elder painter’s sketches of Niagara over forty years later. Current scholarship now returns to favor the young Morse, who was a great admirer of Vanderlyn’s work and whose name appears on the reverse. Morse may have been inspired to paint the falls when he was studying with Benjamin West in London in 1809–10. He likely became aware of Vanderlyn’s ambitious project for the Niagara engravings through West and his fellow American expatriate John Singleton Copley, who had been in charge of inspecting the printed proofs executed for Vanderlyn in London. Despite all the questions surrounding the attribution of this composition, the painting stands as a testimony to the importance of Niagara for American landscapists. This sublime site, so identified with the New World, would later inspire many American artists, including Frederic Edwin Church (Niagara, 1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Albert Bierstadt [64.418], Jasper Francis Cropsey [47.1238], William Morris Hunt [2000.1215], and George Inness [1982.209].

    Notes
    1. One scholar believes Vanderlyn’s lost painting is the canvas now entitled A View of the Western Branch of the Falls of Niagara, Taken from Table Rock, dated 1801, in the collection of Historic New England, Boston. See John Davis Hatch, “John Vander Lyn’s Prints of Niagara Falls,” Magazine Antiques, December 1990, 1254.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    60.96 x 76.2 cm (24 x 30 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.456

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  • Otter Creek, Mt. Desert

    1850

    Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826–1900

    Description

    When Frederic Edwin Church traveled to Maine in 1850 to paint the coast, he followed in the footsteps of several other American painters: Thomas Doughty had painted there in the 1830s and in 1836 had exhibited his view of the lighthouse of Mount Desert Island at the Boston Athenaeum (Desert Rock Lighthouse, Maine, 1936, private collection); Church’s esteemed teacher, Thomas Cole, had first visited Mount Desert during the summer of 1844, painting many views of the area (for example, View Across Frenchman’s Bay from Mt. Desert Island, After a Squall, 1845, Cincinnati Art Museum,Ohio); and Church may have seen Fitz Henry Lane’s Twilight on the Kennebec (1849, private collection),which was exhibited in 1849 at the American Art-Union in New York City, where Church lived and kept a studio.
    The clarity of light and atmosphere in Church’s cabinet-sized picture is reminiscent of works by German painter Andreas Achenbach and the Düsseldorf masters, whose polished and carefully delineated landscapes were highly acclaimed during the late 1840s and 1850s when they were exhibited at the American Art-Union and the Düsseldorf Gallery in New York City. When Achenbach’s Clearing Up, Coast of Sicily (1847, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore) received commendation in the press, the Bulletin of the American Art-Union reported that Church, along with two other painters, had gone off to Maine with the magnificent coastal painting by Achenbach in mind.[1]

    Like Cole, who had been greatly inspired by his circle of Knickerbocker writers, Church may have been motivated to visit the Maine coast by the contemporary essays of New Englander Henry David Thoreau, whose own pursuit of the American wilderness took him to Maine. In 1848 Union Magazine published Thoreau’s “Ktaadin and the Maine Woods,” which described his travels deep into the interior of the state. [2]When Church visited Otter Creek in 1850, Maine was still considered largely wilderness. The artist spent most of his time on the coast, although he would later visit many of the sites Thoreau described, including Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine. Recalling Cole’s depictions of the American wilderness [47.1201] and the encroachment of civilization, Church juxtaposes the majestic, craggy faces of Cadillac and Dorr mountains with the settlers’ cottage visible at their base.

    Notes
    1. “Chronicle of Facts and Opinions; American Art and Artists; Movements of Artists,” Bulletin of the American Art-Union, series for 1850 (August 1850): 81, quoted in Franklin Kelly and Gerald L. Carr, The Early Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, 1845–1854 (Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum, 1987), 58.
    2. Henry David Thoreau, “Ktaadn and the Maine Woods,” Union Magazine 3, serialized in five installments: “The Wilds of the Penobscot,”July 1848, 29–33; “Life in the Wilderness,” August 1848, 73–79; “Boating in the Lakes,” September 1848, 132–37; “The Ascent of Ktaadn,” October 1848, 177–82; “The Return Journey,” November 1848, 216–20.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    42.54 x 60.96 cm (16 3/4 x 24 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1982.419

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  • Boston Harbor

    about 1850–55

    Fitz Henry Lane, American, 1804–1865

    Description

    Gloucester, Massachusetts, native Fitz Henry Lane was at the height of his career by 1850, when he executed this grand and tranquil scene of the bustling port of Boston. From the vantage of a hill in East Boston, a perspective popularized in printed views of the city, Lane suggests topographical accuracy in his carefully constructed scene of vessels dispersed before the horizon. Prominent features of the city such as the Massachusetts State House and the Old South Church are clearly visible, but Lane lowered the horizon line to convey a sense of the expansive harbor. Like Thomas Cole [47.1201]and Frederic Edwin Church [1982.419], Lane was capable of achieving an extraordinary balance between reality and the ideal. Here he delicately combines the topography of the port with his idealized version of the scene; his romantic seascape is suffused with a sense of calm and quietude.
    Lane was largely self-taught, although he was a quick study of those resources available to him. As an apprentice in the Boston lithography shop of William S. Pendleton, he was known for his careful draftsmanship that enabled him to render all the details of different sailing vessels. While he honed his drawing skills producing popular prints, Lane also absorbed the lessons of British-born painter Robert Salmon, who settled in Boston in 1828 and flourished as a marine painter [27.356]. Lane’s Boston Harbor recalls Salmon’s handling of topographical details and his use of familiar devices, such as the small boat being rowed toward the horizon that provides a sense of scale.

    Lane portrays the calm waters with his characteristic luminosity. The elegiac quality of the scene is also typical of Lane; his paintings often depict the end of the day and evoke the end of an era. At the time Lane was painting his ambitious scenes of the major Massachusetts ports of Boston, Salem, and Gloucester, which likely appealed to patrons engaged in the shipping industry, the Erie Canal had diverted much of the traffic that would have passed through those destinations to New York. The encroaching world of steam power, which dominated the Hudson River corridor from Albany to New York City, is indicated here by the appearance of a white steam ship entering the harbor at the far right.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    66.04 x 106.68 cm (26 x 42 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    66.339

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  • Bash-Bish Falls, Massachusetts

    1855

    John Frederick Kensett, American, 1816–1872 American

    Description

    Like Thomas Cole, John Frederick Kensett extolled the drama of the rocky rushing waterfalls found in the American landscape. Kensett had trained as an engraver and traveled abroad before settling in New York City in 1847. By 1855 when he painted this version of the southwestern Massachusetts cataract Bash-Bish Falls, the artist had made two trips to Niagara and had depicted other well-known picturesque falls, including Trenton [48.438], Rydal, and Catskill. Commissioned by the important New York collector of American and Dutch painting James Suydam, this scene of Bash-Bish may have had special appeal for Kensett’s patron because of its visual association with waterfalls portrayed by the seventeenth-century Dutch master Jacob Ruysdael, whose works were then greatly admired. Kensett and his patron also shared a deep interest in geology, and rocks feature prominently in Kensett’s depiction of the falls.
    Although Kensett was likely familiar with the Native American myth of a woman named Bash-Bish who had been condemned to death at the site, he chose to focus instead on a realistic view, using carefully blended pigments to capture the appearance of the rough rocks, creating a thickly scumbled surface achieved by applying a glaze, then working over it. Having sketched from nature throughout the Northeastern United States and Europe, Kensett displayed a remarkable facility for rendering textures, ranging from rushing and gently rippling water to moss-covered rocks and lacy foliage. The small scale of the bridge in relation to the height of the gorge, which Kensett enhanced by choosing a low vantage point from the lower pool, is reminiscent of British painter J. M. W. Turner’s far more dramatic views of the St. Gothard pass in the Alps (for example, The Teufelsbrücke, St. Gotthard, about 1803, Kunsthaus Zürich). Kensett probably knew Turner’s scenes: he had traveled both to Switzerland and England, where the Turner Bequest was prominently displayed at the Tate Gallery, and he likely saw the popular engravings made after Turner. The vertical format of Kensett’s scene is also closely related to Cole’s earlier paintings (for example, Falls of the Kaaterskill, 1826, private collection) and is similar to Hudson River School painter Asher Brown Durand’s closely observed oil compositions [63.268] of scenes from nature, which also date from the mid-1850s.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    75.88 x 61.28 cm (29 7/8 x 24 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.437

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  • Meditation by the Sea

    early 1860s

    Unidentified artist, American, mid-19th century, American

    Description

    Meditation by the Sea has fascinated scholars of folk art for its unique combination of naivety and sophistication. As did many self-taught artists, the painting’s creator derived inspiration from the popular press. The source for the composition has been identified as a wood engraving by an artist using the pseudonym Porte-Crayon that was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine on September 21, 1860. The print was accompanied by a written account of “A Summer in New England” and a recent visit to the “tumultuous spirit of the waters” at Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard. The author of the article, David H. Strother, a Virginian and member of the Union army, was later identified as the artist and illustrator Porte-Crayon himself.

    The carefully delineated curling waves in the print are echoed by the expressive water in the painting. The painter has emphasized a sense of infinity by depicting the waves as though they are carved out of wood and are gradually whittled down to a fine point towards the otherworldly rocks on the horizon. A familiarity with one-point perspective is evident in the rendering of the receding cliff, yet the artist skews the rest of the view to suggest the vastness of the space stretching into the distance. The single brooding figure in the foreground and the tiny silhouettes far in the distance endow the painting with a surreal sense of scale and mood.

    Solitary figures contemplating the ocean occur frequently in works by the Hudson River landscape painters, especially Fitz Henry Lane [48.448] and John Frederick Kensett. Such figures were a defining feature of their luminist paintings, as were pronounced horizon lines and a particular quality of light. This unknown artist likely had access to such works, or may have consulted similar images in prints or drawing books. But the mood of this picture, enhanced by the expressive distortions of scale and by the idiosyncratic drawing, is unique. The immensity of the horizon, which dwarfs the figure, and the ominous branch devoid of leaves that seems to hang like the sword of Damocles over the cliff create an impression of foreboding. Meditation by the Sea was probably painted near the outbreak of the Civil War (based on the date of the engraving that inspired it). The figure’s confrontation with the omnipotence of nature and God underscores a sense of dread in contemplating the possible outcome of a devastating conflict.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    34.61 x 49.85 cm (13 5/8 x 19 5/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    45.892

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  • Approaching Storm: Beach near Newport

    about 1861–62

    Martin Johnson Heade, American, 1819–1904

    Description

    Like many of the Hudson River School landscape painters, Martin Johnson Heade was highly attuned to meteorological phenomena. He produced this chilling scene of a thunderstorm at Point Judith, on the south coast of Rhode Island, as part of a series of compositions that depicted ominous weather at sea. Although Thomas Cole and the generation of artists who would follow him were intimately familiar with cloud formations and light effects [63.271], this scene of blackened water and eerily illuminated shoreline suggests a more potent meaning. A thunderstorm accompanying a storm-tossed boat was a common metaphor throughout nineteenth-century European and American painting for an imperiled or wrecked ship of state; the scene here is rendered with deadening calm. The three boats at full sail seem caught in imminent danger and unlikely to find a safe passage to shore. For a nation amidst the upheaval of civil war, the darkened appearance of the stormy sky also brought to mind the familiar black, sulphur-laden canopy that rose above the beleaguered nation’s battlefields.
    As the foment of war approached, popular preachers, including Heade’s life-long friend Thomas March Clark, the fifth bishop of Rhode Island, incorporated imagery of biblical deluge into their sermons, equating dark clouds lingering on the horizon with the infamy a civil war would bring. In contrast, sunlight symbolized the hope of God’s redemption. In Heade’s extraordinary scene, the blackened clouds give way to a small patch of blue sky at the upper right, and the roiling waves are juxtaposed with a supernatural glow that suffuses the promontory of Point Judith with an intense clarity.

    Of Heade’s half dozen variations on the theme of thunderstorms at the shore, this composition is the most severe and lacking in narrative details. Heade’s viewer is afforded little relief from the cloud cover and the relentless horizontality created by the ocean and the beach. Nature appears at her most terrifying and hostile, and the barrenness of the shore, which drops away from the viewer at the lower edge of the canvas, conveys the sense that there is no foothold on the edge of Heade’s abyss.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    71.12 x 148.27 cm (28 x 58 3/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    45.889

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  • Valley of the Yosemite

    1864

    Albert Bierstadt, American (born in Germany), 1830–1902

    Description

    Following his first trip to the Rocky Mountains [47.1202] in 1859, Albert Bierstadt returned to the western United States in 1863 with his friend, the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow. Both men were tremendously impressed by the splendor of the landscape. Ludlow published his assessment of the scenery in the June 1864 issue of Atlantic Monthly, proclaiming that the Valley of the Yosemite in California surpassed the Alps in waterfalls and the Himalayas in precipices;[1]Bierstadt wrote of their trip to his friend John Hay that he had found the Garden of Eden.[2]The popular orator and preacher Thomas Starr King extolled the virtues of Yosemite and considered those who depicted its scenery to be artist-priests.[3]
    Bierstadt effectively combined his studio training abroad and his facility for sketching outdoors, successfully cultivating a market for western pictures back in the East. He painted this small, finished oil sketch, probably his first of the subject, in his New York studio the year after his trip to Yosemite, and sold it at the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair in New York for $1,600, the highest price paid for a painting at the sale. Small-scale oils like this one, which has the freshness of studies executed in the field, also served as inspiration for compositions the artist envisioned on a grand scale and painted in his studio. This work is likely a finished sketch for the much larger (five by eight feet; 1.5 by 2.4 meters) Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama), painted the following year. Bierstadt became known for such panoramic canvases, particularly his grandiose scene TheRocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which measured six by ten feet (1.8 by 3 meters). By late in 1865, after it had toured the Eastern seaboard, Bierstadt sold that canvas for $25,000, setting a record price for an American painting.

    Notes
    1. Fitz Hugh Ludlow, “Seven Weeks in the Great Yo-Semite,” Atlantic Monthly 13, no. 80 (June 1864): 739–54.
    2. Albert Bierstadt to John Hay, August 22, 1863, John Hay Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, R.I.
    3. Nancy K. Anderson and Linda S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1991), 80.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    30.16 x 48.89 cm (11 7/8 x 19 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on paperboard

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    47.1236

    Collections

    Americas

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  • An October Afternoon

    1871

    Sanford Robinson Gifford, American, 1823–1880 American

    Description

    Sanford Robinson Gifford’s An October Afternoon, which he produced after a remarkably productive period in his career, reflects the maturity of the landscape-painting tradition in the United States that stemmed from Thomas Cole [47.1201] and his followers. With the palpable orange glow of an Indian summer day Gifford creates a sense of time suspended in sublime light. The horizontal composition—a stretch of shore curving around a glistening body of water—also recalls seascapes by Heade [47.1143] and Kensett [48.440]. These qualities place Gifford’s painting within the style often called luminism, a term first used in 1947 to describe similarly light-infused American landscapes.
    Gifford depicts the distinctive silhouette of Mount Chocorua in New Hampshire, where the artist sketched between 1863 and 1865. The site was closely associated with Indian legend as it takes its name from a Native American, in this case a historical figure, Chief Chocorua, who was shot on one of the high ledges by an early settler in the area. Along the shore at the left, Gifford depicts a cluster of figures, teepees, and canoes consistent with the folklore of the region. The warm illumination, calm reflections, and diminutive figures in relation to majestic scenery all convey the artist’s awe of the natural landscape in which Native Americans coexist in an idyllic state of perfect harmony.

    Gifford’s scene of Native Americans peacefully inhabiting a wilderness unspoiled by white colonization was clearly nostalgic. The notion that Native Americans embodied the traditions of the noble savage had culminated at mid-century. In 1855 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha was at the height of popularity, and in 1856 American sculptor Thomas Crawford designed the statue of a seated chief for the Progress of American Civilization group on the east pediment of the United States Capitol. By 1871, when Gifford painted An October Afternoon, the Native American communities throughout the Northeast and even in much of the West had become a vision of the past.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    34.29 x 60.96 cm (13 1/2 x 24 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1988.150

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    Americas

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  • Lake Nemi

    1872

    George Inness, American, 1825–1894 American

    Description

    The spectacularly beautiful scenery of Lake Nemi, near Rome, enthralled the ancients. Virgil and Ovid wrote of it, and Roman emperors erected villas along its shores. Caligula even built floating barges from which to enjoy the three-mile (4.8-kilometer) circumference of the nearly perfectly circular lake. One thousand feet (305 meters) above sea level, the body of water rests so deep within the surrounding walls of a volcanic crater that hardly a breeze ripples its surface. Hence the lake was known in antiquity as Diana’s mirror, an allusion to the temple of Diana that stood on Nemi’s rim.
    Many European artists traveled to Lake Nemi, including Gaspard Dughet, Claude Lorrain, and J. M. W. Turner. By the early nineteenth century, American painters were also visiting there, most notably Thomas Cole. American landscape painter George Inness visited Lake Nemi while living abroad from 1850 to 1852. He returned to the region in 1872; that same year, Mr. and Mrs. A. D. Williams of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who were enjoying their own sojourn in Italy, bought this view of Nemi, which the artist described to them as “one of my very best.”[1]

    Inness likely painted his scene from the grounds of the Capuchin monastery (which still survived in the nineteenth century) at Genzano, overlooking the lake, creating an ethereal view of the mythical world of Arcadia. Unlike earlier artists who depicted Diana’s temple, Inness eschewed architectural details in favor of hazy atmosphere and panoramic vistas. The black garb of the man with his back to the viewer suggests he is a Catholic priest; priests were known to walk the path around the lake, following the route of their pagan predecessors who had worshiped at Diana’s temple. By including the solitary figure, a common motif in earlier American landscape paintings, Inness invites the spectator to enter this seemingly oneiric world.

    Inness alludes to the timeless splendor of the ancient world, yet in traditional descriptions of Arcadia, the specter of death is omnipresent amidst the beauty of life. Inness conveys a sense of longing for the past, but the past at Lake Nemi was associated with a bizarre and ruthless ritual: historically, a murderous chase through the sacred grove surrounding Lake Nemi determined the next reigning priest of Diana’s temple. Inness strove to find a balance between the reality of the scene he wanted to depict, its history, and idealized nature. In Lake Nemi he achieves both a convincing scene of this well-known site and also a luminous vision that seems capable of vanishing like a dream.

    Inness depicted Lake Nemi in at least nine paintings, including another work [21.290] in the Museum’s collection, which he made during a subsequent visit to the area in about 1874.

    Notes
    1. George Inness to Mr. A.D. Williams, August 13, 1872, Archives, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    75.56 x 113.98 cm (29 3/4 x 44 7/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    49.412

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  • The Lincoln Children

    1845

    Susan Catherine Moore Waters, American, 1823–1900 American

    Description

    Many folk artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were women (though few of their names have come down to us), who created objects for domestic use-for instance, quilts, embroidered pictures, and watercolor memorials. Susan Waters, however, is unusual for having painted portraits for a living, and especially for traveling from town to town in search of commissions, a mode of working more often chosen by men.

    Waters's only artistic training came during her years at a female seminary in Friendsville, Pennsylvania, which she first attended at age fifteen. She took up portraiture about 1843, when her husband became ill and unable to support the family. Waters is known to have been active as an artist for only about three years, painting the local citizenry in southern New York State. In the 1840s she specialized in portraits of children, and this image of three of the twelve children of Otis Lincoln, an innkeeper from Newark Valley (near Binghamton), New York, is widely regarded as one of her finest achievements. The three little girls (Laura Eugenie, age nine, Sara, age three, and Augusta, age seven) are arranged in a pyramid. They are shown in fancy dresses, ornamented with eyelet and lace. The girls hold pieces of fruit and a book, common attributes in mid-nineteenth-century portraits of children and meant to advertise their sweetness and their attentiveness at school. The handsome furnishings (including an expensive ingrain carpet), the pretty plants on a stand, and even the charming puppy with its neatly aligned paws combine to create a pleasing image of domestic stability and comfort. The intense expressions of the children, on the other hand, give the painting a startling directness.

    Shortly after finishing The Lincoln Children, Susan Waters apparently retired from painting. She resurfaced some thirty years later as a painter of animal subjects and achieved modest success with sentimental pictures of kittens and baby chicks. None of them equaled the ambition and vividness of her early folk portraits, and it is these for which she is most admired today.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    114.93 x 127.63 cm (45 1/4 x 50 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1981.438

    Collections

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  • The Reverend John Atwood and His Family

    1845

    Henry F. Darby, American, 1829–1897 American

    Description

    Henry Darby was seventeen years old when he created this portrait of the Atwood family of New Boston, New Hampshire. Darby, from Adams, Massachusetts, boarded with the Atwoods in the summer of 1845 and may have painted this picture in exchange for food and lodging. He is not known to have had any artistic training, which makes the achievement of this life-sized painting all the more astonishing. The stern-faced parents and their six children are grouped naturally in the family parlor, as though the artist had come upon them during their daily prayers. The five open Bibles in the picture advertise the family's piety (Atwood was a Baptist minister, as well as state treasurer and chaplain of the state prison). The pictures on the wall-a memorial to a dead son, and a colored print by British artist James Lucas depicting Samson carrying off the gates of Gaza-further indicate their religious commitment. The furnishings attest to the Atwoods' prosperity and provincial good taste, for the piano, table, and footstool are all in a version of the fashionable Empire style. At the center of the table, demonstrating both the family's means and their interest in the latest technology, is a newly invented smokeless argand lamp, with its expensive cut-glass prisms.

    Darby's style also reflects the latest technology, for the hyperrealism of his rendering (especially of the figures' chiseled features) probably indicates the new standards of verisimilitude inaugurated by the recent invention of photography. At the same time, while the painting's drawing and perspective are accurate, its hallucinatory quality is what connects it with other works of folk art. Unfortunately, Darby never again produced a work of this impact. Between the early 1850s and his death in 1897, he worked as a portraitist, documenting the gentry of upstate New York in a competent but dull academic style.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    183.2 x 244.47 cm (72 1/8 x 96 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    62.269

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  • The Garden of Eden

    about 1860

    Erastus Salisbury Field, American, 1805–1900

    Description

    About 1860, after the death of his wife, Erastus Salisbury Field set aside his busy portrait-painting practice in Ware, Massachusetts, and began creating religious and historical pictures. Although his brief period of training with painter Samuel F. B. Morse [48.455] in New York no doubt exposed him to the conventions of high-style history painting, Field’s own works in the genre were highly idiosyncratic and reflected his increasingly eccentric personality. Although Field’s neighbors are reputed to have marveled at the extraordinary and often gargantuan pictures he created, his work seldom found a market, and many of his canvases were found stacked up against the walls of his studio—little more than a shack—when he died.
    The Garden of Eden (which exists in two versions; the second is at the Shelburne Museum, Vermont) was among the first of Field’s biblical subjects. Although based to some degree on paintings of the Genesis creation story by such well-known artists as the British romantic painter John Martin and the American Thomas Cole [47.1188], which Field probably knew from illustrated Bibles and inexpensive engravings, Field’s Eden reflects equally his own fantasy world. His paradise is a lush and precisely organized place. The cone-shaped mountains recede in orderly rows, New England fruit trees are matched with tropical palms, and—like a miniature Noah’s ark—the animals are arrayed in pairs, with such exotic species as elephants, giraffes, and zebras coexisting amicably with their domestic brethren.

    When the Museum acquired The Garden of Eden in 1948, it looked significantly different than it does now. It seemed less a depiction of the events leading up to the expulsion from paradise than an illustration of Adam naming the animals (as described in Genesis 2:19–20), for neither Eve nor the serpent was present. Conservators discovered that they had been painted over (possibly, according to the artist’s great-nephew, at the request of his prudish spinster aunt). Once the censorious overpaint was removed and the picture returned to the artist’s original conception, the seeds of discord were again visible in paradise.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    88.26 x 116.52 cm (34 3/4 x 45 7/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.1027

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  • Three Sisters of the Copeland Family

    1854

    William Matthew Prior, American, 1806–1873

    Description

    William Matthew Prior was an exception to conventionally held notions about folk painters. He worked in a large city (Charlestown, across the Mystic River from Boston, Massachusetts); he made a handsome living as an artist, rather than making objects chiefly for his own enjoyment; and he adjusted his style according to his customer’s ability to pay. His most elaborate portraits could cost as much as $25.00, but, as Prior advertised in the Maine Inquirer on April 5, 1831, “persons wishing for a flat picture can have a likeness without shade or shadow at one quarter the price.” Such portraits—small, with plain backgrounds and little or no modeling, so that the figure appeared rather two-dimensional—were the mainstays of Prior’s busy portrait practice.
    It would appear that Samuel Copeland, a secondhand-clothing dealer and real-estate investor from Chelsea, Massachusetts, was sufficiently affluent to pay full price for this complex and handsome portrait of his daughters. The girls—Eliza (about six years old), Nellie (about two), and Margaret (about four)—wear the off-the-shoulder dresses that were fashionable in the 1850s; their necklaces and hair ribbons also indicate their father’s prosperity. The book, flowers, and fruit they hold indicate that they are educated, obedient, and have a pleasant demeanor. The book has special poignancy, for Copeland, despite his business acumen, could neither read nor write.

    In addition to being a skilled portrait painter, Prior was something of a political activist and was prominent in abolitionist circles. He counted a number of African Americans among his clients, including Samuel Copeland, and unlike many other images of blacks by artists of his day, Prior’s were painted with seriousness and sympathy.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    68.26 x 92.71 cm (26 7/8 x 36 1/2 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.467

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  • The Dinner Party

    about 1821

    Henry Sargent, American, 1770–1845 American

    Description

    Henry Sargent’s painting gives us a glimpse of a fashionable dinner party in 1820s Boston. The dishes for the main course have been cleared; the tablecloth has been removed; and nuts, fruit, and wine are being offered for dessert. The single candle on the table is provided to enable the diners to light their tobacco. The shutters are drawn to keep out the sun, for during this period dinner parties were held in the middle of the afternoon. This gathering may represent a meeting of a specific group: the Wednesday Evening Club, which met weekly for dinner and discussion at members’ houses. The club, which survives today, consisted in Sargent’s time of four clergymen, four doctors, four lawyers, and four “merchants, manufacturers or gentlemen of literature and leisure.”[1]Guests were sometimes included at the dinners, which would explain why there are more than sixteen in attendance here. Sargent, possibly the third figure on the right side of the table, was a successful politician and inventor as well as a talented painter, and he may well have belonged to the club; however, no membership records were kept at this time, so it is not certain what convivial gathering is represented here.
    In addition to being an invaluable document of social customs among Federal Boston’s elite, the painting preserves the appearance of an upper-class interior. This elegant room was probably Sargent’s own dining room at 10 Franklin Place on Tontine Crescent, a handsome row of townhouses built by celebrated architect Charles Bulfinch in 1793–94. The contents of the room—the sideboard (a new form whose serpentine front allowed diners to reach across it with ease), the expensive Wilton carpet (here protected by a green baize “crumb cloth”), paintings, a large looking glass, and a dining table big enough to accommodate many guests comfortably—conform to those recommended by Thomas Sheraton, an English designer and champion of good taste. The cellaret [1975.755] in the foreground, used to cool bottles of wine, was also a new form; it remained in Sargent’s family and was given to the Museum by one of the artist’s descendants.

    Although the painting records a private event, it was created for exhibition. In the 1820s, visitors willing to pay 25¢ could see it in a gallery operated by the drawing master David Brown at 2 Cornhill Square, Boston. Business was brisk; presumably the picture was enjoyed not only by Sargent’s social circle but also by those who could not afford such luxurious surroundings yet enjoyed a peek into such an elite and opulent world. Because this was a commercial success, Brown commissioned Sargent to paint The Tea Party[19.12]. Beginning in 1824, Brown toured the paintings together.

    Notes
    1. Sketch of the Wednesday Evening Club by Samuel Kirkland Lothrop (Boston: John Wilson and Son, 1873), n.p., quoted in Jane C. Nylander, “Henry Sargent’s Dinner Party and Tea Party,” Magazine Antiques, May 1982, 1172.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    156.53 x 126.36 cm (61 5/8 x 49 3/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    19.13

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  • The Squatters

    1850

    George Caleb Bingham, American, 1811–1879 American

    Description

    Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham specialized in images of life on the western frontier. He was self-taught, acquiring information about technique, composition, anatomy, and pose from engravings, drawings, and casts of antique sculpture he purchased on a trip east in the late 1830s. He painted many portraits, mostly of his middle-class Missouri neighbors, but his most admired works, both in his lifetime and now, are his idyllic views of boatmen on the placid Missouri River and his sharply satiric scenes of elections in small towns.

    When Bingham sent The Squatters to the American Art-Union (an exhibition and auction house in New York City), he provided his east-coast audience with the following explanation of the picture's cast of characters: "The Squatters as a class, are not fond of the toil of agriculture, but erect their rude cabins upon those remote portions of the national domain, when the abundant game supplies their phisical [sic] wants. When this source of subsistence becomes diminished in consequence of increasing settlements around they usually sell out their slight improvement, with their 'preemption title' to the land, and again follow the receding footsteps of the Savage."

    Although Bingham's description might make the squatters seem predatory, they were in fact an important part of the process of settling the west. At mid-century, these pioneers claimed new territory by "squatting" on, or occupying, it for a year or two. They would then abandon the land to a second group of settlers who would farm it and establish communities. The squatters were admired for their independence, and to small farmers and businessmen back east they represented the allure of the frontier. In 1843, the New York Tribune noted that, "Fearlessness, hospitality and independent frankness, united with restless enterprise and unquenchable thirst for novelty and change are the peculiar characteristics of the Western pioneer…"

    Bingham's own admiration for the squatters was tempered by his political ambitions. A staunch Whig, he ran unsuccessfully for state legislature in 1846 and blamed his defeat, in part, on the squatters in his district, who consistently voted Democratic. Nonetheless, he painted them with understanding, if not sympathy. A young man, an old man, and their dog form a pyramid in the foreground-theirs is a strong and stable family unit, however footloose their lifestyle. The patriarch looks out at the viewer somewhat suspiciously, while the young man's expression is mild and open. In the background, in shadow, a woman washes clothes, while boys play near her boiling kettle. And just beyond the little rise on which the squatters have built their rude cabin is a handsome river valley, bathed in golden light that conveys the attraction of the open spaces farther west.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    58.74 x 71.75 cm (23 1/8 x 28 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1971.154

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  • Libby Prison

    1863

    David Gilmour Blythe, American, 1815–1865 American

    Description

    Libby Prison, in Richmond, Virginia, was one of the most notorious Confederate prisons in operation during the Civil War. The building was originally a tobacco warehouse, constructed by local merchant Fulton Libby in 1845; by 1862, it was a filthy, vermin-infested, dank prison, housing as many as twelve hundred Union soldiers in six rooms each no more than forty by one hundred feet. Many prisoners died there; those who survived suffered from poor health for the rest of their lives.

    David Gilmour Blythe, a self-trained artist with a satirist's eye and a keen dramatic sense, never saw Libby Prison. He spent the war years in Pittsburgh and relied on newspaper accounts and prints of the prison for information about the setting and the prisoners' wretched lives. Some of his details are true to life-men play cards and checkers to pass the time, others wash themselves at a water trough; a soldier at center comforts a feverish friend. Other elements are broadly satirical-a man at center writes "Time" on a post, while another reads Rip Van Winkle (as though relief could be found in a story of twenty years' slumber); the chaplain at center right offers sham solace to the despondent men. Although many of his figures are crudely drawn, Blythe's use of lighting is deftly theatrical, and his rich red-and-brown color scheme intensifies the emotion of the scene. Beneath the propagandistic accumulation of horrifying detail are echoes of several famous European paintings dealing with related themes, which Blythe likely would have known through prints. The similarities with William Hogarth's Bedlam (the final scene in his epic series of paintings "The Rake's Progress," which were widely distributed in prints) and Baron Gros' General Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa (Musée du Louvre; a version is in the MFA) suggest that the inhumanity of Libby Prison was not limited to the Civil War or America, but was part of the larger, age-old story of man's inhumanity to man.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    61.28 x 91.76 cm (24 1/8 x 36 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.414

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  • Writing to Father

    1863

    Eastman Johnson, American, 1824–1906 American

    Description

    Eastman Johnson’s early career parallels that of the slightly younger Winslow Homer, with whom he was compared for much of his life. Both were initially trained as lithographers in Boston and produced their first significant works in black and white; both went to Europe at critical points in their artistic development (Johnson studied in Düsseldorf and The Hague as well as visiting Paris); and both came to national attention with images depicting aspects of American life affected by the Civil War. Unlike Homer, however, who spent the better part of several years following the Union troops and produced many scenes of camp life, Johnson made only two or three brief trips to the battlefield. Most of his Civil War pictures depicted slaves or, as in this canvas of a small boy absorbed in a letter to his absent father, were centered on the home front, measuring the tragedy of the war by the cost to the children left behind.
    In the charcoal study [1980.475] for this picture, the child appears even younger than he does here. The image focuses more tightly on him; both the room’s middle-class furnishings and references to the conflict—the cadet’s uniform and the solitary cap—were added as Johnson expanded his design and transformed the mood from that of a cozy interior and a poignant moment in this scene of an “every boy’s” life.

    Paintings like this, with its narrative sentimentality, found an appreciative audience in New York; on April 27, 1862, the New York Times called another of Johnson’s pictures of a child left fatherless by the war “singularly beautiful.”

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    30.48 x 23.49 cm (12 x 9 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on composition board

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    64.435

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  • Starting Out After Rail

    1874

    Thomas Eakins, American, 1844–1916 American

    Description

    Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins had many and varied interests, and they all found their way into his pictures. He was an eager student of anatomy, attending lectures at local medical schools even while completing his artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia’s doctors and professors of medicine figure prominently among the subjects of his portraits. He was fascinated by perspective, optics, and stop-motion photography, and used perspective studies and photography in planning his oils and watercolors. He enjoyed music and often painted rehearsals, home musicales, and professionals in concert. He was also an avid outdoorsman, and especially in the 1870s, when his career was just beginning, he painted a number of pictures of friends and family members hunting, rowing, racing sailboats or, as here, setting out in pursuit of rail, small game birds that were plentiful in the marshes along the Delaware River.
    The sailors in this picture were friends of Eakins’s, Sam Helhower and Harry Young; their names are inscribed on the watercolor version of this painting (1874, Wichita Art Museum, Kansas). Eakins was a highly disciplined artist and often made carefully crafted studies in one medium as preparation for a work in another. In the case of Starting Out After Rail, he made a perspective drawing and this oil in advance of the watercolor. The composition reflects his love of boats and his fascination with perspective: as Eakins himself said, “I know of no prettier problem in perspective than to draw a yacht sailing . . . tilted over sideways by the force of the wind.”[1] Here, the “yacht” is a Delaware ducker, a small skiff that came into widespread use in the 1870s. His perspective study enabled him to place the boat so that the viewer—presumably positioned on a wharf, for the men have just begun their expedition—can see into the boat and understand its simple construction. In his precisely realistic style, honed during years of study in France with Jean-Léon Gérôme [03.605], Eakins renders the expressions of the sailors and their telling poses—one intent on manning the rudder, the other leaning more casually against the side of the boat—as vividly as in a close-up photograph. The bright sky and shimmering, blue-brown water make the scene seem even more immediate.

    Eakins clearly thought highly of this image, for he sent the oil to Gérôme in Paris to gauge his progress. The watercolor was the first picture he submitted to the American Watercolor Society’s annual shows. Although praised for its originality, the watercolor did not sell; Eakins reportedly later traded it for a boat.

    Notes
    1. Thomas Eakins, typescript, p. 41, Philadelphia Museum of Art, quoted in Kathleen A. Foster, Thomas Eakins Rediscovered: Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 132.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    61.59 x 50.48 cm (24 1/4 x 19 7/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    35.1953

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  • The Fog Warning

    1885

    Winslow Homer, American, 1836–1910 American

    Description

    Winslow Homer made his reputation in the 1860s with images of the Union troops during the Civil War and of the returning veterans afterward. In the late 1860s and 1870s he turned to lighter subject matter and found an equally enthusiastic audience for his paintings of healthy, handsome children playing in the country or at the seashore, and of adults enjoying leisure-time pursuits. However, perhaps feeling the need for more important subjects in his art, Homer spent 1881–82 in Cullercoats, England. Both a fishing village and an artists’ colony, Cullercoats provided Homer with more profound themes: the arduous lives of fishermen and their families. Shortly after returning to the United States late in 1882, he settled in Prout’s Neck, Maine, similarly both a fishing community and a pleasant summer resort, where he painted the local population and their work. The Fog Warning is one of three paintings he produced at Prout’s Neck in 1885 describing the lives of the North Atlantic fishermen.
    Like many of Homer’s 1870s images featuring farm children, The Fog Warning is a painting with a narrative, though its tale is disturbing rather than charming. As indicated by the halibut in his dory, the fisherman in this picture has been successful. But the hardest task of the day, the return to the main ship, is still ahead of him. He turns to look at the horizon, measuring the distance to the mother ship, and to safety. The seas are choppy and the dory rocks high on the waves, making it clear that the journey home will require considerable physical effort. But more threatening is the approaching fog bank, whose streamers echo, even mock, the fisherman’s profile. Contemporary descriptions of the fishing industry in New England make clear that the protagonist’s plight—the danger of losing sight of his vessel—was an all-too-familiar event.

    The dramatic tension of The Fog Warning is all the greater because Homer does not specify the fisherman’s fate. However, Lost on the Grand Banks (1885, private collection), another painting in the Prout’s Neck series, shows that the fishermen’s peril was a deadly one. An account related in the 1876 history The Fisheries of Gloucester tells of the insidious horrors to which fishermen were prey and could well have served as a description of The Fog Warning: “His frail boat rides like a shell upon the surface of the sea . . . a moment of carelessness or inattention, or a slight miscalculation, may cost him his life. And a greater foe than carelessness lies in wait for its prey. The stealthy fog enwraps him in its folds, blinds his vision, cuts off all marks to guide his course, and leaves him afloat in a measureless void.”[1]

    Notes
    1. The Fisheries of Gloucester from the First Catch by the English in 1623, to the Centennial Year, 1876 (Gloucester, Mass.: Procter Brothers, 1876), 58.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    76.83 x 123.19 cm (30 1/4 x 48 1/2 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    94.72

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  • Self Portrait

    1805

    Washington Allston, American, 1779–1843

    Description

    In this self-portrait, the young Washington Allston presents himself as the new Romantic ideal of an artist. He painted it when he was twenty-six, during his first trip to Rome. A Southerner by birth, Allston graduated from Harvard College in 1800 and left for Europe, determined to become a painter. He studied for two years at the Royal Academy in London and then departed for the Continent to continue his artistic education in Europe’s museums and galleries. After visiting Paris, Allston continued on to Rome where he became friends with other figures of the growing Romantic movement in Europe, including the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the German painter Joseph Anton Koch, and the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen.

    In this self-portrait, Allston’s quiet gaze, open collar, loose cravat, and curly, dark locks tousled on his forehead establish his Romantic identity as a sensitive and poetic individual. Contemporary descriptions of Allston seem to match this likeness. His friend Washington Irving, the American writer, described him thus: “He was of a light and graceful form, with large blue eyes and black silken hair, waving and curling round a pale expressive countenance. Everything about him bespoke the man of intellect and refinement.”[1] Instead of including his brush and palette in the portrait in acknowledgement of the traditional view of the artist as craftsman, Allston carefully delineated his Phi Beta Kappa key at his waist, stressing his identity as an intellectual and a gentleman. Indeed, against the blackness of his coat and murkiness of the background, Allston’s head becomes the focal point of the painting, emphasizing his mind and imagination as the origin of his art, while his hands, tools of his trade, are not even included.

    Allston’s technique and the setting in which he chose to present himself enhance the portrait’s sense of Romantic reverie. Emulating the sixteenth-century Venetian Renaissance painter Titian, whom he greatly admired, Allston built up layers of oil paint with glazes, giving the painting a shimmering, atmospheric effect. The architecture in the background with its rounded arch and simple forms suggests a classical location. However, the mold and cracks in the masonry imply that the scene is one of a civilization in decline, like the Rome that Allston was currently visiting, a city that fascinated him because of its many ruins poignantly evoking its former glory. Interestingly, the painter placed his signature on the masonry behind his right arm, suggesting that it is inscribed into the architecture itself. This telling detail perhaps reveals the sort of artistic mark this ambitious young American hoped to leave on Rome.

    Notes
    1. Washington Irving quoted in Evert A. Duyckinck and George L. Duyckinck, Cyclopaedia of American Literature, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner, 1856), 14.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    80.33 x 67.31 cm (31 5/8 x 26 1/2 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    84.301

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  • The Torn Hat

    1820

    Thomas Sully, American (born in England), 1783–1872

    Description

    Thomas Sully was Philadelphia’s leading portraitist in the early nineteenth century. This work displays his characteristically fluid use of paint, a skill he learned in London in emulation of his mentor, the British Romantic portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence. Even in an era devoted to showing children as truly childlike, Sully’s portrait of his nine-year old son, Thomas Wilcocks Sully, is unusually informal. The young Thomas is situated off-center, creating a feeling of movement and immediacy. He wears an open shirt, rumpled jacket, and straw hat. Such less restrictive costume was becoming more usual for children as it was acknowledged that play was beneficial and healthful for young people.
    The detail of the torn hat suggests some real, human mischief on the part of the subject that is not apparent in the rosy sweetness of his face. The viewer wonders how the hat got torn, suggesting an element of narrative rare in a portrait and tying the picture to genre painting. The tear in the hat brim also afforded Sully the opportunity to show off his ability to paint a face under a complex pattern of light and shadow. Like Copley in A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham)[1978.297], Sully felt free to experiment in a portrait that was not a commissioned work.

    Sully’s experimentation with such unusual effects may reflect the disappointing turn of events in his career. By 1820 his painting sales had been down for several years, and he was uncertain whether he would be able to continue making his living as a portraitist. Sully may have thought that a more informal kind of portrait might sell. Although the artist referred to the painting as “a study” and completed it in three days, he signed and dated it as he did his finished works. He also priced it at $100, twice the amount he usually asked for a picture of its size. [1]

    Sully’s gamble paid off. He sold the painting for his asking price just a year later, to Boston merchant and art collector John Hubbard. The artist went on to be much admired for his natural portrayals of children. Young Thomas Wilcocks Sully grew up to become a well-regarded portraitist in his own right.

    Notes
    1. “Account of Pictures by Thomas Sully,” roll N18, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The listing for July 11, 1820, notes “Head size. Thos. Sully, my son, a study.”

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    48.58 x 37.15 cm (19 1/8 x 14 5/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on panel

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    16.104

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  • Mr. Tiffen of East Kingston, New Hampshire

    about 1820

    Artist A. Ellis, American, active in 1820s–1830s American

    Description

    Like Washington Allston’s self-portrait [84.301] made a few years earlier, this painting clearly depicts a fashionably dressed gentleman of some wealth. But the similarities between the two portraits end there. Allston, an ambitious and cosmopolitan young painter, created a portrait of himself in order to advertise his artistic talents, his intellectual achievements, and his good taste. In contrast, nothing is known about Mr. Tiffen—even his name and place of residence, which have been attached to this portrait for more than fifty years, may not be accurate, for no Tiffens could be found in the census records of East Kingston, New Hampshire, or any of the surrounding towns. Nor is it known why he hired A. Ellis to paint his portrait.
    Ellis, a shadowy figure, is associated with some fifteen pictures from the Waterville area of central Maine and southeastern New Hampshire. Like other folk painters working in the rural United States at this time, Ellis did not have access to the kind of rigorous training in art that Allston had. As a result, he (or she) had difficulty creating a realistic depiction of three-dimensional form. The portrait emulates high-style works like Allston’s—for instance, Ellis depicted his sitter in a fashionable pose, with one hand tucked into his jacket—but since the artist used practically no shading, Mr. Tiffen looks like a collection of flat shapes rather than a real human being. Ellis also altered his vantage point from one section of the portrait to another in order to portray each of Tiffen’s features in the clearest possible way. He depicted the eyes and mouth frontally but the nose and ear in profile, yielding an image of a sitter with an impossibly distorted body.

    Despite this portrait’s lack of realism, its expressive rhythm of line and decorative distribution of shape give it its own graphic strength. By the early nineteenth century, a tradition of such folk portraits existed in rural areas of the United States. Generations of self-taught artists had created similar works for a local clientele who associated such pictures with high status in the community. Thus Mr. Tiffen would probably have been able to appreciate A. Ellis’s portrait of him on its own terms, as an elegant presentation of his style and character.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    66.36 x 47.94 cm (26 1/8 x 18 7/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on panel

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    69.1359

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  • Pat Lyon at the Forge

    1826–27

    John Neagle, American, 1796–1865 American

    Description

    This portrait of leading Philadelphia businessman and inventor Patrick Lyon is unusual for its era because of its depiction of a subject engaged in manual labor. John Neagle was only twenty-nine when he received the commission for this work. He had begun his career by apprenticing to a coach decorator and then studied painting with his fellow Philadelphia portraitist Bass Otis. Neagle eventually began to work in the Romantic style under the combined influence of Gilbert Stuart, whom he visited in Boston in 1825, and Philadelphian Thomas Sully (Neagle later married Sully’s daughter). Through them, he learned to compose large-scale portraits in the European old master tradition. Neagle’s indebtedness to Stuart in particular is evident in the painterly surface of Pat Lyon and in the atmospheric darkness of the blacksmith shop. However, the picture’s ties to European styles end there.
    Patrick Lyon was a wealthy, successful man when he commissioned Neagle to paint him, but he asked the artist to depict him as a blacksmith, the vocation in which he had begun his career. In the early nineteenth century, people who could afford such large-scale, heroic images of themselves usually preferred to be depicted in formal dress and surrounded by expensive objects, implying their aristocratic status. In contrast, Lyon explicitly told Neagle that he did “not wish to be represented as what I am not—a gentleman.”[1]Lyon’s prejudice against gentlemen stemmed from the fact that early in his career he was wrongly accused of theft by a group of Philadelphia bankers and imprisoned. Consequently, he preferred to be depicted as an honest workman rather than as a member of an upper class that he associated with injustice. Lyon also insisted that the jail in which he had been held appear in his portrait—Neagle included a view of its distinctive cupola in the upper left-hand corner. Despite the exceptional nature of this painting, it was widely admired in its time and gained the young artist many commissions. It is still Neagle’s most famous work.

    Notes
    1. William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, vol. 2, (New York: George P. Scott and Co., 1834), 375.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    238.12 x 172.72 cm (93 3/4 x 68 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1975.806

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  • Self Portrait

    1830

    Sarah Goodridge, American, 1788–1853

    Description

    In this miniature self portrait, Sarah Goodridge (sometimes spelled Goodrich) depicted herself staring out of the composition with a poised directness, implying confidence in herself and her artistic abilities. According to the artist's sister Eliza, who also became a miniature painter, Sarah began studying art by reading a book on drawing and painting. In 1805 she moved to the Boston area where she took drawing lessons, but it was only after she worked with an unidentified miniature painter from Hartford, Connecticut, that she began experimenting with painting in this medium. Goodridge opened a studio in Boston in 1820 and perfected her artistic skills by studying with the leading American portraitist of her time, Gilbert Stuart. Although Stuart specialized in large-scale works in oil, he purportedly painted one of his only miniatures (General Henry Knox, about 1820, Worcester Art Museum) as a demonstration piece for Goodridge.
    This self portrait demonstrates Goodridge's characteristic realism, with every detail-down to the tiny wrinkles around her eyes-painstakingly delineated. The artist's evident self-assuredness was well-warranted. By 1830 she had become one of the leading miniaturists in Boston, executing as many as two paintings a week and supporting herself and her family through her art. She received commissions from such famous individuals as Daniel Webster, General Henry Lee, and her teacher, Gilbert Stuart, and exhibited her miniatures at the annual exhibitions of the Boston Athenaeum between 1827 and 1835. Such accomplishments were truly remarkable in the antebellum American art world, in which talented women were rarely given the opportunity to achieve such levels of success.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    9.52 x 6.73 cm (3 3/4 x 2 5/8 in.)

    Medium

    Watercolor on ivory

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    95.1424

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  • The Bone Player

    1856

    William Sidney Mount, American, 1807–1868

    Description

    William Sidney Mount’s The Bone Player combines elements of portraiture and genre painting, both fields for which he was well known. Born on Long Island, Mount apprenticed with his brother, a portrait and sign painter, and then studied at the National Academy of Design in New York; by 1856 he was well established as one of America’s leading artists. Mount painted The Bone Player after receiving a commission from the printers Goupil and Company for two pictures of African American musicians, to be lithographed for the European market. These became the last in a series of five life-size likenesses of musicians that Mount executed between 1849 and 1856.
    Scholars have differed over whether this image, painted just five years before the Civil War when tensions over slavery were high, is a typical nineteenth-century stereotyped depiction of an African American or a sensitive portrait of an individual. On the one hand, Mount titled the picture The Bone Player, indicating that it was his sitter’s musical skill, rather than his individual identity, that was the painting’s subject. The bones [1989.132a-d]—bars of ivory, wood, or bone clicked together—were an instrument associated with African American minstrels, a type recognizable to American and European audiences. Popular theories of evolution considered African Americans more intuitive than Caucasians and therefore more in touch with their natural musical talents. Mount knew that pictures of such African American types would sell: they appealed to Europeans because of their exoticism and to Americans because they were considered distinctly American. Moreover, Mount was not an abolitionist and so unlikely to challenge African American stereotypes.

    On the other hand, Mount carefully delineated his subject’s distinctive physical characteristics, such as his high cheekbones, white teeth, and neat mustache, treating him as an individual and not a type. Unlike the depictions of African Americans in contemporary genre painting, which often employed caricature, this sitter is life-size, making the viewer relate to him as a fellow human being. Mount himself played the violin and loved music. His personal interest in the subject may explain his portraits of musicians, the first of which depicts a Caucasian subject and thus does not involve African American stereotypes.

    In the end, the most convincing conclusion about this painting is that both interpretations have merit. Mount was walking a fine line between stereotyping and individualism, between genre painting and portraiture. His equivocation makes sense, for he executed the work when debate over slavery was intense. Whatever his political affiliations, Mount was primarily a painter trying to support himself through his art. In The Bone Player, he created a work that could be interpreted in different ways and thus appeal to buyers in both the North and the South, as well as abroad. Yet despite its ambiguity, the painting is still unprecedented in the humanity it affords its African American subject.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    91.76 x 73.98 cm (36 1/8 x 29 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.461

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  • Vase of Flowers

    1864

    John La Farge, American, 1835–1910

    Description

    Best known for his major projects in mural painting and stained glass [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=john%20la%20farge&objecttype=32], particularly the interior design of Trinity Church in Boston, John La Farge also painted an important series of floral still lifes in oil in the 1860s. La Farge grew up in a cosmopolitan, French-speaking household, and in 1856 he toured the museums of Europe, spending a few weeks working in Thomas Couture’s studio. He decided to become an artist in 1859 and studied with William Morris Hunt [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Hunt,%20William%20Morris&objecttype=66] in Newport, Rhode Island. Over the next decade La Farge painted lyrical still lifes of flowers in vases, hanging wreaths, and water lilies [RES.27.93] and other flowers in their natural settings. His still lifes are poetic and generalized rather than botanically accurate, evoking a mood and expressing emotion. Through his own success and that of his pupils, as well as other artists who were influenced by his work, La Farge was largely responsible for the development of the poetic flower composition in American still-life painting.
    Vase of Flowers is one of the most ambiguous and mysterious of La Farge’s floral paintings. A vase of roses, geraniums, and other pink and red flowers is set off-center on a tabletop in a shallow space. The background may be a Japanese screen or an open window, as in many of the artist’s early still lifes. It has been suggested that the vase may be a pi t’ung, a Chinese porcelain vessel for holding the brushes of artists and calligraphers, thus accounting for its distinctive shape. Fascinated by Asian art and an early collector of Japanese prints, La Farge also had a large collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics. In addition, his wife was the great niece of Matthew Perry, who had opened Japan to Western trade in 1854.

    La Farge’s use of a gilded panel for this painting, as well as his atypical inclusion of a calling card with the date and his signature in the lower right corner, may indicate that Vase of Flowers was painted as a demonstration piece in the hope of obtaining a commission from architect Henry Van Brunt for decorative panels. La Farge did, in fact, receive the commission and completed three of six panels intended for the dining room of a townhouse that Van Brunt was designing in Boston. La Farge, however, became ill and was forced to give up the project.

    La Farge later painted glowing still lifes of flowers in watercolor and also created floral stained glass windows. These jewel-like panels of opalescent glass, for which he received a patent in 1880, graced the mansions of such wealthy patrons as Cornelius Vanderbilt.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    46.99 x 35.56 cm (18 1/2 x 14 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on gilded panel

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    20.1873

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  • Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds

    about 1870–83

    Martin Johnson Heade, American, 1819–1904

    Description

    During a career that spanned almost seventy years, Heade, an ardent naturalist and traveler, painted a great variety of subjects: portraits [48.426], luminous salt-marsh scenes [47.1159], seascapes (often with thunder storms) [45.889], tropical landscapes [47.1153], hummingbird and orchid pictures [47.1164], and floral still lifes [48.427]. Heade had been fascinated by hummingbirds since his childhood, and in 1863–64 he spent six months in Brazil painting hummingbirds in their natural habitat; he intendedto use the pictures as illustrations in a book to be called “The Gems of Brazil.” Although the book was never published, the artist did complete some forty-five small paintings of hummingbirds. After two trips to Central America in 1866 and 1870, Heade began a distinctive group of works combining hummingbirds and tropical flowers.
    In Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds Heade depicted two small, black-and-white Snowcap hummingbirds, a species found in Panama, and the most brilliantly colored species of passionflower, Passiflora racemosa, in a steamy, lush jungle setting. The passionflower is so named because missionaries saw correspondences between the parts of the flower and the Passion (or sufferings) of Christ: the ten petals represent the ten apostles present at the crucifixion, the corona filaments resemble the crown of thorns, and the three stigmas relate to the nails in the cross. In this work, Heade successfully combined his scientific interests with his aesthetic sensitivity, accurately rendering the birds and the passionflowers in a close-up view while gracefully composing the winding stems across the surface of the picture and contrasting the cool jungle greens and grays with the dazzling red of the flowers.

    Heade’s paintings were informed by a worldview recently revolutionized by British naturalist Charles Darwin; to support the theories about evolution in his book The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876), Darwin specifically mentioned the adaptation of hummingbird beaks to fertilize passionflowers. Although Heade was one of the first to reflect Darwin’s theories in his paintings of flowers in their natural habitats, other artists, such as John La Farge [Res.27.93], were subsequently inspired by Darwin’s theories of evolution and the role of interrelationships in the natural world.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    39.37 x 54.93 cm (15 1/2 x 21 5/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    47.1138

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  • Apples in a Tin Pail

    1892

    Levi Wells Prentice, American, 1851–1935 American

    Description

    Fruit continued to be a frequent theme of still life paintings throughout the nineteenth century, despite the growing popularity of floral paintings. De Scott Evans, Joseph Decker, John McCloskey, and Levi Wells Prentice all painted fruit in a hard-edged or trompe l'oeil style during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Almost entirely self-taught, Prentice began his career in 1871 as a landscape painter in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. It was not until he moved to Brooklyn in 1883 that he began to paint still lifes, usually of fruit, although occasionally of flowers and fish. Prentice supplemented his living by designing furniture, building houses, making frames, and creating stained glass windows. He also made all his own palettes, brushes, easels, frames, and shadow boxes.

    Prentice made painting apples somewhat of a specialty, depicting the fruit in no fewer than forty pictures. In the 1840s, the Boston writer-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson declared the apple to be America's "national fruit." An integral part of the American diet for four centuries, apples have traditionally been used in pies, jellies, applesauce, and cakes, eaten plain or baked, and made into cider-especially hard cider, a staple in the nineteenth century. Prentice's paintings of apples depict the fruit variously spilling out of baskets, bags, and hats on the ground or on a tabletop, growing on boughs, or loosely resting on the ground. The Museum's picture, his best-known still life, shows apples in a tin pail, on a rough table, and in a bowl. Bruised and blemished, the apples are undoubtedly to be used for cooking or for cider. While the subject matter of the painting is humble, Prentice's technique is meticulous. He portrayed each apple with hard-edged realism and painstakingly conveyed the reflections of the apples and the bowl in the curved, gleaming surface of the tin pail. A striking composition of rounded forms in vibrant colors, Prentice's painting celebrates a plentiful harvest in rural America.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    41.27 x 33.65 cm (16 1/4 x 13 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1978.468

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  • The Poor Man's Store

    1885

    John Frederick Peto, American, 1854–1907 American

    Description

    John Frederick Peto’s painting of a shabby but colorful storefront window belongs to the school of trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) paintings associated with William Michael Harnett [39.761]. It is an early masterpiece in a career that stretched from 1877, when Peto enrolled for a year at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, until his death thirty years later. While living in Philadelphia, Peto became friendly with Harnett and borrowed many of his subjects and compositional devices, although he worked in his own distinct, more painterly style. The canvas of The Poor Man’s Store depicts brightly colored candies, peanuts, gingerbread, and fruit for sale. It is surrounded by a wooden frame illusionistically painted to simulate a door, shelf, and wall.
    Such shop windows were characteristic of Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. A contemporary reviewer described one of Peto’s earlier paintings of the same subject in the Philadelphia Record in 1880:
    [Block quote]
    [It] cleverly illustrates a familiar phase of our street life, and presents upon canvas one of the most prominent of Philadelphia’s distinctive features. A rough, ill-constructed board shelf holds the “Poor Man’s Store”—a half dozen rosy-cheeked apples, some antique gingerbread, a few jars of cheap confectionery “Gibraltars” and the like, and, to give all a proper finish and lend naturalness to the decorative surroundings of the goods, a copy of The Record has been spread beneath.”[1]
    [/Block quote]

    It was not unusual for Peto to paint several versions of a theme, and the Museum’s picture seems to be similar to the painting described in the Record except for the presence of the newspaper in the earlier work. Instead, it has been replaced by signs advertising “Lodging” and “Good board $3.00 a week.” The metal numbered plaque hanging above the window, the piece of string, and the torn remains of notices were some of Peto’s favorite devices, each one painted to add to the illusionistic effect.

    Peto’s penchant for portraying humble, derelict objects in disordered arrangements may account for his lack of wealthy patrons during his lifetime. After working in Philadelphia, he moved to Island Heights, New Jersey, in 1891, where he was largely forgotten by the Philadelphia art world. In the early twentieth century an unscrupulous art dealer forged Harnett’s name on many of Peto’s works in order to sell them more readily. It was not until mid-century that the paintings were reattributed and Peto began to be appreciated as one of the preeminent still-life painters of the late nineteenth century.

    Notes
    1. Quoted in Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953), 102.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    90.17 x 65.09 cm (35 1/2 x 25 5/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas and panel

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    62.278

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  • Old Models

    1892

    William Michael Harnett, American (born in Ireland), 1848–1892...

    Description

    To late-nineteenth-century viewers in an age of industrialization and progress, William Michael Harnett’s Old Models was a nostalgic tribute to the unhurried cultural pursuits of a bygone era. Harnett, the talented leader of the group of late-nineteenth-century illusionistic still-life painters that included John Frederick Peto [62.278] and John Haberle [1984.163], trained initially as a silverware engraver, which undoubtedly shaped his later precise style of painting. He then studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Cooper Union in New York before spending six years working in Munich and, for a short time, Paris. In Europe, Harnett examined in particular the work of seventeenth-century Dutch painters.

    Old Models is one of Harnett’s best compositions, representative of his trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) style and his typical subject matter. Harnett created the painting for display in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a great world’s fair to be held in Chicago. To ensure that his work would be noticed, he selected a large vertical canvas and composed a monumental still life that he crafted with brilliant technical virtuosity. Instruments, sheet music, and books—emblems of civilized leisure activities—are bathed in a golden light evoking such old masters as Rembrandt.

    An amateur flute player, Harnett owned a collection of musical instruments that he frequently used as props. The violin, realistically covered with rosin dust, was described in his estate sale as “Cremona Violin . . . ‘Joseph Guarnerius, fecit. Cremona, anno 1724’ . . . procured by Mr. Harnett at a great cost from a celebrated collection in Paris.” Although it was probably not a genuine Guarneri, the violin as well as the other objects appealed to nineteenth-century patrons fond of collecting antiques and bric-a-brac. The keyed bugle, dented and tarnished, was a simplified version of the instrument portrayed in several earlier works. Behind the bugle, Harnett included a tattered copy of 50 mélodies pour violon; the sheet music hanging over the shelf is Thomas Moore’s “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer,” a sentimental Irish ballad that evokes Harnett’s country of birth and perhaps alludes to the ill health that had dogged him in the preceding three years. Harnett also included Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Homer’s Odyssey, and a seventeenth-century medical reference book, all of which may also refer to the trials of his illness. The dusty, worn, and dilapidated objects are “old” in two senses: they bear signs of the passage of time, and they had been used as props in Harnett’s previous paintings. Likewise, they are “models” in that they are both subjects for artistic representation and exemplars of a contemplative and musical life. Old Models turned out to be Harnett’s valedictory painting, as he died of kidney disease in 1892 at the age of forty-four. Although the work was never exhibited in Chicago, it was shown posthumously at the St. Louis Exposition of 1896.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    138.11 x 71.75 cm (54 3/8 x 28 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    39.761

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    Americas

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  • In the Loge

    1878

    Mary Stevenson Cassatt, American, 1844–1926

    Description

    Mary Stevenson Cassatt, raised near Pittsburgh and first trained as a painter in Philadelphia, became nineteenth-century America’s most modern painter. Like many of her contemporaries, Cassatt felt that her artistic education in the United States was inadequate, and she traveled to Europe soon after the Civil War. She studied in both Italy and France, and by 1873 she had made Paris her home. While most of her compatriots were proud of the education they received in the art schools of the French capital, Cassatt soon tired of the conservative approach taught in those academies and perpetuated by the exhibitions they organized. She felt strongly that painting needed to break free of old methods and adapt to the modern world.
    Cassatt found the answer to her demand for a new kind of painting in the work of the Impressionists, a small circle of independent French artists. She approved of their disdain for juried exhibitions and soon adopted their experimental techniques and their preference for images of contemporary life. In 1877 Edgar Degas invited her to show her work with the group. Cassatt thus became one of only three women, and the only American, ever to join the French Impressionists.

    In the Loge was the first of Cassatt’s Impressionist paintings to be displayed in the United States. When it was shown in Boston in 1878, critics described the picture as “striking,” adding that Cassatt’s painting “surpassed the strength of most men.” [1]The canvas, then entitled At the Français—A Sketch, depicts a fashionable lady dressed for an afternoon performance at the Comedie Français, a theater in Paris. Entertainments like the theater, the opera, and the racetrack were extremely popular among Parisians, who enjoyed such diversions not only for the show, but also for the opportunity to see—and to be seen by—their peers. The Impressionists took delight in painting these spectacles of modern life, and the theater, with its dazzling variety of lights and reflections, was an especially appealing subject. Many male artists, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Degas, had painted beautiful women in theater boxes, where they appeared as if they were on display in a gilded frame. Cassatt gave her female figure a noticeably more dynamic role, for she peers avidly through her opera glasses at the row of seats across from her. In the background at upper left, a man trains his gaze upon her. The viewer, who sees them both, completes the circle. Cassatt’s painting explores the very act of looking, breaking down the traditional boundaries between the observer and the observed, the audience and the performer.

    Notes
    1. “The M.C.M.A. [Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association] Exhibition,” Daily Evening Transcript (Boston), September 3, 1878, 4.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    81.28 x 66.04 cm (32 x 26 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    10.35

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  • Boston Common at Twilight

    1885–86

    Childe Hassam, American, 1859–1935

    Description

    Childe Hassam, the son of a Dorchester hardware merchant, had made only one trip to Europe before painting Boston Common at Twilight. He studied French art in Boston collections, and he was familiar with the popular work of painters active in Paris, like Jean Béraud and Giuseppe de Nittis, who took modern life as their main subject and frequently depicted fashionable young women in urban settings. Hassam adapted their French aesthetic to his native city and began a series of large canvases representing several of Boston’s developing neighborhoods: Back Bay, the South End, and Park Square.
    Originally an open field for cattle grazing and military parades, the Boston Common had been transformed into an oasis of elm trees and graceful promenades by the time Hassam painted it in the mid-1880s. He chose a view of the Tremont Street Mall, one of five broad tree-lined walkways that provided Boston pedestrians with an elegant alternative to the city’s noisy thoroughfares. The artist doubtless enjoyed it himself, for his studio was just across the street.

    Despite the old-fashioned charm Boston Common at Twilight presents to viewers today, in Hassam’s time this scene was distinctly modern. Once an area of elegant residential row houses, many of the streets around the Boston Common recently had been transformed into a lively business district. The red brick buildings visible at left were mostly new; the traffic of trolley cars and carriages on the road marks the bustling commerce of late afternoon; and artificial light glows from streetlights and storefronts. Hassam enhanced his impression of the fast pace of city life by using a perspective scheme in which the vertical lines of the fence, the lampposts, and the trees recede rapidly into the distance, coming closer and closer together.

    Hassam contrasted the hurried movement at left with the calm quiet of the snowy park. A stylishly dressed young mother and her child pause to feed the birds while other figures stroll through the rosy dusk. Hassam used a variety of reds to unify his composition, bringing the rusty brick buildings, the glow of the lamps, and even the brilliant end of a lit cigarette in the hand of a passerby into harmony with the sunset sky and the pinkish snow. The artist’s interest in contemporary subjects and in different kinds of light allies this painting with Impressionism, but in Hassam’s gentle vision of the city, nature humanizes the modern world.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    106.68 x 152.4 cm (42 x 60 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    31.952

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  • The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

    1882

    John Singer Sargent, American, 1856–1925

    Description

    The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit was painted in Paris in the autumn of 1882, one of a number of portraits of members of the American expatriate community that Sargent made in the French capital in the late 1870s and early 1880s. While the exact circumstances of this commission remain unknown, Sargent was a friend of the girls’ parents, Edward Darley Boit and Mary Louisa Cushing Boit [63.268]. Ned Boit was from Boston, a Harvard-trained lawyer who turned away from his profession in order to pursue a career as a painter [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Edward%20Darley%20Boit]. His wife Mary Louisa, called Isa, was a vivacious and social woman who preferred Europe to America; her inheritance, a legacy of Boston’s China Trade, allowed the family to live abroad. They kept elegant quarters on the avenue de Friedland in the eighth arrondissement, a luxurious neighborhood much preferred by wealthy Americans. The foyer of their apartment served as the setting for Sargent’s portrait, a shadowy space in which the painter arranged the Boits’ four daughters: Mary Louisa (eight years old when Sargent painted her), Florence (age fourteen), Jane (twelve), and Julia (four).
    While Ned and Isa may have initially approached Sargent to make a traditional portrait, they supported his ambition to create something more unusual, a painting that is half a portrait and half an interior scene. Each of the girls is presented individually, but the features of two are obscured, an attribute antithetical to conventional portraiture and one that, combined with the lack of connection between the girls, stymied critics when the painting was first displayed. Its unusual format was inspired by the art of both the past and the present, a characteristic approach that Sargent employed to make paintings that seemed simultaneously traditional and modern. The historical precedent for the Boit portrait can be found in the work of the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, an artist greatly admired in nineteenth-century France. Sargent had traveled to Madrid in 1879 to make copies after Velázquez at the MuseoNacional del Prado; among the paintings he studied was Las Meninas (about 1656), a large and famous portrait of the young Spanish infanta with her maids in a great shadowed room. Sargent adapted Velázquez’s mysterious space, his dark subdued palette, and the manner in which his self-possessed princess directly confronts the viewer. At the same time, Sargent must have been thinking of the unusual portraits and oddly centrifugal compositions of his French contemporary Edgar Degas. The Daughters of Edward DarleyBoit shares some of Degas’s strategies: the asymmetrical composition with an almost empty center, the sense of disconnection between family members, and a feeling of modern life interrupted.

    Sargent placed the Boit girls in an indeterminate space—the entrance hall, neither entirely public nor entirely private—that is brightly lit in the foreground but recedes into a vaguely defined drawing room half-lit with mirrors and reflections. The two tall Japanese vases [1997.211], made in Arita in the late nineteenth century specifically for export to the West, were prized family possessions; their unusual size in relation to the girls makes the interior seem strange and magical. The sisters are dressed almost alike, in the sort of casual clothes they would have worn in the schoolroom or at play. Their white pinafores gave Sargent an opportunity to demonstrate his mastery at painting white in different conditions of light. Only the youngest girl, Julia, engages the viewer, while the older girls recede progressively into the shadows, becoming increasingly indistinct.

    Sargent titled the painting Portraits of Children and displayed it in December 1882 in an exhibition at the gallery of the French dealer Georges Petit, who specialized in works by an international group of artists who were more modern than many of the painters who showed at the Salon, but less innovative than the Impressionists. The picture received generally good reviews, and Sargent decided to display it again the following spring, this time at the Salon, the annual state-run exhibition in Paris that was an important venue for artists seeking to build their reputations. While some critics praised Sargent’s technical abilities, most found the composition troubling for its unconventional approach to portraiture. One unidentified writer even described it as “four corners and a void.” While some have interpreted Sargent’s strategy as a poignant comment on the fickle nature of childhood and adolescence, writer Henry James, a friend of both the Boits and Sargent, described the picture as a “happy play-world of a family of charming children.”[1] With this painting, Sargent masterfully transcended portraiture, providing a continuously evocative meditation on openness and enigma, public and private, light and shadow.

    Notes
    1. Henry James, “John S. Sargent,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 75 (October 1887), 688.

    For more information about this painting, see Erica E. Hirshler, Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/780878467426.html] (Boston: MFA Publications, 2009).

    Erica E. Hirshler

    Details

    Dimensions

    221.93 x 222.57 cm (87 3/8 x 87 5/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    19.124

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  • The Pool, Medfield

    1889

    Dennis Miller Bunker, American, 1861–1890 American

    Description

    Dennis Miller Bunker was one of the earliest Americans to apply all of the stylistic ingredients of the radical new painting style of Impressionism to his native landscape. Like most artists of his generation, Bunker had been trained as a figure painter [91.130], instructed to value traditional compositions and accurate drawing. After polishing his academic education in Paris, he accepted a teaching position in Boston, where he soon became admired for his sophisticated portraits. Bored with conventional approaches to art, Bunker continued to experiment. In 1887 he met the adventurous painter John Singer Sargent [link to ch. 8], and the two young men, both interested in modern French art, theater, and music, became close friends. They spent the summer of 1888 working together in the English countryside, exploring the bright colors and individual brushstrokes of Impressionism.
    By the time Bunker returned to Boston, he had fully mastered the new style. Like his French contemporary Claude Monet [25.106]—whose paintings were rapidly entering Boston collections—Bunker preferred anonymous landscapes to well-known sites. He spent the summer of 1889 in Medfield, Massachusetts, painting a series of images of the lush marshy fields near the source of the Charles River. In The Pool, Medfield, Bunker placed the horizon line high on his canvas, a device that serves to flatten the composition, emphasizing its two-dimensional design. Upon this surface, he crafted a dense network of long unblended strokes of color that echo the shapes of the reeds and grasses and the flow of the clear blue water. Bunker’s Pool is a dazzling view of a sun-filled meadow, but it is equally an exploration of the physical act of painting.

    While some conservative critics greeted Bunker’s Impressionism with disdain, his innovative combination of American subjects with French techniques soon became the leading style in American art. Bunker did not live to enjoy its success; he died just a year after making this painting, two months after his twenty-ninth birthday.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    46.99 x 61.59 cm (18 1/2 x 24 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    45.475

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    Americas

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  • Park Bench

    about 1890

    William Merritt Chase, American, 1849–1916 American

    Description

    An Indiana native, William Merritt Chase became one of the most accomplished interpreters of Impressionism in the United States. Chase first adopted a fluid painterly style in Munich, where he, like many other painters from the American Midwest (where German influence was strong), trained in the 1870s. After 1885 he shifted away from the dark figurative subjects that had earned him early recognition and began to experiment with images drawn from modern life. As did Dennis Miller Bunker [45.475] and Childe Hassam [1978.178], Chase brought together the bright colors and animated brushwork of the French style with subjects that were recognizably American. He became known for both sun-filled scenes of women and children outdoors and subtle, opalescent interiors.
    Park Bench is a casual image of a woman resting in the bucolic setting of a city oasis. It was one of many pictures Chase made of urban parks in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and it is probably the painting he first exhibited in New York with the title An Idle Hour in the Park—Central Park. His audience would have been able to readily identify the rocky landscape and rusticated furniture of New York’s largest park. The preserve had been many years in the making—calls for protecting the land in the metropolis had begun in the 1830s. Twenty years later, spurred by the vanishing opportunity to create a great urban park on a par with those of London and Paris, the city bought the land and organized a competition to design it. The commission was awarded to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who developed the landscape of gentle hills, wooded glens, lakes, and submerged carriage drives still familiar today. The park was an immediate success with city residents, who enjoyed its recreational offerings in all seasons.

    Chase used his series of intimate park scenes to establish himself as an innovative painter of modern subjects. He was doubtless familiar with the views of Parisian parks that had been exhibited in Paris and New York by John Singer Sargent and the Italian painter Giovanni Boldini. He also knew the urban landscapes of Hassam, including Boston Common at Twilight [31.952]. In Park Bench, Chase combined public and private worlds: his solitary model is lost in thought as if alone in one of Chase’s contemplative interiors [2007.7], but the setting is clearly outdoors and therefore shared with others. Chase’s picture captures a mere glance at an ephemeral scene: at any second, the viewer feels, either the woman will move or the observer will continue along the path. In this way, along with the quick flickering brushstrokes he used to define both the woman and the landscape, Chase brought the instantaneity of Impressionism to American shores.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    30.48 x 40.64 cm (12 x 16 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    49.1790

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  • The Yellow Room

    about 1910

    Frederick Carl Frieseke, American, 1874–1939 American

    Description

    Like several of the American Impressionists, Michigan-born Frederick Carl Frieseke spent most of his life in France, sending his paintings home to the United States for exhibition and sale. He had first traveled to Paris in 1897, enrolling at the Académie Julian, long a popular program for aspiring American artists. Frieseke also studied with the renowned American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler at his short-lived school, the Académie Carmen. Whistler's passion for Japanese art, for decoration, and for distinctive color arrangements had a lasting influence on Frieseke's work. Frieseke also admired the French Impressionist Claude Monet, particularly for his brilliant use of color and his interest in the effects of sunlight. From 1906 to 1919 Frieseke spent his summers in Giverny, the small village in Normandy that had been Monet's home since 1883, joining the significant colony of American artists there.

    In The Yellow Room Frieseke fused bold color juxtapositions and careful formal design, bringing together the qualities he most admired in the work of Monet and Whistler. He posed his model in the living room of his own house in Giverny, which itself was one of his artistic creations. Frieseke had painted the walls lemon yellow and ornamented the room with blue rugs and curtains, a striking color combination that Monet had also employed in his home. Against this backdrop Frieseke posed a costumed model, arranged Japanese ceramics, and massed containers of fruit and flowers to create a panoply of color and pattern. The large Imari-style plate and the model's kimono reflect the artist's interest in Asian art, with its emphasis on two-dimensional design and ornament. The wealth and variety of patterns Frieseke employed, as well as the way in which the figure is not given precedence but instead merges into its surroundings, also recall paintings by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Like those modern French artists, Frieseke created intimate domestic interiors that use bold decorative arrangements to explore the shifting relationship between paintings as representations of the real world and as independent abstract designs. These concerns would preoccupy many American artists throughout the twentieth century.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    81.28 x 80.96 cm (32 x 31 7/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.543

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  • Brother and Sister: Charles Sumner Bird and His Sister Edith Bird...

    1907

    Cecilia Beaux, American, 1855–1942

    Description

    Cecilia Beaux was renowned for her elegant depictions of America's elite, and along with John Singer Sargent she was acclaimed as one of the most brilliant portraitists of her generation. Beaux was first trained in Philadelphia and later in Paris. While most of her compatriots spent some time in the French capital, Beaux, whose father was French, felt particularly at home there and maintained French affinities throughout her life. She centered her career in Philadelphia but won national recognition, becoming a role model for aspiring women artists and one of the first women to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1905 she built a summer home and studio on Eastern Point in Gloucester, Massachusetts, naming it "Green Alley." The house soon became a favorite gathering spot for the artistic community that came to Boston's North Shore each season. It also became the setting for many of Beaux's portraits of New Englanders, including this elegant image of Charles Sumner Bird and his sister Edith.

    The Bird family had made their fortune in the manufacture of paper, and they owned a 194-acre estate, called "Endean," in East Walpole, Massachusetts, overlooking the Neponset River. One of the passions of the Bird family was horses, and their property included polo grounds, stables, and fields where elaborate hunts took place. Charles and Edith wear riding clothes in this elegant image, linking it to a long European heritage of full-length portraits of landed gentry dressed for the hunt. Beaux's format is traditional, and in this commissioned portrait, she painted more conservatively than she did in other works, where her interest in Impressionism is more evident. Even so, her treatment is not conventional. Instead of allowing her sitters to dominate their surroundings, she selected an elevated vantage point, silhouetting them against the shimmering studio floor and walls. The shadowy interior, which Beaux rendered with broad strokes of her brush, seems a mysterious setting for two sitters who so clearly enjoyed an active outdoor life. It is that tension, along with Beaux's energetic paint handling, that enlivens and enriches this portrait.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    240.35 x 135.89 cm (94 5/8 x 53 1/2 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1981.720

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  • Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice

    1879–80

    James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American (active in England),...

    Description

    Like Mary Cassatt [42.178], James Abbott McNeill Whistler lived an expatriate life abroad. One of the nineteenth century’s most influential painters, Whistler was also one of its most colorful personalities. He ignored his roots in Lowell, Massachusetts, preferring people to believe he had been born in Russia, where his father had been an engineer. He first earned acclaim in 1863 in Paris, where he had worked with some of the city’s most avant-garde painters, including the realist champion Gustave Courbet [18.620]. Whistler shocked the art establishment when his Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) was exhibited at the infamous Salon des Refusés in Paris, a display of paintings that had been rejected from the official state-sponsored Salon exhibition. Many found indecent and incomprehensible his forthright image of a woman with her hair down, standing on a fur rug with a bouquet discarded at her feet. Whistler relished the controversy and courted such opportunities throughout his career.
    The artist’s only trip to Venice came at the close of another such episode. One of Britain’s most influential critics, John Ruskin, had accused Whistler of defrauding the public by exhibiting an abstract image of fireworks at night. Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in 1878, and while he won his case, he was awarded only one farthing in damages. [1]Whistler was bankrupt, and in consequence he took a commission the following year from London’s Fine Art Society to produce a series of prints of Venice. He spent about fifteen months in the watery city, living in reduced circumstances and borrowing many of his supplies from the admiring community of young American painters he befriended there. While he made over fifty Venetian etchings [33.15] and ninety pastels, Whistler produced only three paintings in oil, including Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice.

    Venice’s mysterious elegance was particularly suited to Whistler’s style. He rejected meticulous representation, preferring instead to paint mood and atmosphere and seeking to express beauty in the line, color, and arrangement of his compositions. Fascinated with the art of Japan, as were many of his contemporaries, Whistler explored flattened pictorial space and subtle arrangements of color and shape. He likened his paintings to music, often naming them after particular musical forms such as the nocturne, popularized by Frederic Chopin; symphony; harmony [60.1158]; and arrangement. In this composition, painted from the Piazzetta near the Royal Gardens, the sparkling colors of Venice are reduced to an ethereal blue and grayish silver that seem to mimic the city’s elusive structure. In the background, the silhouette of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore hovers without substance, while the distant lights of the strand at the Lido glimmer along the horizon. Whistler has captured Venice in the way the poet Lord Byron had described it—a “fairy city of the heart.”[2]

    Notes
    1. See Richard Dorment, “Whistler v. Ruskin,” in James McNeill Whistler, by Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1994), 136–38; Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v. Ruskin (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992).
    2. Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, canto 4, stanza 18.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    50.16 x 65.4 cm (19 3/4 x 25 3/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    42.302

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  • The Questioner of the Sphinx

    1863

    Elihu Vedder, American, 1836–1923 American

    Description

    Elihu Vedder first studied art in his native New York but traveled to Europe in 1856, enhancing his education in both Italy and France and beginning a life-long fascination with European art and literature. He eventually established his studio in Rome and lived as an expatriate in Italy for over sixty years. A poet and writer as well as a painter, Vedder had been fascinated with ancient myths and fantastic tales from the very beginning of his career. He developed a particularly strong following in Boston, which since the early part of the century had cultivated a taste for Romantic, literary paintings. The Questioner of the Sphinx was exhibited in New York in 1863 and was purchased immediately by a Boston collector, Martin Brimmer, for $500.
    Vedder, then in his twenties, had not yet visited Egypt when he painted this mysterious work. Depictions of the Great Sphinx at Giza (or Gizeh) had appeared in a number of travel books by the mid-nineteenth century, when imagery of the Near East became increasingly popular; Vedder seems to have used such an illustration as a source. However, the subject of an Arab wayfarer questioning the mysterious monument came from Vedder’s fertile imagination, although it does recall the ancient Greek myth of the sphinx that protected the road to Thebes by challenging passing travelers with riddles. Vedder’s pilgrim, in his ragged robes, appears to have made a long and difficult journey through an inhospitable wilderness in the hope of hearing some great truth from the implacable statue. His success is uncertain, for the skull of another questioner lies in the foreground, a mute witness to the occasion. Broken columns, remnants of human activity, lie strewn in ruins, almost buried by the shifting sands. Vedder wrote that, in this painting, he sought to portray the hopelessness of man before the laws of nature; to the modern viewer, it also resonates with the uncertainty that accompanied the Civil War. Vedder continued to be haunted by this subject and he produced a number of other images of the sphinx over the course of his long career.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    92.07 x 107.31 cm (36 1/4 x 42 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    06.2430

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  • Olivia Buckminster Lothrop (Mrs. Lewis William Tappan, Jr.)

    mid–1860s

    William Morris Hunt, American, 1824–1879

    Description

    William Morris Hunt was mid-nineteenth century Boston's leading painter, highly admired for his work, his teaching, and the astute advice about purchases he gave to the city's collectors. He was born in Vermont, attended Harvard University, and joined his family on an extended trip to Europe in 1843. Cosmopolitan by nature, Hunt traveled for a number of years, studying art in Italy, Germany, and France. He worked with the French Realist painter Thomas Couture, whom he especially admired for his method of painting directly on canvas, without careful preparations in pencil. Hunt brought that spontaneity to his own art, preferring to capture nuances of light and atmosphere without finicky detail. He exhibited at the Paris Salon in the 1850s and became a close friend of the leading painter of the French Barbizon School, Jean-François Millet, who made heroic images of peasant life. The two artists worked together, and when Hunt returned to the United States in 1855 he encouraged Bostonians to buy Millet's work. He also reinterpreted Millet's rural subjects with an American vocabulary, using the rustic landscapes of Newport and Gloucester as Millet had employed the fields of Barbizon.

    Hunt also brought French sophistication to his many images of well-to-do Bostonians. Portraiture remained an important source of income for most American painters after the Civil War, and portraits by well-known artists continued to serve as status symbols in American society. Olivia Lothrop was in her twenties when she sat for this painting. The daughter of Samuel Kirkland Lothrop, Unitarian minister of the Brattle Street Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his first wife Mary Lyman Buckminster Lothrop, Olivia was raised in an intellectual and spiritual household. In 1870 she married Lewis W. Tappan, a Harvard graduate and grandson of the famous abolitionist. Tappan, who had served as U.S. consul to Java during the 1860s, was a businessman and philanthropist with an estate in Milton, Massachusetts; the couple had three children but lost two of them before Olivia herself died in 1878 at the age of thirty-seven.

    For her portrait, Lothrop stood demurely before a neutral background in a stylish copper silk dress. The dark setting and subtle colors help to focus attention on the sitter and are typical of Hunt's sophisticated approach to portraiture. He selected an elegant stance for his model, turning her to the side to feature the elegant contour of her corseted waist and full skirt. Such poses were popular with aristocratic sitters in European capitals following the example of Franz-Xavier Winterhalter, court painter of the French Second Empire. In Hunt's portrait Lothrop turns her head to face the viewer, and her serious expression, combined with her golden tiara, give the effect of royalty.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    158.8 x 84.5 cm (62 1/2 x 33 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    27.457

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    Americas

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  • Flight and Pursuit

    1872

    William Rimmer, American (born in England), 1816–1879 American

    Description

    William Rimmer, like his contemporary Elihu Vedder [06.2430], was interested in literary and mystical themes and found many patrons in his native Boston, where such subjects had always been favored. An accomplished sculptor, teacher, painter, businessman, anatomist, and physician, Rimmer was one of Boston’s most noted artists in the 1860s and 1870s, though contradiction and controversy marked his professional career. He was learned and ambitious, but worked quickly with unstable painting materials and techniques. He aspired to the highest social circles, yet often undermined his position with his quick temper and irascible disposition. He inspired his students in both Boston and New York, particularly the women to whom he offered equal educational opportunities, but he was overshadowed in many ways by his younger and more sophisticated colleague William Morris Hunt [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Hunt,%20William%20Morris&objecttype=66]. Nevertheless, his contemporaries admired Rimmer for his artistic passion and skill, comparing him to the multitalented artists of the Italian Renaissance.
    Rimmer’s best-known and most enigmatic painting is Flight and Pursuit. The picture is set in the shadowy and mysterious labyrinth of a chimerical Near Eastern temple or palace. One man races toward a stair, following his shadow. The irregular patch of shade at right suggests another runner following behind the first. In a parallel hallway, a ghostly third man, real or imaginary, swathed in white and holding a sword, runs alongside and glances toward the other figures. Which man flees and which speeds in pursuit is left to the viewer’s imagination. A drawing of the main figure, now in a medical library at Yale University, is inscribed “oh for the horns of the Altar.” The phrase appears several times in the Old Testament and implies that one of Rimmer’s figures is rushing toward sanctuary, for a criminal was untouchable while he remained within the sacred space of the altar.

    Rimmer drew many of his subjects from the Bible and ancient history, and he doubtless knew a variety of artistic interpretations of such themes, including the work of the visionary English poet and painter William Blake [90.107, 90.108, 90.109, 90.110, 90.111], whose books and watercolors were avidly collected in Boston during this period. While several scholars have sought to place Flight and Pursuit in the context of Rimmer’s own complex psychological state, his interest in arcane literary and imaginative compositions was well within the parameters of Boston taste.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    46.04 x 66.67 cm (18 1/8 x 26 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    56.119

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    Americas

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  • A Garden

    1883

    Thomas Wilmer Dewing, American, 1851–1938 American

    Description

    A native of Boston, Thomas Wilmer Dewing began his career as a lithographer. He first listed himself as a taxidermist and then a clerk in city directories, but by the early 1870s he had started to think of himself as a painter. He traveled to Paris for two years of study, like many American artists in the decades after the Civil War, and returned to Boston to teach at the newly founded School of the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1880 he moved to New York, where he taught at the Art Students League, later explaining that living anywhere other than Manhattan was “camping out.”[1]He and his wife Maria, also a painter, did leave the city to spend each summer in Cornish, New Hampshire, where they became integral members of the art colony that established itself there.
    Dewing was interested in contemporary European art and, especially during the early part of his career, he drew inspiration from a variety of sources: Italian, French, and English. A Garden was one of the first paintings he made in the manner of the Aesthetic movement, a style based on British models that emphasized beauty and harmonious design. English painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema [41.117], whom Dewing especially admired, crafted flawlessly beautiful genre scenes with themes from classical antiquity. In A Garden, Dewing worked in a delicate, realistic style, employing a number of motifs common to those consciously artistic paintings: lovely women in classical robes, a marble bench imagined from Greek and Roman sources, swaying poppies, and elegant peacocks. However Dewing’s garden is hidden, detached from the world beyond the wall where bright sails can be glimpsed plying an unknown sea. The lyre-playing figure is hooded and sits before a patch of ripe melons, symbols of fertility, and poppies, emblems of sleep, dreams, and decadence. The flute player reclines gracefully near a white peacock, a token of marriage, immortality, and also vanity. Yet this combination of objects illustrates no obvious myth or legend, intriguing viewers with its mystery and exquisite grace. Instead of telling a story, each carefully chosen color, pattern, and shape in A Garden is arranged to create a poem in paint.

    Notes
    1. Susan Hobbs, “Thomas Wilmer Dewing: The Early Years, 1851–1885,” American Art Journal 13, no. 2 (Spring 1981): 24.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    40.32 x 101.6 cm (15 7/8 x 40 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    34.131

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  • Caritas

    1894–95

    Abbott Handerson Thayer, American, 1849–1921 American

    Description

    Abbott Handerson Thayer was one of the best-known artists in the United States during the 1890s. His art, often inspired by the Italian Renaissance and classical antiquity, fulfilled the aspirations of a country seeking to establish itself on an international stage as the new Rome. With large public buildings in classical styles, with murals, and with allegorical representations like Caritas, American artists created an image of strength and confidence that came to characterize the American Renaissance.
    Thayer first studied painting in Boston and Brooklyn, then traveled to Paris in 1875 to train at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He based his career in New York but produced much of his work in the summer studios he kept, first in South Woodstock, Connecticut, and then in Dublin, New Hampshire. The model for the main figure in Caritas was Elise Pumpelly, daughter of a well-known Harvard geologist, who also summered in Dublin and posed frequently for Thayer. The artist idealized her by dressing her in a classical Greek chiton, using its long columnar folds to give the impression of stability and strength. The two children, innocent and trustful, seem embodiments of natural purity. The setting is enlivened by Thayer’s opalescent strokes of paint, flickers of light green and blue that seem to vibrate with the freshness of spring.

    An intensely spiritual man, Thayer sought to imbue his paintings with the moral principles of his age, hoping to communicate such abstract ideals as virtue, beauty, and truth. In 1893 (along with ElihuVedder [06.2430]and John LaFarge [20.1873]), Thayer had been commissioned to paint a mural for the art museum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, an allegorical composition symbolizing the city of Florence. That mural, depicting a winged woman with outstretched arms that protect two children, may have inspired Caritas. The image was a traditional representation of the virtue Charity (caritas in Latin), and the title became associated with this painting when it was first exhibited in Philadelphia in 1895. Thayer later wrote to the MFA asking to change it, explaining that he felt “Spring” or “Morning” would be more appropriate; [1]in 1899 he wrote again, telling the Museum’s director that he detested the picture and asking to trade it for another.[2]

    Despite the artist’s continued protestations, Caritas was highly admired from the time of its first exhibition and won a large prize in Philadelphia. When it was first shown in Boston in 1897, a group of local painters and collectors raised the funds to buy Caritas for the MFA. They explained that they felt it was of utmost importance that the finest modern works by America’s leading contemporary artists should be represented in the Museum’s collections.

    Notes
    1. Abbott Handerson Thayer to Charles Greeley Loring, December 15, [no year], curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
    2. Abbott Handerson Thayer to Charles Greeley Loring, December 13, 1899, curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    216.53 x 140.33 cm (85 1/4 x 55 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    97.199

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    Americas

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  • Isabella and the Pot of Basil

    1897

    John White Alexander, American, 1856–1915

    Description

    The enigmatic literary subjects of artists like ElihuVedder [06.2430], William Rimmer [56.119], and Thomas Wilmer Dewing [34.131] take on a gruesome flavor in this unusual work by John White Alexander. A native of Pittsburgh who trained as an artist in Munich, Alexander first established himself in New York as an illustrator and cartoonist. He also earned praise for his fashionable portraits [1980.659], many of them of writers and actors. In 1890 Alexander moved to Paris, where he met James Abbott McNeill Whistler [60.1158], who introduced him to many of the leading figures of the European Symbolist movement. These painters and writers were interested in dreams and the imagination, and elements of macabre fantasy often appear in their work. During the ten years he spent in Paris, Alexander experimented with decorative and decadent themes, often employing the slender, sinuous lines of the Art Nouveau style.
    Isabella, or The Pot of Basil was a poem written in 1820 by the English poet John Keats, who borrowed his narrative from the Italian Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio. Isabella was a Florentine merchant’s beautiful daughter whose ambitious brothers disapproved of her romance with the handsome but humbly born Lorenzo, their father’s business manager. The brothers murdered Lorenzo and told their sister that he had traveled abroad. The distraught Isabella began to decline, wasting away from grief and sadness. She saw the crime in a dream and then went to find her lover’s body in the forest. Taking Lorenzo’s head, she bathed it with her tears and finally hid it in a pot in which she planted sweet basil, a plant associated with lovers.

    Alexander used theatrical effects to render this grim scene, isolating Isabella in a shallow niche and lighting her from below, as if she were an actor on a stage illuminated only with footlights. This eerie light, the cold monochromatic palette, and the sensuous curves of Isabella’s gown all draw the viewer’s eye to the loving attention Isabella gives the pot, which she gently caresses. Isabella seems lost in an erotic spectral trance, oblivious to the world and to observers. With his strange subject, Alexander created an extraordinary and mysterious image of love gone awry.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    192.09 x 91.76 cm (75 5/8 x 36 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    98.181

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    Americas

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  • Self Portrait

    1885

    Ellen Day Hale, American, 1855–1940 American

    Description

    Ellen Day Hale was one of an increasing number of professional women artists who flourished in the United States during the decades following the Civil War. The daughter of the prominent Unitarian minister, writer, and abolitionist Edward Everett Hale, Ellen Hale grew up in a family noted for its accomplished women, among them author Harriet Beecher Stowe, reformer Catherine Beecher, and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Hale first studied art in Boston, taking advantage of the early educational opportunities that were offered to aspiring women artists by William Rimmer [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=William%20Rimmer&objecttype=54] and William Morris Hunt [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=William%20Morris%20Hunt&objecttype=54].
    Like most ambitious young painters of her day, Hale completed her training in Paris. She enrolled at the Académie Julian, a program favored by Americans that also offered classes for women, who were not permitted to study at the most prestigious art school in Paris, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, until 1897. In Paris Hale perfected her skills as a figure painter, and this assertive self-portrait demonstrates her success. She selected an unusual horizontal format, silhouetted her figure against an ornamental fabric backdrop, and concentrated her attention on her firmly modeled face and hands.

    Hale’s forthright presentation, her strong dark colors, and the direct manner in which she engages the viewer recall the work of one of the French painters she most admired, EdouardManet [46.846]. Manet had been known for his confrontational images, strongly painted without subtle nuances of light and shadow. A large retrospective exhibition of his work was held in Paris after his death in 1884, a show Hale most likely saw. It was unusual for a woman artist to adopt such bold qualities in her art, for they were often characterized as masculine, and therefore unsuitable. Hale showed this self-portrait in Boston in 1887, and when one local critic declared that she displayed “a man’s strength,” he meant it as a compliment.[1]

    Ellen Day Hale continued to paint throughout her life, later developing a looser, lighter style more influenced by Impressionism. Like many of her Boston colleagues, she did not compromise her dedication to painting the human form, and she often depicted elegant women in interiors.

    Notes
    1. Greta, “Art in Boston,” Art Amateur, January 1887, 28.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    72.39 x 99.06 cm (28 1/2 x 39 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1986.645

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  • New England Interior

    1906

    Edmund Charles Tarbell, American, 1862–1938 American

    Description

    Edmund Tarbell was the leading figure in the group of painters that came to be called the Boston School. He was both an alumnus of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and an important teacher there. Between his studies at the Museum School as an aspiring young artist and his appointment as the school’s chief instructor of painting in 1890, he honed his education in Paris. There he familiarized himself with both the academic tradition and the new Impressionist style. Like his friend Frank Weston Benson [08.326], Tarbell first earned success with brilliant outdoor studies of his family, sunlit scenes of leisure that brought him national acclaim.
    At the end of the 1890s Tarbell began to bring Impressionism inside, creating images of elegant women in interiors suffused with light. As one critic remarked, within his studio Tarbell became “the master and not the slave of nature.”[1]At first Tarbell drew inspiration from the cropped asymmetry of Edgar Degas’s scenes of dancers [39.669], but New England Interior and other works like it mark a definitive shift in his art. Rather than using modern painting as his model, Tarbell began to turn to the art of the past. He especially admired the seventeenth-century Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch [03.607]. American collectors increasingly prized the work of both of these artists and they became a topic for scholarly study; Tarbell’s Boston friend and colleague Philip Hale wrote the first American monograph on Vermeer. From the Dutch painters, Tarbell borrowed his quiet, contemplative subjects, balanced compositions, and subtle harmonies of light and color. His interiors, like theirs, often include doorways open to other rooms and paintings within the painting. But Tarbell did not create historical scenes: his models wear contemporary clothes and the settings are modern, often furnished with antiques, Japanese prints, and copies after old master paintings. In works like New England Interior Tarbell inculcated the present with the values of the past, employing careful craftsmanship and creating exquisite beauty.

    Notes
    1. W. Stanton Howard, “A Portrait, by E. C. Tarbell,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine 112, April 1906, 704.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    77.15 x 64.13 cm (30 3/8 x 25 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1985.66

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  • Eleanor

    1907

    Frank Weston Benson, American, 1862–1951 American

    Description

    A sparkling icon of wholesome American girlhood, Frank Weston Benson’s Eleanor depicts the painter’s daughter on the porch of their summer home at North Haven, Maine. Benson won national acclaim for his sunny scenes of healthy children enjoying an outdoor country life, and Eleanor is one of his most beloved images. It was purchased for the MFA’s collection almost immediately after it was finished.
    At the time, Benson, along with his friend Edmund Charles Tarbell [23.532], was one of the chief instructors of painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was also an alumnus of the school who, like many of his contemporaries, went on to complete his artistic education in Paris. In the 1890s Benson developed his characteristic style, combining the bright colors and fluid brushwork of French Impressionism with the firm foundation in academic figure painting he had learned at the Académie Julian. In 1898 Benson and Tarbell became founding members of the Ten. This band of American painters was dedicated to promoting and exhibiting their work outside of the traditional system of juried exhibitions. The young artists had become frustrated with the conservative juries that controlled most of the major annual exhibitions, and they held independent shows in New York, and occasionally in Philadelphia and Boston, until 1919. Eleanor was included in their 1908 display.

    Benson’s portrait of his daughter is a textbook example of the manner in which most American artists adapted Impressionism. Benson esteemed his academic training and never dissolved his figures into light to the degree that French artists favored. He used a small brush to define Eleanor’s features, painting her realistically with an authentic sense of weight and volume. But Benson gave himself much more freedom in other parts of the composition: the shimmering sea and leaves seem to vibrate with intensity, Eleanor’s pink dress is loosely painted with broad strokes, and the details of her hat are abbreviated. The whole effect is vital and effervescent, much like an ideal summer day.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    64.13 x 76.83 cm (25 1/4 x 30 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    08.326

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  • The New Necklace

    1910

    William McGregor Paxton, American, 1869–1941 American

    Description

    William McGregor Paxton first studied art with Dennis Miller Bunker [91.130] at the Cowles Art School in Boston, one of several independent academies that modeled themselves after the educational institutions of Paris. Paxton followed his teacher’s example and continued his training in France at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under the tutelage of one of the most famous French academicians, Jean-Léon Gérôme [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Jean-L%C3%A9on%20G%C3%A9r%C3%B4me&objecttype=54]. There he perfected his technical knowledge of the human form and his preference for tightly painted, highly finished figure compositions. Upon his return to Boston, Paxton joined his older colleagues Edmund Tarbell [1985.66] and Frank Weston Benson [08.326] as an instructor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
    Like many of his Boston colleagues, Paxton found inspiration in the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Paxton was fascinated not only with Vermeer’s imagery, but also with the system of optics he employed. He studied Vermeer’s works closely, and discovered that only one area in his compositions was entirely in focus, while the rest were somewhat blurred. Paxton ascribed this peculiarity to “binocular vision,” crediting Vermeer with recording the slightly different point of view of each individual eye that combine in human sight. He began to employ this system in his own work, including The New Necklace, where only the gold beads are sharply defined while the rest of the objects in the composition have softer, blurrier edges.

    Paxton crafted his elaborate compositions with models in his studio, and the props he used, particularly the pink Chinese jacket, appear in several different paintings. Here he has implied a narrative, involving the discarded letter and the necklace. But Paxton allows each viewer to fashion his or her own story; he does not indicate whether the jewelry is a gift from an admirer or a purchase, or what the girl in green might advise her friend. In this way, he also emulates Vermeer, whose narratives are often ambiguous. Paxton enhanced his connection to Dutch art by including paintings within his painting and by selecting a hand-carved frame in a Dutch style for The New Necklace. His image, carefully composed and crafted, was meant to bring beauty and tradition to its lucky owner.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    91.76 x 73.02 cm (36 1/8 x 28 3/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    22.644

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  • L'Edition de Luxe

    1910

    Lilian Westcott Hale, American, 1880–1963 American

    Description

    Women artists found Boston to be a particularly supportive environment for their professional activities. Lilian Westcott came to the city from Hartford, Connecticut, with a scholarship to study painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She worked with Edmund Tarbell [09.209] for two years, but left the program when she married Philip Hale [1996.332], a professor of drawing there. He supported her career even after their daughter Nancy was born in 1908, and Lilian Westcott Hale became an integral part of Boston’s closely knit community of like-minded artists. Many of them were women; one of Lilian Hale’s best friends was another woman painter—her sister-in-law, Philip Hale’s older sister, Ellen Day Hale [1986.645].

    Lilian Hale’s ethereal images of contemplative women in interiors won her much critical and popular acclaim during her lifetime, and collectors sought them avidly. She staged her compositions with models in her studio, sometimes creating both charcoal and oil versions of the same theme. A related and highly finished charcoal drawing entitled Spring Morning [65.1336], dated 1908, employs a composition similar to this one, but it substitutes a bowl of daffodils for the branch of cherry blossoms seen here.

    In L’Edition de Luxe Hale posed her favorite model, Rose Zeffler (called Zeffy), with a book in front of a window and allowed soft light, filtered by curtains, to bathe the scene in a rosy glow. These pink tones echo in the delicate flowers, the polished table, and Zeffy’s coppery hair. Carefully balanced and exquisitely rendered, the whole composition is an “edition de luxe,” just like the luxurious volume the young woman holds and to which the painting’s title refers. The composition reflects Hale’s belief in the importance of beauty and craftsmanship. Her traditional artistic ideals, however, did not prevent her from pursuing an active and successful professional career. Hale’s images of quiet women earned her national recognition.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    58.42 x 38.42 cm (23 x 15 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    35.1487

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  • Woman in a Fur Hat

    about 1915

    Gretchen Woodman Rogers, American, 1881–1967 American

    Description

    Like her friend and colleague Lilian Westcott Hale [35.1487], Gretchen Woodman Rogers studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts with Edmund Tarbell [1985.66]. Tarbell said that Rogers was “the best pupil I ever had . . . a genius.” [1] She became an accomplished figure painter, much admired during her own time but little known today. She apparently abandoned her career during the 1930s, unable to earn her living as an artist during the Depression and unwilling to paint only as an amateur.
    Something of Rogers’s professional determination might be gleaned from Woman in a Fur Hat. While it was never exhibited as such, contemporary critics noted that this image was her own self-portrait. The figure’s steady, appraising gaze is typical of such works, which are most often made by looking into a mirror. But Rogers gives the viewer no hint that the woman she depicts is an artist, for she wears the elegant winter hat and fur wrap of a well-bred lady and there are no brushes or palette to be seen. Despite her apparent modesty, Rogers’s likeness is a tour-de-force of painting. She includes a variety of textures and materials—velvet, wool, fur, and flesh—each one rendered with absolute verisimilitude. Like many of her Boston School colleagues, Rogers respected the long history and tradition of painting. Her thoughtful, unpretentious woman, surrounded by a gentle, radiant light, is reminiscent of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (about 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands), one of the Dutch artist’s most mesmerizing pictures. By referring to this well-known painting in her image of a contemporary woman, Rogers links past and present, projecting an exquisite and timeless impression of strength and confidence.

    Notes
    1. Edmund Tarbell quoted by Mrs. C. E. A. Winslow, page from an undated letter from Mrs. Winslow, recipient unknown, curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    76.2 x 64.13 cm (30 x 25 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1972.232

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  • Sunset

    about 1915–18

    Maurice Brazil Prendergast, American (born in Canada),...

    Description

    Although he exhibited with the Eight, Maurice Prendergast, along with Arthur Bowen Davies, preferred to depict the pleasant and carefree aspects of modern life. Born in Newfoundland and raised in Boston, Prendergast first traveled abroad in 1886 and later spent three years in Paris from 1891 to 1894. There he studied with Courtois at Atelier Colarossi before attending the life class at the Académie Julian. While in Paris he formed a close friendship with fellow Canadian painter James Morrice, who introduced him to a wide circle of artists and theorists. The experience was crucial and formative for Prendergast. He rapidly absorbed the innovations of contemporary French painting, especially the brushwork of Paul Cézanne and the colorful palette of Henri Matisse and the French Fauves, or Wild Beasts, as they were called by their critics.

    Prendergast renewed his intense interest in French painting after the turn of the century. He modified a decorative style inspired by the Post-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who had earlier experimented with a technique of painting in small discrete strokes of color resembling a colorful mosaic or pattern of dots called pointillism. In "Sunset" Prendergast combines the vivid and opaque paints of the Fauves with a variety of short touches of color inspired by Signac, using them to render the textures of the costumes, trees, and sky.

    In contrast to the exuberant scenes of Americans at leisure that Prendergast had made at the turn of the century, "Sunset" belongs to a more static group of images produced late in his career. The silhouettes of figures, horses, and dogs arranged in a shallow foreground plane are reminiscent of ancient Egyptian or Assyrian reliefs. This elegiac scene of leisure also recalls the sense of longing and nostalgia evoked by the great bathers of Cézanne and Matisse. Painted during the turmoil of the Great War, "Sunset" suggests a fading era of innocence and carefree pursuits. Many of the grand resort hotels and amusement parks the artist had depicted in earlier paintings, drawings, and prints had by then fallen into ruin or been destroyed by fire and vandals. Although a sense of loss is evident in comparison to his previous images, Prendergast's bold technique and colorful palette in "Sunset" convey the intensity of his remembrance of times past.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    53.34 x 81.28 cm (21 x 32 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1989.228

    Collections

    Americas

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  • The Wrestlers

    1905

    George Benjamin Luks, American, 1866–1933

    Description

    After studying with Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and furthering his training abroad in Germany at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, George Luks traveled throughout Europe, returning to the United States in 1894. He first worked as a newspaper illustrator for Philadelphia journals; in 1896, following the encouragement of fellow illustrators Robert Henri [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Robert%20Earle%20Henri], John Sloan [35.52], and Everett Shinn [2008.45], who had also studied with Anshutz, he relocated to New York City.

    Criticized for his poor handling of the human anatomy, Luks answered his detractors by rendering this complex scene of two nude wrestlers. The artist’s perspective was radical for the time. Luks’s composition effectively presses the viewer to the edge of the wrestling pit, thereby emphasizing the down-at-heels setting. The jarring vantage point also evokes the sweaty underbelly of modern urban life, a theme for which he and fellow members of the Ashcan School would become known.

    Luks’s scene of entangled human flesh under duress is reminiscent of the sporting scenes that fellow Philadelphian Thomas Eakins painted, in particular Eakins’s 1899 Wrestlers (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Whereas Eakins depicted a wrestling hold with the impassive eye of a painter rendering a studio model, Luks conveys the passion exuded by the heaving torsos. Eakins applied carefully blended strokes of pigment, building up solidly modeled forms after the manner of his studio training with the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Jean-L%C3%A9on%20G%C3%A9r%C3%B4me]. Luks, in contrast, enlivens his figures with energetic brushwork and thick impasto. Luks’s familiarity with the popular press, gained from his work for illustrated periodicals, may have inspired the sense of immediacy he suggested—brilliantly illuminated flesh is thrown into relief against the dark background as though caught in a reporter’s flashbulb.

    The opponent at the left also recalls the terrifying visages of the early-nineteenth-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s so-called Black Paintings (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), in which humans are transformed into ghouls. Luks portrays a distinctive type among the multitudes in New York City, in this case an aggressive athlete. Once again, his training as a newspaper illustrator likely honed his astute sensitivity to physiognomy, and here the thickly furrowed brow, devilish eyes, and flushed complexion suggest the bellicose personality befitting a pugnacious wrestler.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    122.87 x 168.59 cm (48 3/8 x 66 3/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    45.9

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Pigeons

    1910

    John Sloan, American, 1871–1951 American

    Description

    After attending Central High School in Philadelphia, John Sloan taught himself etching and by 1891 was making his living as a commercial illustrator. While a full-time staff artist for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1892, Sloan began taking drawing classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he met Robert Henri [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Robert%20Earle%20Henri], who encouraged him (as well as William James Glackens [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=William%20James%20Glackens], Everett Shinn [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Everett%20Shinn], and George Luks [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=George%20Benjamin%20Luks]) to take up painting. Sloan stubbornly refused to travel to Europe with the others, and remained in Philadelphia until in 1903 he joined his colleagues in New York City.
    From the vantage point of his studio on West 23rd Street, Sloan worked in a range of media to depict the scenes of daily life he witnessed on the rooftops. Etchings like Roofs, Summer Night (1906) and Love on the Roof (1914) and paintings such as Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair (1912, Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts) convey a sense of the freedom and escape the roofs provided from the suffocating confines of New York tenement living. Here Sloan depicts the then popular pastime of raising pigeons, which were let loose daily to fly for exercise. Witnessed by their trainer and a young boy perched on the tenement wall, the birds circling above seem to give visual expression to the men’s dreams of a flight of fancy high above the city.

    Sloan described his desire to capture the golden light of evening that illuminates the skyline so brilliantly, an interest reminiscent of the French Impressionists’ concern with effects of light at different times of day. He noted that the fleeting quality of light before sunset was present for only twenty minutes and recalled interrupting his work each day to achieve the warm orange “pre-sunset glow.” [1] The dwindling daylight suggests the passage of time; in similar fashion, New York’s skyline delineates the transformation of the urban scene at the dawn of the new century. At the right a church steeple is clearly visible, and illuminated behind the pigeon trainer, the construction of Pennsylvania Station appears. The new building was symbolically replacing the old—a modern temple of progress in the rapidly expanding city.

    Notes
    1. John Sloan, diary entry, February 7, 1910, quoted in Bruce St. John, ed., John Sloan’s New York Scene from the Diaries, Notes and Correspondence 1906–1913 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 384.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    66.36 x 81.28 cm (26 1/8 x 32 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    35.52

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  • Italo-American Celebration, Washington Square

    about 1912

    William James Glackens, American, 1870–1938 American

    Description

    After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy at night and making his living with John Sloan, George Luks, and Everett Shinn as an illustrator at The Philadelphia Press, William James Glackens continued his artistic education abroad. Cycling through Northern Europe with Robert Henri in 1895, Glackens returned to Paris, where he had ample opportunity to study French painters, particularly the works of Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Auguste Renoir, whom he greatly admired. Although he shared Henri's passion for the dark palette of Manet, by the time he painted this work Glackens had adopted the lighter tones and loose brushwork of Renoir.

    Glackens established himself in New York City by 1896, and in 1910 he began a series of paintings depicting the Washington Square area. By then the park represented the demarcation between the old and new communities of New York. Some of the most prominent New York families who traced their ancestry to the seventeenth-century Dutch settlers still resided in the brick townhouses along the north side of the square, which are visible through the trees on the right. However, the less fashionable neighborhoods around Washington Square attracted newly arrived immigrants who worked in the factories and sweatshops nearby and also artists (including Glackens) who were drawn to the bohemian lifestyle of the district.

    When Glackens painted this scene of the parade celebrating Christopher Columbus's discovery of America, Italian-Americans formed the largest immigrant population in Manhattan. Columbus became a role model for many ethnic and religious groups, and Glackens suggests the international flavor of the celebration by painting a variety of flags visible through Washington Square Arch. The juxtaposition of the Old World and the New is further enhanced by the prominence of the Italian and American flags standing side by side in the lower foreground. The American dream of rapid transformation from immigrant to respected community leader is suggested by the modestly dressed onlookers who observe both the decorated men in top hats seated under the arch and those successful citizens spirited away above the throng in a carriage. Rendered with lively brushwork to enhance the festive and breezy atmosphere, the composition presents a distinctly American spectacle of Italian-American revelers and their pride of place in the urban scene.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    65.4 x 81.28 cm (25 3/4 x 32 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    59.658

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Irish Girl (Mary O'Donnel)

    1913

    Robert Earle Henri, American, 1865–1929 American

    Description

    Robert Henri spent most summers travelling in both Europe and America looking for interesting individuals to paint, those whom he called, "my people." Henri wrote, "My people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only by gestures. But wherever I find them, the Indian at work in the white man's way, the Spanish gypsy moving back to the freedom of the hills, the little boy, quiet and reticent before the stranger, my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language-drawing and painting in color." Henri's favored subjects were those people whose faces expressed their humanity, beauty, and dignity, regardless of race or station.

    In June of 1913, Henri and his Irish-born second wife, the artist and illustrator Marjorie Organ, retreated to Ireland for the summer. They eventually ended up in County Mayo, on the Island of Achill where they rented an isolated house on a steep hill on the Atlantic coast. In a letter to Boston collector John T. Spaulding, who acquired this painting in 1921, Henri described the sitter, Mary O'Donnel, a young Gaelic girl who was "shy and speechless in the presence of strangers" but could be seen gathering sea grass, and riding around the island on horseback, "her hair down her back and her strong legs and bare feet showing."

    In painting Mary, Henri demonstrated many of the tenets he passed on to students. In his influential collection of his art lessons, "The Art Spirit" (first published in 1923), Henri explained how to use color expressively. He could have been describing this portrait when he wrote, "the reason that a certain color in life, like the red in a young girl's cheek, is beautiful, is that it manifests youth, health; in another sense, that it manifests her sensibility." In another passage he describes how the color of a sitter's cheek is not, "a spot of red, but is the culminating note of an order which runs through every part of the canvas signifying her sensitiveness and her health." In keeping with this advice, Henri complemented the ruddiness of Mary O'Donnel's complexion with her brilliant red sweater. The artist also noted her shyness, suggested by her averted glance and her nervously pursed lips, defined with touches of yellow pigment. Maintaining "the look of the eye has its correspondence in every part of the body," Henri rendered Mary's sparkling irises by allowing the lighter weave of the canvas to show through the palest blue stain of pigment.

    Spaulding must have been drawn to Mary's quiet presence and the dignity imbued in Henri's portrait of her. Spaulding was an important collector who contributed nearly 10,000 artworks to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, including thousands of Japanese prints. This was the only painting by Henri that Spaulding collected, acquiring it from the artist in 1921. Spaulding did collect additional works by Henri's peers and students that now reside at the Museum of Fine Arts, including George Bellows "Emma in Black Print" [48.518]; Edward Hopper's "Drug Store" [48.564]; Rockwell Kent's "Maine Coast, Winter" [48.567]; Ernest Lawson's "Westchester Hills" [48.571]; and George Luk's "Jenny" [48.573] and "A Clown" [48.574].

    Cody Hartley

    Details

    Dimensions

    61.28 x 51.43 cm (24 1/8 x 20 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.562

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    Americas

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  • Emma and Her Children

    1923

    George Wesley Bellows, American, 1882–1925 American

    Description

    Although he did not exhibit with the Manhattan painters called the Eight, who showed their works together at the Macbeth Gallery, George Bellows shared their realist philosophy, ideals that had earned them the nickname “the Ashcan School.” Like them, Bellows concentrated on urban New York themes, and he painted the excavations for Pennsylvania Station, the underworld of prizefighting contests, and tenement life on the Lower East Side. Closely associated with the many of the group’s leading figures, Bellows began his formal training with Robert Henri [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Robert%20Earle%20Henri] at the New York School of Art in 1904 and also collaborated with John Sloan [35.52] as an illustrator for the socialist magazine the Masses between 1913 and 1917.
    Emma and Her Children was painted towards the end of Bellows’s career during a productive summer he spent in Woodstock, New York, a favored art community in the Hudson River valley. The composition recalls Auguste Renoir’s large portrait of Madame Charpentier and her children (1878), which had entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, to great acclaim in 1907. Bellows posed his wife, Emma, and their two daughters in an elaborately conceived arrangement that evokes bourgeois respectability. In contrast to the seemingly unruffled world of Renoir, the Bellows portrait betrays anxiety. Emma recalled the tension of their portrait sittings in a letter of 1943. Although Bellows’s portrayal of her and their younger daughter Jean went very well “from the start,” she noted that it was more difficult to incorporate their twelve-year-old daughter Anne. [1] With maternal protectiveness, Emma’s arm encircles Jean, who sits unabashedly with legs askew surrounded by billowing crinolines. In contrast, Anne, on the cusp of maturity, exhibits a distinct nervousness in the pose of her hands and a sense of adolescent self-consciousness in her stiffly crossed ankles.

    In a 1923 letter to Robert Henri, Bellows described technical innovations he had developed that afforded him the same freedom while painting that he experienced in drawing. By laying out the composition in two colors at the outset, as seen in the purple and orange that dominate the study [63.261] for this portrait, Bellows achieved “the fresh first excitement” of the composition. [2] Seeking to emulate the spontaneity of Renoir and the French Impressionists and his teacher Henri, Bellows hoped to establish the essential idea of the composition in one day of painting.

    Notes
    1. Emma Bellows to Barbara N. Parker, May 28, 1943, curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
    2. George Bellows to Robert Henri, November 1923, quoted in Michael Quick et al., The Paintings of George Bellows, exh. cat. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 84.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    150.49 x 166.05 cm (59 1/4 x 65 3/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    25.105

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    Americas

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  • Drug Store

    1927

    Edward Hopper, American, 1882–1967

    Description

    Edward Hopper was one of the most important observers of the American scene beginning in the 1920s. Although Hopper had been a student of Robert Henri [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Robert%20Earle%20Henri] in New York and was familiar with the busy urban realist scenes of the Ashcan School of painters, he focused his own imagery on the alienation of modern life. He often portrayed solitary and isolated figures that seem to be aching with loneliness or multiple figures that do not interact. Hopper also recorded architectural scenes, both rural and urban, instilling each with a similar feeling of abandonment; he chronicled the ravages of the Depression by depicting forsaken farms and “For Sale” signs on suburban streets.
    In 1927 Hopper delivered a painting entitled Ex Lax—Drug Store to his dealer Frank K. M. Rehn in New York City. Peggy Rehn, the dealer’s wife, felt that the allusion to a laxative was indelicate, and Hopper was persuaded to change the second X to a C, which he did in watercolor. Shortly thereafter, however, John T. Spaulding, a Boston lawyer and collector who favored bold images, bought the painting for $1,500 and encouraged Hopper to restore the product name. Now known as Drug Store, the painting is one of Hopper’s early masterpieces. Many of the themes and devices seen in his later work are evident in this striking picture.

    In Drug Store Hopper utilized the brilliance of electric light, his love of architectural features, and his sense of drama to convey eerie nocturnal solitude. In many of his nighttime paintings, dazzling light streams from a window surrounded by darkness. Here the bright lights within the pharmacy, the light over the door, and the unseen street lamp combine to produce geometric designs on the pavement and to illuminate architectural elements. In this late-night scene of the then-ubiquitous corner drug store, Hopper’s New York City is deserted and ominously silent. No people stroll along the sidewalk. No cars crowd the street. The sense of danger lurking in the shadows negates the welcome of the brightly lit window.

    As he did in many of his urban paintings, Hopper chose to depict a street corner building—Silbers Pharmacy is seen from a slightly oblique angle. Hopper explores the repeating rectangles of curbing, building, storefront, and signs, and uses bold lettering to punctuate his formal design. The window of this independent drug store displays red and green apothecary bottles, like the running lights of ships in the dark. The patriotic colors of the red, white, and blue window decorations are a reminder that Hopper consistently identified himself with such quintessentially American subjects—the stores, diners, offices, and apartments frequented by ordinary citizens. However, the pride of patriotism is tempered here by the brazen advertisement of a well-known laxative.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    Unframed: 73.7 x 101.9 cm (29 x 40 1/8 in.) Framed: 83.8 x 111.8 x 8.3 cm (33 x 44 x 3 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    48.564

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    Americas

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  • Storm Over Lake Otsego

    1929

    John Steuart Curry, American, 1897–1946 American

    Description

    In his work, John Steuart Curry depicted a vigorous and active American landscape. Born on a farm near Dunavant, a small town in Kansas, Curry was well acquainted with the back-breaking work of farming as well as with the ferocious wind and rains storms that often swept through the state. Farm animals and storms would be important motifs for Curry throughout his career. After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Curry worked as an illustrator for popular magazines in the New York area from 1921 to 1926. Following a year of study in Paris (1926–27), where he admired the powerful work of Baroque painters, especially Peter Paul Rubens [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Peter%20Paul%20Rubens&objecttype=54], Curry moved to the artists’ colony in Westport, Connecticut, determined to become a painter rather than an illustrator. During the 1930s he became one of America’s best-known Regionalists, a group of painters devoted to figurative images of rural life.
    While many of Curry’s paintings reflect life in Kansas, he also depicted the area around Cooperstown on Lake Otsego in New York, where he occasionally vacationed. Nineteenth-century writer James Fenimore Cooper had made the area famous when he celebrated Lake Otsego in his Leatherstocking Tales, calling it the “Glimmerglass.” In Storm over Lake Otsego, Curry drew on the narrative skills he learned as an illustrator and on the example of Rubens’s highly energized paintings to capture the exertion of a man at the center of a whirlwind trying to control farm horses spooked by wind and lightning. Using somewhat lurid colors and dynamic forms, Curry portrayed the struggle of man with nature, a frequent theme in his work, and he made an ordinary American farmer the hero of the battle. In choosing such rural scenes, Curry exemplified the Regionalists’ desire to promote national subjects as worthy themes for great painting. His depiction of an American farmer subduing the forces of nature is evidence of the patriotic pride inherent in the style.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    101.92 x 127.63 cm (40 1/8 x 50 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    55.369

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  • Country Doctor (Night Call)

    1935

    Horace Pippin, American, 1888–1946

    Description

    Horace Pippin was the grandson of slaves and son of a domestic worker and a laborer. He was not trained as an artist and did not complete his first oil painting until 1930, when he was forty-three years old. Injured in his right shoulder while serving in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I, Pippin had to hold the brush in his right hand and move it across the canvas with his left. Using this painstaking technique, he painted pictures about his war experiences, the domestic lives of African Americans remembered from his childhood, outdoor scenes, still lifes, religious subjects, and portraits, including the great black singer Marian Anderson (Marian Anderson II, 1941, private collection). Pippin also painted narrative works about anti-slavery figures John Brown and Abraham Lincoln (for example, Trial of John Brown, 1942, de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Abe Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, 1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York). His works rarely contain overt social commentary, but they vividly capture Pippin’s life experiences and those of his heroes.
    In Country Doctor, also known as Night Call, Pippin was able to achieve astonishing effects with a limited palette and an intuitive sense of design. The artist used thin washes of white pigment to convey the heavy snowfall through which a country doctor leads his horse and covered cart, presumably to tend to a patient. Pippin was apparently dissatisfied by the original grayish color of the snow and repainted it a brighter white—the original gray is visible around his signature in the lower right corner. The jagged slash of a small creek in the foreground anchors the composition, while the graceful patterns of the bare tree branches emphasize the cold, nocturnal nature of the journey. A clear path leads into the distance, and footsteps in the snow indicate the progress the doctor and carriage have made. Pippin’s painting quietly celebrates the dauntless and gallant country doctor, then an important part of the American rural scene. In the late 1930s Pippin met the famous Philadelphia collector Albert C. Barnes, who became a champion of his work, thus helping to popularize scenes of black American life by African American artists.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    71.44 x 81.6 cm (28 1/8 x 32 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1970.47

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  • Sharecropper and Blackberry Pickers

    1941

    Robert Gwathmey, American, 1903–1988 American

    Description

    During the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Gwathmey and other Social Realist painters such as Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn, and Jacob Lawrence, as well as photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, depicted the lives of the destitute and the dispossessed in America with implicit criticism of the political and economic forces that maintained inequities in wealth and power. Gwathmey, in his paintings, protested the living conditions of poor African American families in the South. Born to a white family that had lived in Virginia for eight generations, Gwathmey spent most of his adult life in the North. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1926 to 1930 and taught at Cooper Union in New York for twenty-six years. It was not until he returned to the South after his first year at the Pennsylvania Academy that he saw how hard life was for the Southern black. His paintings are filled with the unending toil of black men and women and often contain barbed wire, lynching ropes, and other symbols of oppression.

    When the MFA purchased Sharecropper and Blackberry Pickers in 1941, it was one of the first of Gwathmey's works to enter a major museum's collection. In a letter to the Museum's curator of paintings, Gwathmey, who was then teaching at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, wrote, "I have long been interested in our local scene and always return to my native heath with the coming of summer. The plight of the sharecropper, the evils of the usual one crop farming, with its contingent poverty, and the worn earth have all too long been smothered by a traditional romanticism." Gwathmey's painting rejects such romanticism; his bold designs and simplified forms convey a powerful image of hardship and toil.

    Gwathmey was well versed in European art, having won Cresson Fellowships for European travel in 1929 and 1930. Like the French painter Georges Rouault, Gwathmey developed a modern style based on compartmentalized areas of lush color enclosed by angular black lines, resembling the medieval stained glass he had seen in Europe's great cathedrals. He often used the same figure in more than one composition, and an oil painting entitled Hoeing (Carnegie Museum of Art) also depicts the figure of the black man wiping sweat from his brow. Gwathmey explained in a 1963 letter: "I make 'working drawings' and then paint from there. When I try to paint directly from the object I'm utterly bound. It being once removed allows me the area of adjustment I need."

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    81.6 x 61.28 cm (32 1/8 x 24 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    41.688

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  • The Great Good Man

    1942

    Marsden Hartley, American, 1877–1943

    Description

    Although most of the American Scene painters rejected European modernism and radical abstract styles, Marsden Hartley embraced abstraction in his early years and found figurative painting near the end of his life. Born in Maine, Hartley had become part of Alfred Stieglitz's circle in 1910 and then spent several years traveling in Europe absorbing the modernist styles of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and Wassily Kandinsky. Until 1937 when he resettled in Maine, Hartley traveled in avant-garde circles, moving frequently from place to place in Europe and America. After trying out different subjects and styles throughout his career, he ended up reaffirming his Americanism by painting landscapes in Maine, New Mexico, and Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1940 he explored that most American of subjects: Abraham Lincoln. Between the world wars, Lincoln's reputation grew to epic proportions, in part because of Carl Sandburg's folksy biography of him. Hartley painted three portraits in homage to the Civil War president, and he also wrote two poems about him: "American Ikon-Lincoln" and "A. Lincoln-Odd, or Even."

    Hartley painted "The Great Good Man" near the end of his career. His portraits of Lincoln were among a series of images of his heroes, including the artist Albert Pinkham Ryder and the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne. Larger than life, "The Great Good Man" is bold and iconic. Basing his painting on an 1862 photograph of Lincoln by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, Hartley employed Cézannesque brushstrokes to create the planes of the president's face and rough strokes of black paint to convey his features, including the mole on his cheek and his almond-shaped eyes. Although academically trained, Hartley appreciated American folk art, which enjoyed a revival of interest during the early twentieth century. The bold color contrasts and graphic strength of "The Great Good Man" recall similar qualities in folk portraits of the nineteenth century. The palette of black, white, flesh tones, and striking blue for the background, the heroic scale of the painting, and the intentionally crude technique combine to form a memorable image of Lincoln and a triumph for Hartley in the year before his death.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    101.28 x 76.52 cm (39 7/8 x 30 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on Masonite

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1990.376

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  • New England Editor

    1946

    Thomas Hart Benton, American, 1889–1975

    Description

    The Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, like John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, consciously rejected abstraction in the 1920s and 1930s and developed a narrative style. His primary subject matter was American social history, and his art contained an element of nostalgia for the past. Benton was most noted for his murals, especially those depicting the history of his native Missouri in the state capitol building in Jefferson City. However, he also painted a series of portraits of old friends after World War II, which were intended to be exemplars of specifically American types. Thus Benton called his portrait of George A. Hough New England Editor. Benton had become friends with Hough on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where both men spent many summers.

    Hough worked in the newspaper business in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for fifty years, most of them as editor of The Evening Standard. He was known for his high ideals and abhorrence of injustice and was widely admired for his editing skills and for his mentoring of young newspapermen and women. Benton painted New England Editor with his typical sharp definition and sinuous line. He depicted the newspaperman sitting at a table writing the word "unless" on a paper. Hough was known to proclaim that unless a story was correct, it would not be printed in his newspaper and unless the reporter had exhausted all possible sources, he wasn't ready to hand in a story. Behind Hough is a painting of the boat Catalpa that did in fact hang in the library of Hough's house on Martha's Vineyard. The Catalpa was a New Bedford whaling ship captained by Hough's close friend George S. Anthony. In 1876 Captain Anthony rescued a number of Irish revolutionaries from the British off the coast of Australia. Benton probably included the painting because New Bedford was associated with whaling and because the principled stand taken by Captain Anthony was also typical of the character of George Hough. Benton wrote to the director of the MFA in 1947 that Hough "is one of the finest down to earth Yankees ever to come out of the soil, sharp, witty and smart." Benton's rubbery style captured perfectly the dynamism of his friend in this vibrant portrait of an American life.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    76.2 x 93.98 cm (30 x 37 in.)

    Medium

    Oil and tempera on gessoed panel

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    46.1456

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Hill Top Farm, Winter

    1949

    Maxfield Parrish, American, 1870–1966

    Description

    Maxfield Parrish, deeply committed to the democratization of art, was probably the most popular artist of the twentieth century in the United States after Norman Rockwell [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Norman%20Rockwell]. Like many American artists, including Winslow Homer [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Winslow%20Homer], Parrish began his artistic career as an illustrator and became prominent through the publication of his work in popular magazines, such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Life, and Collier’s. Parrish’s images also enhanced books, such as the childhood classics Mother Goose in Prose (1897), by L. Frank Baum, and Dream Days (1902), by Kenneth Grahame. Parrish gained further renown through his posters, which decorated millions of households in the 1920s. He was also a muralist. His most famous mural, Old King Cole (1906), can be seen in the bar of the St. Regis Hotel in New York City.
    During and after the traumatic events of World War II, Parrish produced idyllic, comforting images of rural America that appealed to the public’s escapist fantasies. Hill Top Farm, Winter, a scene of Windsor, Vermont, was part of a series of landscapes that he painted in the last thirty years of his life for Brown and Bigelow of Saint Paul, Minnesota, one of the nation’s largest distributors of calendars and greeting cards. The picture appeared on the Brown and Bigelow calendar for 1952 with the title Lights of Welcome. The warm lights in the farmhouse windows and the smoke issuing from the chimney create a cozy, appealing image.

    Parrish painted his idealized landscapes in the studio, and they were often a composite of elements based on photographs of various locations. He frequently made detailed architectural models of the buildings in his paintings so that he could study the shadows and highlights in his studio and create the effects he wanted. Parrish achieved the jewel-like finish and light effects of his paintings through a painstaking technique of applying numerous transparent glazes over blue underpainting on a white ground applied to Masonite—a newly manufactured type of board with a particularly smooth surface. After each application of transparent glaze had dried, Parrish added a thin coat of varnish. In this painting, the artist used a very fine stipple brush to grade the sky from a dark cobalt blue at the top down to almost white at the horizon. He often used coarse-textured blotting paper to achieve different surface qualities before the glazes dried. Parrish’s scrupulous attention to detail meant that he completed only three or four landscapes a year, each a technical tour de force. His romanticized visions of rural New England embody the nationalist spirit that characterized much of the artwork created in the second quarter of the twentieth century.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    34.29 x 39.37 cm (13 1/2 x 15 1/2 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on Masonite

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1981.358

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Café Comedian

    1957

    Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917–2000

    Description

    Throughout his career of more than sixty years Jacob Lawrence, one of America's most important and respected black artists, told the story of African American lives and culture through figurative paintings, often in series and frequently with biting social commentary. Lawrence achieved success at an astonishingly early age, holding his first one-man exhibition by the time he was twenty. He had moved to Harlem from Philadelphia at the age of thirteen, in 1931, and he benefited from the flowering of black culture known as the Harlem Renaissance. Much of his art was stimulated by the writers, musicians, and artists of this cultural movement, as well as by the street-corner orators who related episodes of black history that were not included in textbooks.

    In 1942 Lawrence executed a series of thirty paintings relating to life in Harlem. He revisited this subject in the mid-1950s, exploring the world of entertainment which had drawn many to Harlem since the 1920s. "Café Comedian" displays Lawrence's use of bold colors and patterns, a legacy from his early days when he noticed that people were so poor that they decorated their homes with bold colors and patterns to brighten their lives. In the painting, these syncopated hues and textures-especially the note-like designs cascading down the pink walls-serve as the visual expression of the music being played by the trio of musicians in the background. Eschewing linear perspective, Lawrence has indicated the position of the performers in an alcove or adjoining room by means of their smaller scale and their placement higher in the painting.

    Lawrence's style has been compared to Pablo Picasso's Synthetic Cubism and also to collage, both of which convey spatial depth through the overlapping of flat forms. Knowledgeable about Western art traditions, Lawrence had often visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a teenager. There, he studied the social criticism of artists such as Honoré Daumier and the narrative elements and use of tempera paint in early Renaissance paintings. Rather than oils, Lawrence consistently used opaque water-based paints, which dictated his flat, two-dimensional forms. He often left areas unpainted and let the ground show through, as in the bartender's hand seen here.

    Despite its bright colors, "Café Comedian" conveys an underlying sense of melancholy. This emotion is evident in the darker colors in the bottom half of the painting and most especially in the morose facial expressions of the men at the bar. Such ambiguity is common in Lawrence's work of the 1950s.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    58.42 x 73.66 cm (23 x 29 in.)

    Medium

    Casein on paper

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1990.378

    Collections

    Americas , Contemporary Art

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  • The Sea I

    1925

    Arthur Garfield Dove, American, 1880–1946

    Description

    Arthur Garfield Dove was among the earliest American artists to experiment with abstraction. During a 1908-9 trip to France, he adopted a vibrant but still realistic style influenced by the Fauves. About 1910, he turned in a different direction and made a series of completely non-representational pastels. In 1912 he became the first American to exhibit abstract work publicly at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery 291 (Stieglitz would continue to encourage and support Dove throughout the artist's life). Dove derived his organic compositions of carefully applied color from natural and manmade landscapes. After creating these groundbreaking images, however, he spent the next decade working only intermittently, largely due to financial constraints. He began to devote himself to painting again in the early 1920s.

    Dove always pushed himself to investigate and to experiment with a variety of media, and between 1924 and 1928 he produced a remarkable group of some two dozen collages. Collage is the technique of arranging and then adhering pre-existing or "found" materials, both manmade and natural, onto paper, cardboard, or wood. By about 1912 Pablo Picasso had begun to incorporate pieces of newspaper, fabric, wallpaper, rope, and even chair caning into his pictures, creating some of the earliest mixed-media collages. The materials that Dove used ranged from magazine cutouts, pages torn out of books, wood, velvet, corduroy, denim, and needlepoint, to more three-dimensional objects such as shells, rocks, twigs, steel wool, bamboo, and in one case, earrings, a watch, stockings, and even garden gloves. Humorous "portraits" and figurative subjects make up the largest number of his collages, but Dove also made still lifes and landscapes in this medium. Dove's collages, which he called "things," were unprecedented in American art.

    "The Sea I" is one of Dove's most beautiful collages. He glued paper, sand, and gauze onto a sheet of scratched aluminum, creating a delicately moody evocation of light on the water. The silvery tone of the metal, which shifts slightly when viewed through the applied gauze, conveys the humid sheen of sky and sea. Real sand marks the beach. Using these simple materials sparingly, Dove created an image of great subtlety.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    33.65 x 53.97 cm (13 1/4 x 21 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Collage (gauze, sand and paper) on metal

    Classification

    Collages

    Accession Number

    1990.404

    Collections

    Americas

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  • White Rose with Larkspur No. 2

    1927

    Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887–1986

    Description

    By the age of twelve Georgia O’Keeffe was determined to become an artist. Beginning in 1907 she studied at the Art Students League in New York City under the Impressionist William Merritt Chase [49.1790], and then later at Columbia University’s Teachers College with the painter, printmaker [41.716], photographer [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Arthur%20Wesley%20Dow&objecttype=59], and art theoretician Arthur Wesley Dow. It was while taking classes with Dow in the mid-1910s that she began to experiment with abstraction, creating her first series of non-representational works that she called “Specials.” O’Keeffe then applied her new approach to landscapes and figural studies and, by the end of the decade, to fruit and floral still lifes. At this time, her work came to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?keyword=packageid:26668] (whom she would marry in 1924); he displayed a series of her abstract drawings for the first time in an exhibition at his gallery 291 in 1916.

    O’Keeffe eventually returned to representation, using simplified forms, close-ups, and both bold and subtle color juxtapositions. She painted White Rose with Larkspur No. 2 in 1927, a year in which enlarged images of flowers, including poppies, petunias, and calla lilies, dominated her output. She later wrote that she felt that she had executed some of her best work in 1927. That year she produced five canvases of white roses (only two of which included larkspur), all close-ups that vary in their degree of abstraction.

    White Rose with Larkspur No. 2 is a masterful study of subtle color. O’Keeffe carefully manipulated the range of whites in the rose petals and her tones shift from green to gray to yellow. The flowers themselves are both recognizable and abstracted, and by their very scale O’Keeffe makes the viewer consider them in a new way. As she wrote in 1939, “nobody sees a flower-really . . . I’ll paint what I see-what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” [1]

    Notes
    1. Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe (New York: Viking Press, 1976), n.p., opposite plate 23.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    101.6 x 76.2 cm (40 x 30 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1980.207

    Collections

    Americas

    Not On View
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  • Longhi on Broadway

    1928

    Charles Demuth, American, 1883–1935

    Description

    In spite of his deteriorating health due to diabetes, the 1920s were Charles Demuth's most prolific years as a painter. Building on his success of the previous decade, he produced a large number of watercolors working in his own delicate modernist style based on the Cubist form and Expressionist color he had studied during a series of trips to Europe as a student. Still lifes, especially floral, continued to be Demuth's specialty, although he had also made figurative and architectural compositions in the 1910s. Demuth had begun his career as a painter in oils, and had trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under realist artist Thomas Anshutz, but he did not return to the medium until about 1920 when he focused on industrial subjects of his native Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

    In 1923 Demuth embarked on a series of "portraits" made in homage to his avant-garde friends, including artists John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O'Keeffe, and the writers Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams. Demuth's images were not likenesses, but still lifes containing objects that he associated with his subject. Other modernists- writers, composers, and artists including Francis Picabia, Virgil Thomson, Marcel Duchamp, Stein, Hartley, O'Keeffe, and Dove-had also made these kinds of symbolic portraits in words, music, photography, caricature, collage, and paintings. The resulting works were often only appreciated by a small circle who were able to decipher the allusions. For his portraits, Demuth fused his modernist style with elements of commercial advertising, using flat shapes, lettering, and high key color. The results were little understood, and when four of them were exhibited by Stieglitz in 1925 (Demuth's first exhibition there) one critic complained that they were done "in a code for which we have not the key." Scholars have suggested that "Longhi on Broadway," with its arts publications and theater masks, is a portrait of the playwright Eugene O'Neill, whom Demuth had first met in Provincetown. The title refers to the eighteenth-century painter Pietro Longhi, who included dancing masked figures in his images of the Venetian aristocracy; the masks are also traditional emblems of the theater.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    Overall: 86 x 68.6cm (33 7/8 x 27in.)

    Medium

    Oil on board

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1990.397

    Collections

    Americas

    Not On View
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  • View of New York

    1931

    Charles Sheeler, American, 1883–1965 American

    Description

    Charles Sheeler contributed to early modernism as both a painter and a photographer. A Philadelphia native, he trained at the School of Industrial Art and then went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with the Impressionist William Merritt Chase [49.1790]. His earliest paintings show the influence of his teacher’s style, but a 1908 trip to Paris and an encounter with the paintings of Paul Cézanne [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?keyword=Paul+C%C3%A9zanne&objecttype=54] sent his work in a different direction. Sheeler started to explore form and structure in his paintings, rather than the fleeting effects of light on transitory subjects. In 1911 he began to correspond with photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?keyword=packageid:26668], also an admirer of Cézanne, although Stieglitz never exhibited Sheeler’s work. To support himself, Sheeler took up photography in 1912. He made images for commercial use, enjoying the financial security provided by producing photographs for magazine publishers and advertising firms. Sheeler also garnered critical acclaim for his photographs as works of art, and he began to experiment with film.
    At the same time, Sheeler was still struggling to gain respect as a painter. His dealer, aware of the secondary status that photography held with many collectors and critics, recommended that he restrict himself to the brush. With no guarantees of the same kind of success in painting that he had realized with photography, Sheeler embarked on the next phase of his career with ambivalence.

    View of New York was executed the year that Sheeler made the difficult decision to set aside photography. The painting’s title is ironic, for it does not depict a cityscape at all but shows the interior of the artist’s studio in New York. Through the open window, Sheeler painted a cloudy sky instead of the skyscrapers and crowded streets that had occupied an earlier generation. The balanced, almost geometric structure of the composition and the limited palette of grays, pale blues, and maroon underscore the stillness of the interior, as do the objects pictured: the empty chair, the unlit lamp, and a covered and unused camera. The enigmatic, almost funereal mood of this workspace alludes to Sheeler’s own ambivalence. He called the image “the most severe picture I ever painted,” but it was also one of his most personal. [1]

    Notes
    1. Charles Sheeler, quoted in Constance Rourke, Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938), 156.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    121.92 x 92.39 cm (48 x 36 3/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Photographs

    Accession Number

    35.69

    Collections

    Americas , Photography

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  • Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors — 7th Avenue Style

    1940

    Stuart Davis, American, 1892–1964 American

    Description

    Stuart Davis’s Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors—7th Avenue Style captures the heady, sensory experience of the modern city. One of the undisputed masterpieces of twentieth-century American painting, the image is the visual equivalent of the syncopated rhythms of jazz, an art form also considered both indigenous and new. Davis evokes the energy of both jazz music and city life through his innovative composition of lively shapes and lines and his palette of vibrant color.
    From the outset of his career, Davis was associated with avant-garde artistic movements. Beginning in 1909 he studied in New York with Robert Henri, leader of the early twentieth-century realist painters nicknamed the Ashcan School; Davis’s earliest subjects were the seamy urban scenes favored by that group. The 1913 Armory Show introduced him to European modernism, resulting in his determination to alter the direction of his own work. Over the next few decades, he experimented with simplified, abstracted forms, multiple perspectives, and collage, and he also started to incorporate words into his paintings. He used everyday objects and references to popular culture as points of departure, and the places he lived in or visited—New York City, Paris, and Gloucester, Massachusetts—recur as themes in his paintings. In the 1920s, Davis’s pictures bordered on the completely abstract, the objects in them often unrecognizable. His compositions became legible again in the 1930s, and at that time he also painted murals and made prints under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Toward the end of the decade he turned once more to abstraction. Through it all, his work often retained an underlying sense of humor.

    Hot Still-Scape is a masterpiece of Davis’s late abstract style. Its enigmatic title provides clues to deciphering its content. The term “still-scape” was the artist’s own invention: a combination of abstract landscape and still-life elements he had used in other paintings, coupled with those he had made up. “Hot,” according to the artist, described the dynamic mood created by the juxtaposition of the six colors: white, yellow, blue, red, orange, and black. The designation “7th Avenue” refers to the New York City street on which Davis had his studio for fifteen years. [1] It was in the heart of a bustling West Village neighborhood with lively street life and noisy automobile traffic (indicated by the syncopated street signs in the picture), and just blocks from a number of the hot jazz clubs in the Village. A month after he finished the picture, he wrote, “It is the product of everyday experience in the new lights, speeds, and spaces of the American environment.” [2]

    Notes
    1. Stuart Davis, “Stuart Davis,” Parnassus 12 (December 1940): 6.
    2. Lowery Stokes Sims, et al., Stuart Davis: American Painter (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991), 72.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    91.44 x 113.98 cm (36 x 44 7/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1983.120

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Old Brooklyn Bridge

    about 1941

    Joseph Stella, American, 1877–1946 American

    Description

    Completed in 1883 and hailed as an engineering wonder, the Brooklyn Bridge was recognized as a symbol of the modern city by artists and writers alike. Walt Whitman, John Marin, Hart Crane, Lewis Mumford, and Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, all paid homage to this structure. The bridge was viewed as more than an icon of the industrial age, though, for its design and construction fused the new technology of its innovative cable suspension with historical references to the past: the great Gothic arches of its towers linked the Old World and the New.
    Joseph Stella was twenty when he emigrated from Italy to New York. He began to study art in the United States, then traveled back to Europe in 1909, where he saw a variety of avant-garde styles. In Paris he encountered Futurism, a method of painting that attempted to express the intangible properties of motion and speed. Although he would experiment with a variety of approaches throughout his career, Stella pioneered Futurism in the United States upon his return to New York in 1912. He settled in Brooklyn in about 1919 and began to paint the bridge with this new vocabulary, using its flashing lights and rush of crisscrossed wires to indicate movement through space.

    The Brooklyn Bridge became a recurring theme in Stella’s work and he became identified with the subject. He made numerous small studies of the span and five major oils; Old Brooklyn Bridge was one of the last. His richly colored, fractured composition not only reflects his modernist approach, but also recalls the stained-glass windows of Gothic architecture. Stella himself alluded to this marriage of the new and the old, describing the bridge as a “shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of AMERICA.” [1]

    Notes
    1. Joseph Stella, The Brooklyn Bridge (A Page of My Life), privately printed under the title New York (1928), quoted in Barbara Haskell, Joseph Stella (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), 206.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    193.67 x 173.35 cm (76 1/4 x 68 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1980.197

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Movement—Sea or Mountain as You Will

    1947

    John Marin, American, 1870–1953

    Description

    John Marin was one of the first American painters to be shown at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery 291, in 1909. He established his reputation as an abstract watercolorist, and Stieglitz opened almost every season at his galleries with a Marin watercolor exhibition. Unusual for a modernist, Marin's work appealed to both an avant-garde and a mainstream audience-for its abstract qualities on the one hand, and its accessibility on the other-and he became one of the most widely respected and popular artists of the first half of the twentieth century. By 1948, at the age of 78, Marin was called by Look magazine America's "Artist No. 1."

    Marin worked in oils sporadically throughout his early career, only exploring the medium in a sustained way in the late 1920s. He learned to exploit the texture of the oils in much the same way that he had used with watercolor, delighting in the lushness of the thick paint "dragged across the tooth of the canvas," as he put it. His subjects in oil crossed over from watercolor, too, and he would frequently work out similar themes in both media.

    Marin produced some of his best oils in the mid-1940s, a time of great personal loss for the artist-his wife died in 1945 and Stieglitz, who had been a close friend as well as a supporter, died in 1946. In 1947 Marin began a series of abstract seascapes that pushed the limits of both his medium and of representational art. At the time he said, "Using paint as paint is different from using paint to paint a picture. I'm calling my pictures this year 'Movements in Paint' and not movements of boat, sea or sky, because in these new paintings although I use objects, I am representing paint first of all, and not the motif primarily." He said of the Museum's oil, the last in the series, "I am going to call it Sea or Mountain As You Will. The paint is the thing." This belief in the primacy of paint and the evocative potential of the bare canvas would be fully explored by a younger generation of American artists, including Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    76.83 x 93.03 cm (30 1/4 x 36 5/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    63.1527

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Forms (Peinture)

    about 1919

    Patrick Henry Bruce, American, 1881–1936 American

    Description

    Like others of writer Ernest Hemingway’s so-called “lost generation”—artists who left the United States at the start of the twentieth century in search of a more bohemian and modern lifestyle—Patrick Henry Bruce went to Paris in 1904 and remained there for more than thirty years. His first heroes were Henri Matisse [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Henri%20Matisse&objecttype=54] and Paul Cézanne [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?keyword=Paul+C%C3%A9zanne&objecttype=54]; his early work explores the sights and forms of France with a coloristic exuberance inspired by Matisse and a search for structural rigor emulating Cézanne.
    By the end of World War I, however, Bruce’s world had contracted, as the international community of artists and collectors he had found so stimulating drifted apart. He began painting still life, a solitary and contemplative genre, concentrating on the objects gathered in his spartan rooms near the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His subject matter has been identified from photographs of the apartment. Here, on the tilted-up top of an antique table, Bruce has arranged carpenter’s tools, scrolled pieces of wood and architectural moldings (he supported himself by dealing in antique furniture), and possibly a piece of fruit. In emulation of Cézanne, who advocated rendering nature by means of simple shapes, [1] Bruce reduced his commonplace objects to abstract geometric forms. These he painted as weighty solids that nonetheless seem to interact dynamically. He constructed them with carefully calibrated perspectival accuracy but undermined their stability by showing each of his forms from a different vantage point; they threaten to tumble over one another and spill out of the picture space. Bruce painted meticulously, using careful gradations of color. Here he employed a whole spectrum of blues, augmented with deep green, a salmon hue, and black and white. Preoccupied by these color relationships, Bruce painted layer over layer. As he revised one area he saw the tonal balance of the whole composition shift, obliging him to then alter other areas (for example, all the black areas in this painting were previously blue), resulting in a thickly built up surface.

    By the 1930s lack of recognition, increasing isolation, and the elusiveness of the perfection he sought in his art drove Bruce to despair. He destroyed many of his works and in 1936, shortly after returning to New York, he committed suicide. His tragic intensity and his belief that his art could provide an opening onto the realms of the imagination are revealed in a poignant letter written in 1928 to his friend the novelist Henri-Pierre Roché: “I am doing all my traveling in the apartment on ten canvases. One visits many unknown countries that way.” [1]

    Notes
    1. “Deal with nature as cylinders, spheres and cones, all placed in perspective so that each aspect of an object or a plane goes towards a central point.” Paul Cézanne to Emile Bernard, April 15, 1904, in Correspondance, ed. J. Rewald (Paris, 1937, rev. 1978; English trans., New York, 1984), 296.
    2. Patrick Henry Bruce, letter to Henri-Pierre Roché, March 17, 1928, quoted in William C. Agee and Barbara Rose, “The Search for Patrick Henry Bruce,” ARTnews 78 (Summer 1979): 75.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    60.01 x 92.39 cm (23 5/8 x 36 3/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1990.386

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Whippoorwills

    1917

    Marguerite Zorach, American, 1887–1968 American

    Description

    Marguerite and William Zorach spent the winter seasons in New York City, soaking up the avant-garde ideas in the paintings and sculpture shown at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery and elsewhere while seeking exhibition opportunities for their own art. The warm months were for rejuvenation; between 1915 and 1918, the Zorachs spent several summers in New Hampshire. Although each of them would later specialize in other media (Marguerite became well known as a textile artist and William became one of the leading sculptors of the modernist generation), during this period they were both active as painters. Their styles, based on their experiences as art students in Paris a few years earlier, combined the vivid palette of Fauvism with Cubist compositional structure. Each of them turned to the landscape of the surrounding White Mountains as subject matter. In this case, their responses are found on either side of a single canvas: on the back of Marguerite's 1917 "Whippoorwills" is William's "Randolph, New Hampshire" (MFA 1993.867a), painted two years before.

    It is not known why the Zorachs chose to paint on both sides of a single piece of canvas. They were extremely poor in those years and may have been driven to work in this unusual manner for reasons of economy. But the double-sided canvas is also an expression of the collaborative spirit that marked their careers, and their marriage. They frequently had joint exhibitions; Marguerite drew embroidery motifs from images in William's paintings, while he based sculptural elements on her needlework designs; and a number of Marguerite's embroidered pictures were worked on (and signed) by both of them.

    Both sides of this painting reflect the Zorachs' pleasure in their summers in New Hampshire, where they lived rent- and relatively care- free in handsomely sited if dilapidated farmhouses that were loaned to them by generous patrons. William presented New Hampshire as Arcadia, with sensuous, Matisse-like nudes lounging in a bucolic landscape. He uses bold, bright colors reminiscent of French Fauvism. Marguerite's response to their surroundings was much more direct. The rolling hills, leafy woodlands, little waterfalls, and houses nestled in the valleys shown here are an accurate portrayal of the cozy landscape near Plainfield, New Hampshire, where they lived in 1917. The warm earth tones emphasize the organic quality of her picture. She molds the hills and trees into flat, decorative shapes, creating a tapestry-like pattern.Her technique also resonates with her work in textiles, for she paints thinly so that the canvas weave creates a background texture for her design. At the same time, she is a keen observer of nature: she accurately portrays the whippoorwills as having short rounded wings and rounded tails. Nocturnal birds, they soar by on the surface of the picture, beneath a crescent moon.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    50.8 x 60.96 cm (20 x 24 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1993.867b

    Collections

    Americas

    Not On View
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  • Evening Sounds

    about 1925–30

    Helen Torr, American, 1886–1967 American

    Description

    "I find something coming into the abstract work of certain Americans-particularly Georgia O'Keeffe and Helen Torr-which is emotionally very moving," wrote historian Sheldon Cheney in his 1924 Primer of Modern Art. O'Keeffe was already well known and would soon become even more famous; Torr, then as now, was obscure. But her gentle and intimate abstractions from the 1920s and 1930s were admired by the most forward-looking painters and critics of the day: by New York Sun reviewer Henry McBride, who praised her use of color; by Georgia O'Keeffe, who included several works by Torr in an exhibition she organized in 1927; and above all, by her husband Arthur Dove.

    Philadelphia-born Torr was trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and was living near Westport, Connecticut when she met Dove. By 1920 they were living together on a houseboat, and they subsequently moved to a small sailboat moored on Long Island Sound. Torr and Dove had very little money and living on a boat was cheap; their work from this period is generally small in scale, since their boat provided only very cramped work space.

    Torr's paintings from the late 1920s tended to be abstract, though they generally contained poetic references to nature. "Evening Sounds," painted in soft secondary tones of lavender, maroon, and orange against a gray background, has no obvious subject, yet it is evocative and full of feeling. The key motif is the rhythmic progression of lavender ovals that have the measured repose of rocks in a Zen garden seen at close range, while at the same time they seem to drift off into a silvery space.

    This presentation of the harmonies of nature in an abstract and therefore universal language was a principal concern of artists associated with Alfred Stieglitz (even if that association was only through marriage-Stieglitz, who gave Dove solo exhibitions at his gallery An American Place almost every year from 1926 on, showed Torr only once, in 1933). At the same time, Torr's silvery tones and-as this painting's evocation of sound through color suggests-her interest in synesthesia remind us how closely she was working with her husband. His 1927 painting "George Gershwin-I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" (MFA 1990.407), with its metallic colors and jazzy shapes, is as ebullient as Torr's Evening Sounds is serene; together they reveal artists working in tandem.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    36.19 x 25.4 cm (14 1/4 x 10 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on composition board

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1998.15

    Collections

    Americas

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  • That Red One

    1944

    Arthur Garfield Dove, American, 1880–1946

    Description

    In the late 1930s, after nearly two decades of makeshift living, first on a houseboat, then in ramshackle farmhouses, and finally even in a former roller-skating rink, Arthur Dove and his wife, Helen Torr [1998.15], moved again, this time to an abandoned post office in Centerport, Long Island. Shortly thereafter, Dove, who was approaching sixty, fell ill. His health often completely prevented him from working; at other times his world consisted only of what he could see through the windshield of his car as he drove from his house to Centerport Harbor, a half mile away. Nonetheless, during these years he produced some of the most powerful and affirming pictures of his career.
    The genesis of That Red One was a tiny watercolor, about three by four inches (7.6 by 10.2 centimeters), which Dove most likely painted while sitting in his car. Like the landscape painters of the nineteenth century, Dove sketched from nature constantly, and these sketches (and the large paintings he based on them) reflect his translation of what he saw into simple colors and shapes. By the 1940s he had moved from a biomorphic, linear style to forms that were geometric and colors that were bold, flat, and clear. That Red One, with its brownish-purple oval hovering over two red bars and angled shapes of intense yellow, orange, and blue, probably represents a mundane subject—a view through trees across a pond at sunrise. The result, however, was triumphant. Dove spoke about wanting to show the “point where abstraction and reality meet,” and in doing so he created an icon of modern art, a vision of nature that is both evocative and timeless. [1]

    Notes
    1. Arthur Garfield Dove, diary, August 20, 1942, Dove Papers, reel 725, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    68.58 x 91.44 cm (27 x 36 in.)

    Medium

    Oil and wax on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1990.408

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Composition with Birch Bark

    1939

    George L. K. Morris, American, 1905–1975 American

    Description

    George L. K. Morris's modernist credentials are impeccable: he was one of the founding members of the American Abstract Artists group in 1936, a frequent exhibitor at Albert E. Gallatin's pioneering Gallery of Living Art, and beginning in 1937, the first art critic for the progressive cultural magazine Partisan Review. At the same time, he is something of a rarity among twentieth-century American painters, an abstractionist with a sense of humor. While he shared the conviction of many of his American Abstract Artist colleagues that pure form was the avenue to great art, he filled his canvases with witty combinations of gleeful shapes, jazzy smiling lines, and unlikely materials.

    Morris began painting in 1929. He studied in Paris with Fernand Léger, from whom he absorbed principles of Cubist structure and a sense of the canvas as an animated, plastic surface. But he quickly recast those French ideas into an American idiom. Paralleling the Cubists' interest in African and Oceanic art, Morris found a connection between Native American artifacts and the abstract shapes essential to modernism. In some paintings, he included stylized representations of Indians. Here, alluding to Native American culture, he used pieces of birch bark as part of a collage of organic shapes. These shapes curl around two polka-dotted forms whose saucy contours seem to dance before our eyes like amoebas under a microscope. While the use of such shapes links Morris to the international movement toward biomorphic abstraction headed by Hans Arp and Joan Miró, his vocabulary is nonetheless fresh and individual. Holding the whole composition in place-pinning it down, as it were-are a dozen nails (and not just any nails but rather old, handmade nails). Arranged in a random pattern, they cast shadows that parallel the pale striations of the birch bark. Their heads echo the polka dots, lifting the jaunty rhythm of the picture into the third dimension.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    69.21 x 63.82 cm (27 1/4 x 25 1/8 in.)

    Medium

    Oil, birchbark, and nails on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1990.428

    Collections

    Americas

    Not On View
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  • Good Hope Road

    1945

    Arshile Gorky (Vosdanik Manoog Adoian), American (born in Turkish...

    Description

    In 1920, sixteen-year-old Vosdanig Manoog Adoian arrived in the United States. He studied briefly at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, and at the New School of Design (now called the New England School of Art and Design) in Boston, before moving to New York City in 1924. As he embarked on his artistic career, he changed his name to Arshile Gorky, claiming kinship with the Russian novelist Maxim Gorky. Gorky means “bitter one” in Russian, and his choice was also a poignant reference to his horrific childhood in Armenia during the Turkish invasion. Gorky’s memories of Armenia (especially of his mother, who had died of starvation there) coupled with his lyrical response to nature would be the main ingredients of his art.

    Good Hope Road was painted during a rare period of emotional security and domestic comfort. For about nine months in 1945, Gorky lived on Good Hope Road in Roxbury, Connecticut. There, he and his wife and children enjoyed a happy family life—the life that had been wrenched from him in Armenia—in bucolic surroundings. His career was also flourishing: that same year he was taken on by the Julien Levy Gallery, the premier gallery for avant-garde art in New York. His paintings sold well, and the influential critic Clement Greenberg, writing for The Nation in 1946, described the solo show in which this painting appeared as featuring “some of the best modern painting ever turned out by an American.” [1]

    Another of Gorky’s compositions from 1945, entitled Good Hope Road II. Pastoral (also known as Hugging; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), shows two figures embracing in an interior lit by firelight. The MFA painting more likely shows a landscape, perhaps with a figure reclining before a tree. Together, these works summarize Gorky’s feelings of contentment. In them, he emphasized drawing to a greater degree than he had earlier; long beautiful lines, biomorphic shapes, and patches of diluted color float across the picture, only occasionally intersecting one another. They create an atmospheric, dreamy world that appeals as much to the heart as to the mind. Gorky’s paintings of the 1940s added a profound spiritual component to the language of abstraction, and paved the way for the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock [1984.749, 1971.638] and Franz Kline [1973.636].

    Notes
    1. Clement Greenberg, May 4, 1946, review of Gorky exhibition, reprinted in John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 2, Arrogant Purpose, 1945–1949 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 79.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    86.68 x 111.76 cm (34 1/8 x 44 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1990.375

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Spiral Movement (Small Configurations within a Diamond)

    1951

    Ilya Bolotowsky, American (born in Russia), 1907–1981 American

    Description

    The generation of American artists born in the 1880s—including Charles Sheeler [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Charles%20Sheeler], Charles Demuth [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Charles%20Demuth], and Patrick Henry Bruce [1990.386]—found their greatest inspiration in the work of the French modernists Paul Cézanne [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Paul%20C%C3%A9zanne] and Henri Matisse [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Henri%20Matisse]. For many of the artists of the next generation, born, like Ilya Bolotowsky, shortly after the turn of the century, a critical stimulus was the art of the Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró [1980.273] and the Dutch master of geometric abstraction Piet Mondrian [2009.5042]. The dedication of these younger painters to nonrepresentational art set them apart from the Social Realist and Regionalist artists who dominated the art scene in the United States in the 1930s with their politically charged figural compositions. Bolotowsky, whose family was forced to flee Russia and came to the United States via Constantinople in 1923, was among the most talented of these abstract painters.
    Bolotowsky studied at the National Academy of Design in New York. Like so many young artists who began their careers at the outbreak of the Depression, his first work as a professional artist was produced for the Federal Government’s Public Works of Art Project; by the mid-1930s he was painting abstract murals for the Works Progress Administration in New York. He was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group in 1936, established to promote nonobjective art, and his work from this period often included free-floating, Miró-like lines and biomorphic shapes.

    By the 1940s, however, Bolotowsky’s style changed again, now reflecting the influence of Mondrian. Spiral Movement (Small Configurations within a Diamond), with its diamond shape and lively grids of small blocks of primary color, is particularly reminiscent of Mondrian’s celebrated Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43, Museum of Modern Art, New York), which the Dutch artist painted and exhibited shortly after his immigration to the United States. Bolotowsky not only absorbed the formal ideas in Mondrian’s pictures but also subscribed to the search for purity, for universal significance—for a kind of aesthetic utopia—that was behind those pictures. For Bolotowsky, this striving came out of personal experience. As he stated in a 1974 interview, “After I went through a lot of violent historical upheavals in my early life, I came to prefer a search for an ideal harmony and order which is still a free order, not militaristic, not symmetrical, not goose-stepping, not academic.” [1]

    Notes
    1. Louise Averill Svendsen and Mimi Poser, “Interview with Ilya Bolotowsky,” in Ilya Bolotowsky, by Ilya Bolotowsky, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1974), 32.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    71.75 x 71.75 cm (28 1/4 x 28 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1980.208

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Probst I

    1960

    Franz Kline, American, 1910–1962 American

    Description

    Probst I was painted in 1960, the year Franz Kline was awarded a prize at the Venice Biennale and ten years after he abandoned figuration for his signature gestural style. Kline’s artistic training had been conventional: he had studied at Girard College in Philadelphia, at Boston University, and then at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art in London. However, the excitement surrounding the “action painting” of such artists as Jackson Pollock [1984.749, 1971.638] and especially his close friend Willem de Kooning [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Willem%20de%20Kooning] in the late 1940s and early 1950s influenced Kline’s interest in abstract painting, and his over-life-sized black-and-white canvases are now considered major monuments of Abstract Expressionism.

    Unlike the restless lyricism of Pollock or the density and ambiguity of de Kooning’s canvases from the 1950s, Kline’s paintings are composed of clear, open shapes. His works are dramatic, confident, and above all forceful. His massive black strokes—often applied with a six-inch housepainter’s brush—are sometimes associated with Asian calligraphy, a connection Kline denied, stating: “The Oriental idea of space is an infinite space; it is not painted space, and [mine] is . . . calligraphy is writing, and I’m not writing. . . . I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important.” [1]

    Kline’s pictures are muscular, strong, and above all exultant: they attempt to capture, in an abstract language, the dynamism of contemporary life. His shapes are architectural, evoking buildings, bridges, or, in the words of his friend Elaine de Kooning, “the old-fashioned engines that used to roar through the town where he was born.” [2] The titles of many of Kline’s paintings allude to his upbringing in the Pennsylvania coal country; others, including the MFA’s, reflect his surroundings in Greenwich Village, New York. The title of Probst I refers to Jack (Yoachim) Probst, an artist friend from the Village. It is a painting both monumental and subtle, gaining luminosity from the delicate passages of yellow and pale salmon and depth from an undergirding of rich dark brown behind the slashing black strokes.

    Notes
    1. Katherine Kuh, interview with Franz Kline, in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross (New York: Abrams, 1990), 92–93.
    2. Elaine de Kooning, quoted in Irving Sandler, Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 256.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    272.41 x 202.56 cm (107 1/4 x 79 3/4 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1973.636

    Collections

    Americas , Contemporary Art

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  • Troubled Queen

    1945

    Jackson Pollock, American, 1912–1956

    Description

    On August 8, 1949, Life magazine published an article with the headline “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” Calling the thirty-seven-year-old artist “the shining new phenomenon of American art,” Life not only celebrated Pollock’s rapid rise among the avant-garde, but also acknowledged Abstract Expressionism, of which Pollock was the leading representative, as the premier American style. Troubled Queen is a masterful transitional work from the Regionalist figurative paintings of Pollock’s early years to the passionate “drip” paintings for which he is best known.
    Born in Wyoming, Pollock was trained in art schools in California before enrolling in the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton’s [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Thomas%20Hart%20Benton] classes at New York City’s legendary Art Students League. His earliest works were in the Romantic landscape tradition, populated with stylized figures that echo Benton’s. But both the literalism and the rhythmic flowing shapes of these pictures soon gave way to a more turbulent style, marked by jagged lines; harsh, acid colors; and above all imagery that was symbolic, enigmatic, and abstract. The sources for these images were the work of Pablo Picasso [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Pablo%20Picasso] (whose landmark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939 made a strong impression on Pollock), primitive art, and the theories of psychoanalyst Carl Jung [2008.181, 1988.152, 2003.807] (Pollock had begun analysis in the late 1930s). But Pollock’s approach was stunningly original.

    By the mid-1940s Pollock had evolved a style that drew images from his subconscious, rendering them in a highly textured bravura technique. As Troubled Queen shows, Pollock had begun to work in a very large scale by this time; his paint was dragged over, dripped on, and flung at the canvas. His subject matter was no less highly wrought: emerging from the churning coils and jagged lines of this life-sized canvas are two facelike forms, one a leering mask, the other a one-eyed diamond shape. Their nightmarish presences reflect not only Pollock’s agitated psyche but also the years of violence that had torn the world apart through war. In a few years, all traces of the figure would drop out of Pollock’s work, and as Life predicted, his style—overlapping skeins of paint expressing deep feeling—would make New York the center of the international avant-garde.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    188.28 x 110.49 cm (74 1/8 x 43 1/2 in.)

    Medium

    Oil and alkyd (synthetic paint) on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1984.749

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Randolph, New Hampshire

    1915

    William Zorach, American (born in Lithuania), 1889–1966

    Description

    Marguerite and William Zorach spent the winter seasons in New York City, soaking up the avant-garde ideas in the paintings and sculpture shown at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery and elsewhere while seeking exhibition opportunities for their own art. The warm months were for rejuvenation; between 1915 and 1918, the Zorachs spent several summers in New Hampshire. Although each of them would later specialize in other media (Marguerite became well known as a textile artist and William became one of the leading sculptors of the modernist generation), during this period they were both active as painters. Their styles, based on their experiences as art students in Paris a few years earlier, combined the vivid palette of Fauvism with Cubist compositional structure. Each of them turned to the landscape of the surrounding White Mountains as subject matter. In this case, their responses are found on either side of a single canvas: on the back of Marguerite's 1917 "Whippoorwills" is William's "Randolph, New Hampshire," painted two years before.

    It is not known why the Zorachs chose to paint on both sides of a single piece of canvas. They were extremely poor in those years and may have been driven to work in this unusual manner for reasons of economy. But the double-sided canvas is also an expression of the collaborative spirit that marked their careers, and their marriage. They frequently had joint exhibitions; Marguerite drew embroidery motifs from images in William's paintings, while he based sculptural elements on her needlework designs; and a number of Marguerite's embroidered pictures were worked on (and signed) by both of them.

    Both sides of this painting reflect the Zorachs' pleasure in their summers in New Hampshire, where they lived rent- and relatively care- free in handsomely sited if dilapidated farmhouses that were loaned to them by generous patrons. William presented New Hampshire as Arcadia, with sensuous, Matisse-like nudes lounging in a bucolic landscape. He uses bold, bright colors reminiscent of French Fauvism. Marguerite's response to their surroundings was much more direct (MFA 1993.867b).The rolling hills, leafy woodlands, little waterfalls, and houses nestled in the valleys shown here are an accurate portrayal of the cozy landscape near Plainfield, New Hampshire, where they lived in 1917. The warm earth tones emphasize the organic quality of her picture. She molds the hills and trees into flat, decorative shapes, creating a tapestry-like pattern. Her technique also resonates with her work in textiles, for she paints thinly so that the canvas weave creates a background texture for her design. At the same time, she is a keen observer of nature: she accurately portrays the whippoorwills as having short rounded wings and rounded tails. Nocturnal birds, they soar by on the surface of the picture, beneath a crescent moon.

    This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.

    Details

    Dimensions

    50.8 x 60.64 cm (20 x 23 7/8 in.)

    Medium

    le Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    1993.867a

    Collections

    Americas

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  • Still Life with Azaleas and Apple Blossoms

    1878

    Charles Caryl Coleman, American, 1840–1928 American

    Description

    Charles Caryl Coleman’s Still Life with Azaleas and Apple Blossoms demonstrates the influence of the Aesthetic movement on American painting and decorative arts. The movement originated in Britain in the 1870s and 1880s as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and mass production. It was characterized by a belief in the spiritual and moral power of beauty and by a desire to improve the quality of everyday life through handsome and well-made furnishings and decoration. Like John La Farge [20.1873], Thomas Wilmer Dewing [34.131], James Abbott McNeill Whistler [42.302], and other exponents of the Aesthetic movement, Coleman strove for beauty in the line, color, and arrangement of the objects in his painting. The overall patterning of his composition, his incorporation of exotic traditions, and the manner in which he planned his painting to harmonize with the room around it demonstrate Coleman’s sympathy with the movement.
    An expatriate who lived in Italy for more than fifty years, Coleman was renowned for his beautiful studio in Rome, where he lived until the mid-1880s, and his Villa Narcissus in Capri, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Both were sumptuously decorated with tapestries, classical antiquities, and ornamental objects from various cultures. The English painter Walter Crane described Coleman’s Roman studio as “the most gorgeous studio of bric-a-brac of any.”[1]Coleman’s interest in the decorative is nowhere more apparent than in the series of large-scale still-life panels he painted in the late 1870s and 1880s.

    In his still-life paintings, Coleman often mixed objects from many cultures: Persian fabrics, Turkish carpets, Venetian vases, Japanese fans, many from his own collection. In Still Life with Azaleas and Apple Blossoms, however, he was inspired both in his composition and his choice of objects by the contemporary fashion for Japanese art. Coleman chose a tall, narrow canvas to suggest a Japanese hanging scroll or the panel of a screen. His apple blossoms in a yellow vase intertwine with azaleas in a lustrous Japanese bronze repoussé pot, against a background of kimono fabric. Even Coleman’s initials in monogram in the lower right and the inscriptions “1878” and “Roma” in the gold leaf rectangular cartouches on the lower left recall the seals often found on Japanese scrolls.

    Like Whistler, whose famous Peacock Room of 1876–77 (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) epitomized Aestheticism, Coleman thought of his composition as an integral part of the decorative scheme for an entire room. This intention is clear from a sketch on the stretcher (the wooden framework supporting the canvas) indicating the position of this painting on a wall and an accompanying penciled note that reads: “From Drawing Room facing fire, right of glass.” He was evidently pleased with Still Life with Azaleas and Apple Blossoms, for he made a near copy in 1879 (De Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).

    Notes
    1. Walter Crane, An Artist’s Reminiscences (London: Methuen & Co., 1907), 129.

    This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

    Details

    Dimensions

    180.3 x 62.9 cm (71 x 24.75 in.)

    Medium

    Oil on canvas

    Classification

    Paintings

    Accession Number

    2001.255

    Collections

    Americas

    Not On View
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