Elijah in the Desert

Maureen Melton

On February 4, 2020, the MFA turned 150 years old. We had just begun celebrating the auspicious anniversary when the COVID-19 pandemic forced this Museum and museums around the world to close. Even though we cannot come together on-site right now, I am grateful the MFA community has new ways of interacting online, including this weekly blog.

As Museum historian, it has been my privilege and my pleasure to spend the last three decades exploring and sharing stories about the generous individuals who have helped create an art collection that is an impressive testament to philanthropy.

In November 1870, Washington Allston’s Elijah in the Desert became the first work of art the MFA acquired. It was a gift from Anne Hooper and her daughter, Alice. Through generous gifts over the past century and a half, the MFA has acquired more than 500,000 works of art. Among the most recent gifts is an intriguing self-portrait of 17th-century Dutch artist Maria Schalcken, given by Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo this past December.

Oil painting of a woman in a chair looking at the viewer.  Behind her stands an easel with a small landscape painting on it.
Maria Schalcken, Self-Portrait of the Artist in Her Studio, about 1680. Oil on panel. Gift of Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, in support of the Center for Netherlandish Art.

Every work of art in the Museum’s collection has either been given directly by a donor or purchased with funds donated by individuals or organizations. I find it remarkable that so many people have been willing to donate works of art that they owned and loved, offering their prized possessions to the Museum for others to discover and enjoy. And that generosity has never waned, even through the most challenging of circumstances. For 150 years, donors have steadfastly supported the MFA, determined to keep art flourishing in Boston. This support has allowed the Museum to offer art as a resource for more than 75 million visitors since its founding. From 1870 to today, the MFA has sought to be a generous member of the community in turn.

A century ago, while leading the Museum through a period of extreme difficulty, navigating the effects of World War I and the influenza pandemic at the same time, MFA president Morris Gray reflected on the importance of art. At our current time of great uncertainty, I find hope and inspiration in the words he wrote more than 100 years ago:

In these days of adjustment and reconstruction, the maintenance and development of the things of the spirit are essential to the welfare of the community. Art is not merely a thing of technique, it is above all a thing of spirit…a manifestation of exaltation that knows no barrier…

Maureen Melton is Susan Morse Hilles Director of Archives and Museum Historian.