BOSTON, MA (December 26, 2013)—The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has acquired The Seven Last Words (1898) by F. Holland Day (1864–1933). Widely considered one of the masterpieces of photographic history, the monumental self portrait depicts Day as Christ in a series of seven platinum prints set in a frame designed by the artist. The work is a high point of Pictorialism—the turn-of-the-century movement advocating the artistic merit of photography. With few prints ever made by the artist and a tragic fire destroying his studio, Day’s photographs are tremendously rare. The Museum also acquired the crown of thorns worn by Day in The Seven Last Words and three important portraits of Day taken by photographers Edward Steichen, James Craig Annan and Clarence H. White. They were kept by the artist as part of his personal archive. The photographs will be prominently featured in the exhibition Truth and Beauty: Pictorialist Photography, which will be on view at the MFA from April 17, 2014 through February 16, 2015.
The MFA purchased both the series and artist portraits (through the Lee Gallery of Winchester, Massachusetts) from the Norwood Historical Society, which is based in Day’s former home in Norwood, Massachusetts—the crown of thorns was a gift from the Society. The purchase was made possible through the Barbara M. Marshall Fund, Frank B. Bemis Fund, Otis Norcross Fund, William E. Nickerson Fund, Lucy Dalbiac Luard Fund, funds by exchange from a Gift of James Lawrence, Dorothy Mackenzie and John E. Lawrence and funds donated by Michael and Elizabeth Marcus, Charles W. Millard III, and Scott Nathan and Laura DeBonis.
“The Seven Last Words is one of the most significant images in the history of the photography, a work that reverberates with iconic importance and one that influenced subsequent artists significantly,” said Anne E. Havinga, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs at the MFA. “It is exciting to make an acquisition that bridges the ideals of 19th century photography with those of the 20th, and we are grateful to the donors whose enthusiasm and support helped make the purchase possible.”
In 1898, Day began exploring religious themes in his photographs. His “Sacred Studies,” as he called them, were widely acclaimed for their high-art aspirations—as seen in their relation to old master religious painting—and their unquestionable daring. The Seven Last Words was one of Day’s most expressive and best-known pieces and continues to be admired by many contemporary artists, especially those who explore identity, role play and staged photography in their work. Each of the seven photographs in the work, set in a frame designed by the artist, represents one of the last phrases spoken by Christ:
Father forgive them they know not what they do.
Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.
Woman behold thy son: Son thy mother.
My God my God why hast thou forsaken me.
Into thy hands I commend my spirit.
It is finished.
Only two other versions of the work exist today: one is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (without the artist-designed frame) and a third is owned by a private collector (with an altered frame). The MFA’s version is in tremendous condition and is in its original, un-altered frame.
The three portraits of Day that were acquired in addition to The Seven Last Words speak to Day’s unique personality. They include: the celebrated Solitude (1901) by Edward Steichen (1879–1973), a rare platinum print featuring Day gazing at the camera as if deep in thought; Fred Holland Day (about 1900-01) by James Craig Annan (1864–1946), a large-scale and unique image of the artist seated, in its original frame; and F. Holland Day and an African American Model (about 1902), also a unique print, by Clarence H. White (1871–1925).
Born into an affluent family in Norwood, F. Holland Day was a turn-of-the-century Bostonian with an ultra-refined aesthetic sensibility and a multitude of interests, particularly in art and literature. He was a member of the “Boston Bohemians,” a circle of friends with whom he shared a love for the Arts and Crafts movement, sophisticated wit and Symbolist literature and art. He was also an admirer of old master painting and classical sculpture, and collected Japanese decorative arts and drawings. His interests led him into a career as a fine book publisher and photographer.
Day became interested in photography in the mid 1880s, joining the Pictorialist crusade to prove that photography could be a fine art, and within a decade he had become one of the most important figures in the international movement. While Day championed the same goals promoted by fellow photographers, he also defended religious imagery and the male nude—subjects that had previously been the domain of painting and sculpture. The seriousness of Day’s approach to artistic photography and his heightened sense of symbolism, enhanced by the subtle, low-keyed tonalities of his prints, were an inspiration to other photographers of the time.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its encyclopedic collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum’s collection is made up of: Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 9:45 p.m. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 p.m., weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 p.m. admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The MFA’s multi-media guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.