- Sebastian Smee's Blog
Surveying the art scene in Boston and beyond
There's something restrained and yet sumptuous about the Level One galleries in the MFA's Art of the Americas Wing. These display the art of colonial and revolutionary America, so the rooms are thickly populated with portraits of important personages, as well as silver and furniture. Let's face it, unless you're really in the mood, this sort of thing can fail to get the pulse going.
So why is the atmosphere in here so often electric?
Last time I was there, for instance, there was a palpable buzz. A young student, late teens, was almost hopping from work to work, saying, "Oh my god, they've got this! And this! And check this out - it's unbelievable."
The centerpiece of the first gallery is, of course, John Singleton Copley's portrait of Paul Revere, Jr. It's flanked by examples of Revere's silver, and out in front, in its own glass vitrine, one of this country's great treasures: the Sons of Liberty Bowl.
How absolutely incredible to have these things all together, right in front of you.
But your eyes are quickly pulled away by less triumphal things. Note, in a quiet corner, Copley's portrait of his half-brother, Henry Pelham, on loan to the museum: it shows Henry in profile and illuminated by orange candlelight, and it's a wonderfully intimate antidote to the prevailing pomp of the other portraits.
What's so astounding about these galleries is the way everything seems connected to everything else. So, for instance, the Pelham portrait connects with another, more famous portrait of Pelham by Copley, "A Boy with a Squirrel." This was sent by Copley to England, where it was shown to Benjamin West, who was sufficiently impressed to compare it to Titian.
Another example: in these and the nearby gallery devoted exclusively to Copley, you can find three very distinguished - and distinctive - portraits of the same man, Isaac Winslow.
One is a single portrait by Robert Feke:
Another a family portrait by Joseph Blackburn:
And the third is a double portrait - Winslow and his wife - by Copley:
Admire, too, Blackburn's ravishing portrait of Susan Apthorp in a silk dress that reflects the dusky sky with flashes of pink and iridescent blue.
The furniture in these galleries is as eloquent as the portraiture. The curators have displayed Copley's portrait of the expatriate loyalist Gilbert DeBlois, for instance, next to DeBlois's clothespress (he was a merchant who sold, among other things, fabrics).
There are a few astonishing loans from the City of Boston in these galleries (the MFA better hope the city's budget woes don't induce it to sell them off to out of town collectors or museums - what a disaster that would be!). One of them is Copley's portrait of John Hancock, which hangs close to a silver cake basket by William Plummer, commissioned by Thomas Hancock and passed down to his son John.
Another is Copley's stirring portrait of Samuel Adams pointing, erm, pointedly, at the Massachusetts Royal Charter - and by inference demanding the expulsion of British troops. He has a half-smile on his face, which radiates both impressive equanimity and ferocious conviction.
Copley’s portrait of the doctor and leading radical Joseph Warren is matched in a nearby gallery by a painting by John Trumbull commemorating his heroic death at Bunker Hill.
Here they’ll see lots of evidence of the neo-classical style that emerged after the Revolution, and a particular emphasis on the civic virtue and military readiness represented by the Roman republic.
Look out, here, for a tray and plate both marked with the emblem of the Society of the Cincinatti, and for a splendid Grecian couch that signals an emergent culture of independence, affluence and self-confidence.
Also for Horatio Greenough's splendid "Arno," a marble sculpture of his greyhound, named after the river in Italy, where Greenough studied under the great Danish neoclassical sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen. Neo-classicism, we're reminded, was an international style, echoing a new era of international geo-diplomacy.
There's also, of course, John Neagle's dramatic portrait of "Pat Lyon at the Forge" - a sort of "up you!" by a self-made man who overcame great odds, including wrongful imprisonment, to achieve success (Lyon was an early incarnation of the great American myth)....
That taut mouth and those lop-sided, watery, watchful eyes seem to say it all: Nation-building is exhausting.