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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sotheby's Institute in Boston
Day 1

The first field trip of the season has come and gone, 3 days and two nights in Boston.  It was a new trip for the group, since in past years the renovation of the Museum of Fine Arts has made Philadelphia a better option for seeing Colonial American art and architecture, especially in an urban setting.  It was a fairly ambitious schedule but we managed to pack in the following visits (and allow for a bit of free time):

1. Trinity Church
2. Boston Public Library
3. Otis House Museum
4. Paul Revere House 
5. Museum of Fine Arts
6. Vose Galleries
7. Old State House
8. Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

Our first stop (after dropping bags at the hotel) was Trinity Church in Copley Square.  Rain and some scaffolding prevented the desire to photograph the exterior, but the interior was stunning, even without bright sunlight illuminating the stained glass and painted surfaces.  Designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, the church replaced the parish's prior building which burned in Boston's great fire of 1872.  Construction lasted from 1872-77 and contains some of the finest interior design and painting that John La Farge has ever done.  

Unlike the Romanesque feeling that dominated the bulk of the interior, the altar was surprisingly art deco in feel and few were surprised to learn that it was part of a later renovation.  Stained glass is particularly important to the interior of the church which owns fine examples of La Farge's work, William Morris glass (designed by Edward Burne-Jones), a window by the London firm Clayton & Bell, and very bright, French glass from Parisian firm Oudinot.  Less known, but charming in their own right were windows executed by Sarah Wyman Whitman.  The tour was exceptionally good, and guide Anulfo Baez was knowledgeable about the stained glass, the history of the interior commission, and answered any and all questions raised.  Zoe Langosy, the church's Assistant Manager for Art and Architecture Programs, arranged the tour and we are grateful for all the assistance she provided. 

From Trinity Church, it is just a short hop across Copley Square to the Boston Public Library.  Built by McKim, Meade, and White, the building is a real testament to the public spirit that dominated issues of education and opportunity in Boston during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Boston’s Public Library in Copley Square is one of the nicest civic spaces in Boston, and has one of the best collections of art in the city.  It also has a great café, in which some of us were lucky enough to eat.  But the art is the main attraction.  The building’s classical façade forms a nice contrast to Richardson’s Romanesque style evident in Trinity Church, which sits directly across the square.  With a little more time and less rain that day, visitors could easily occupy themselves reading the names of artists, thinkers, and philosophers carved on the library’s exterior. 

Just beyond the exterior doors are a set of large bronze panels created by Frederick MacMonnies.

The logia is dominated by a mural by Puvis de Chevannes, The Muses of Inspiration welcoming the Spirit of Light, and accompanied by eight smaller panels dedicated to the main classifications of poetry, philosophy, and science.  The general scheme is reinforced by specific representations: Pastoral, Dramatic, and Epic Poetry; History, Astronomy, and Physics; and Chemistry and Physics.  The soft, muted tones of the mural reinforce the spiritual, ethereal nature of the scene.  Describing the murals to John Singer Sargent in 1896, McKim wrote: “The Chevannes work is superb in its stately proportions and high ideals, carried out with a breadth that easily makes him a master of his art.  The public have hailed it by common acclaim.”

Turning right at the top of the stairs, we passed through a small room with Pompeiian style wall painting before entering a former delivery room with murals by Edward Austin Abbey, RA.  Abbey, an American living in England created a cycle of murals based principally on Tennyson’s “Idyll’s of the King” that transform the room into a much darker, and more masculine space than the airy, ethereal logia.  The rich faux painted woodwork throughout the room compliment the darker tonality of Abbey’s pre-Raphaelite murals, creating a harmonious interior space.  Although it is nearly impossible to tell by photographs of the space, Abbey built up paint three-dimensionally in spaces and through these elements (many of which are gilded) created a visual dynamism that shifts as one moves through the space. 

Going Back through the logia, towards the other end is a staircase leading to the Sargent galleries on the third floor, where his Triumph of Religion cycle is installed.  These are difficult works to like, even when one appreciates the context and significance of their commissions.  Unlike the exquisite coloration and bravura brushwork one normally associates with Sargent’s work, the figures in the murals are stiff; the poses are static.  Essentially detailing the triumph of the Judeo-Christian tradition, critics at the time accused the image Synagogue of being anti-Semitic and even today it is not difficult to understand why.  Whereas the companion piece Church is depicted upright and strong, Synagogue is seen awash in chaos, blindfolded, and apparently helpless.  Not helping matters either is the sense of stylistic incongruity, likely resulting from the 29 years Sargent worked on the commission. 

Hidden throughout the library were a number of small gems too, and we found it useful while in the library to remember the breadth of the general public that the library serves.  For instance, if the nicely presented exhibition on Winslow Homer’s work for Harper’s Weekly wasn’t a relevation art historically, it was a chance for people not familiar with his work—or familiar with him only as a painter—to see a different side of him, and gain a different understanding of the production of art and the life of artists in the 1860s.  

Just beyond this, however, was among the strangest and most delightful of the museum’s exhibits Louise Stimson.  These small, diorama-like vignettes were varied and charming, depicting Street scenes, a river scene, even an construction excavation in New York.  Not only was there an attention to detail in each scene, but the artist’s choice to dramatically force perspective with converging orthogonals was particularly effective.

Needless to say, it was a busy first day in Boston, with a lot to see. The early morning train ride and plenty of walking left many of us pretty tired.

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