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Museum of Fine Arts
Museum of Fine Arts Review
Count on staying a while if you have any hope of seeing what's here. Eclecticism and thoroughness, often an incompatible pair, have coexisted agreeably at the MFA since its earliest days. From Renaissance and baroque masters to impressionist marvels to African masks to sublime samples of Native American pottery and contemporary crafts, the collections are happily shorn of both cultural snobbery and shortsighted trendiness.
The MFA's collection of approximately 450,000 objects was built from a core of paintings and sculpture from the Boston Athenaeum, historical portraits from the city of Boston, and donations by area universities. The MFA has more than 60 works by John Singleton Copley; major paintings by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Edward Hopper; and a wealth of American works ranging from native New England folk art and colonial portraiture to New York abstract expressionism of the 1950s and 1960s. Also of particular note are the John Singer Sargent paintings adorning the Rotunda. They were specially commissioned for the museum in 1921, and make for a dazzling first impression on visitors coming through the Huntington Street entrance.
American decorative arts are also liberally represented, particularly those of New England in the years before the Civil War. Native son Paul Revere, much more than a sounder of alarms, is amply represented as well, with superb silver teapots, sauceboats, and other tableware.
The museum also owns one of the world's most extensive collections of Asian art under one roof. Its Japanese art collection is the finest outside Japan, and Chinese porcelains of the Tang Dynasty are especially well represented. The Egyptian rooms display statuary, furniture, and exquisite gold jewelry; a special funerary-arts gallery exhibits coffins, mummies, and burial treasures.
French impressionists abound, and are perhaps more comprehensively displayed here than at any other New World museum aside from the Art Institute of Chicago; many of the 38 Monets (the largest collection of his work outside France) vibrate with color. There are canvases by Renoir, Pissarro, Manet, and the American painters Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam.
Three important galleries explore the art of Africa, Oceania, and the ancient Americas, expanding the MFA's emphasis on civilizations outside the Western tradition. The museum also has strong collections of textiles, costumes, and prints dating from the 15th century, including many works by Dürer and Goya, and its collection of antique musical instruments is among the finest in the world.
Fifteen second-floor galleries contain the MFA's European painting and sculpture collection, dating from the 11th century to the 20th. Among the standouts are Donatello's marble relief The Madonna of the Clouds and J. M. W. Turner's powerful work The Slave Ship. Most striking, however, is the William I. Koch Gallery, a former tapestry room whose 40-foot-high marble walls are now hung, nearly floor to ceiling, with 53 dramatic Renaissance and baroque paintings by El Greco, Claude Lorraine, Poussin, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Veronese, and other masters.
The West Wing, an airy, well-lighted space, is used primarily to mount special exhibitions, temporary shows drawn from the museum's holdings, and lively contemporary-art and photography exhibits. It also has the Bravo Restaurant, a cafeteria, and a café serving light snacks.
Expanding the Arts
Founded in 1870, the MFA first resided on the upper floors of the Boston Athenaeum, then in a Gothic structure on the site where the Copley Plaza Hotel now stands. As the museum was beginning to outgrow that space, the Fenway area was becoming fashionable, and in 1909 the move was made to Guy Lowell's somewhat severe beaux arts building, to which the West Wing, designed by I. M. Pei, was added in 1981. The move helped cap the half-century of expansion of the Back Bay area.
In 2005 the museum broke ground on a massive construction project that the trustees hope will keep it in America's cultural vanguard for the next 100 years. A new East Wing has been built to house the Art of the Americas collection, expanding the current gallery space by 50%. Other aspects of the 133-year-old building's enormous face-lift include a new glass-enclosed courtyard, the reopening of the Fenway entrance, and a "crystal spine" to run the full length of the museum. The construction is now complete and the new American Wing opened in November 2010 to much fanfare; the wing houses more than 5,000 works from North, Central, and South American in its 53 brand new galleries.
From October to April, take a much-needed break from the art viewing and enjoy tea that is served from 2:30 to 4 in the second-floor Upper Rotunda.
The year-round cocktail party "MFA Fridays," from 5:30 to 9:30—held weekly in summer and monthly at other times—has become quite the social event. Stop by to admire the art in a festive atmosphere.
Be aware that the museum will require you to check any bag larger than 11"x15", even if it's your purse. So save that oversize bag for another day and bring along only the essentials.
With such extensive collections, you could easily spend a whole afternoon perusing the galleries, but if you only have an hour, head to the second floor and take in the Monets.
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