The Boston Experience— the Museums Part One

(An Impressionistic painting of Charles Street by Childe Hassam)

There are numerous museums in Boston, the most European of our cities in America. Since I was going to be there for three full days, and since I was finished with commencement responsibilities Wednesday night, this gave me two full days to have some fun in my favorite big city. I have to tell you that after the heat and humidity in Lexington (95 and 85% when I left) it was literally a wonderful breath of fresh air to be in Boston— upper 60s with a light breeze— perfect for three days. So it was that I decided to revisit three of my favorite museums— the Museum of Fine Arts, the Gardner Museum, Symphony Hall, the Boston Public Library, Trinity Episcopal Church, and Fenway Park of course, now over 100 years old.

It had been more than a decade since I went to the first two of these museums, and much has changed, the MFA as they call it, for the better, and the Gardner, for the worse. Sadly the Gardner now looks musty, dark, showing its age, and still has no signs telling us the names of the paintings or the artists. It’s a shame since there are some wonderful John Singer Sargent paintings there (he was once painter in residence). Even the new wing at the Gardner amounts to one large new room, with art in it, that, shall we say charitably, fall’s short of Renoir. Spend your money on the MFA if you only have time for one museum.

What’s in the MFA? A fabulous collection of Greek and Roman and Egyptian and Babylonian art, artifacts, statues, busts, jewelry, mummies (daddies too), canopic jars, sarcophagus paintings, and much more. For example there is this– Mr. and Mrs. Pharaoh (cue the song ‘Stand by your Man’).

I would say on the whole the MFA has the best collection in America on the East Coast of such antiquities, rivaled only by the Met in N.Y. and the Getty in L.A. In this post however I would like to focus on the special art. I have a separate post on a William Rimmer painting, so I will focus here on some others. There was a whole group of painters from the Boston area who went to France to study under the likes of Monet and Manet, hanging in Giverny north of Paris where the former artist did much of his work. They came home inspired to do wonderful paintings like the one at the top of this post. But who has ever heard of Childe Hassam, whereas Monet rings a bell with anyone. But the MFA itself is a work of art worth seeing. Consider the following picture…

And now for a little quiz— which of the following are by Renoir, which by Van Gogh, which by Monet, and which by an American Impressionist?
(hint, the woman in the picture is named Mrs. Camille M…..)

Paris has of course had a bewitching effect on many Americans (see last year’s excellent Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris), and various American painters are among them. The picture next to the dancers is an especially fine example of the effect. The point of Impressionism is of course not realism, but rather a study in light, color, contrast, shadow, and the like. It is all about the ‘impression’ something makes on the eye under certain light, from certain angles, to a particular viewer. In other words, it is making a point about the active viewer, like the active reader and to some degree is suggesting beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This must clearly be the case to judge from some of Gauguin’s famous paintings.

A trip to the MFA for me would not be complete without see their remarkable collection of vintage and interesting and odd and one of a kind musical instruments. For example, consider the following….

I urge you… stroll down Huntington Avenue on a lovely spring day enjoying the tree lined streets, and the air, and waltz into the MFA. You will be glad you did.

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  • Eric Sawyer

    mmmimpressionists doh!

  • ru-games

    great job buddy nice post

  • David Rogers

    While I do not know you personally, I have greatly benefited from your work as a scholar and a minister. Your e-book on your daughter will be a help in my ministry as I walk through grief with others. On this Father’s Day, which must hold a particular sense of sadness, you are in my prayers.

  • ben Witherington

    Thanks David, I appreciate it. Ben

  • Patrick Mitchell

    I’ve wanted to visit Boston for some time now, so it’s great to get some tips like the ones you share. And I second @David’s comment regarding this day for you and your wife. Blessings, Dr. Ben.

  • Max

    How wonderful to see all that art! Sargent always takes my breath away. I understand he has a mural at the Library there in Boston.
    There is also the “Boston School” which sought to combine the truth of impressionist color with good draughtsmanship, sound composition and skillful paint handling.
    A point to ponder…. the Impressionists are often seen as cosy colour prints for the living room, yet for all their beauty there is a destructive philosophical side to them which paved the way to modernism. And that is the rejection of Storytelling, We express our shared humanity through story, in art, literature, plays, dance or poetry. The Impressionists don’t have a story. Their images are like vapour, without solidity, they are a denial of what is real.

  • ben Witherington

    Well Max we will have to disagree on that one, especially in the case of Van Gogh. BW3

  • Max

    Don’t get me wrong, their art is beautiful, I can’t see a better painter of the landscape than Monet. My point is they did follow a philosophy in their work, they had an intellectual focus. The impressionists were concerned with depicting light itself, not ideas, historical stories, etc, their philosophical underpinnings were anchored in an essay by Baudelaire, which said the modern artist was an observer of modern life, a recorder of the Phenomenal World of the senses. This was a departure from the art of the time, which depicted historical stories, moral stories, mythology, the Bible, and a realist presentation of modern events. Later artists, the post imps, expressionists, Dadaists and so on, would follow their intellectual lead and develop it, go further with the rejection of the story, in particular the Christian story and worldview. Nevertheless their artistic style influenced the style of many painters technically, who never followed their philosophy.