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American Identity via the Paintbrush

Art is an attempt at realization, of expression.  Historically it has been used to inform of the past or immortalize the present. These days, it can be linked to perceptions of experiential and social values. A people, a nation, a culture can be traced through its art.  For a relatively young nation such as the United States, the collected art tells of the early predominance of classical European ideals, the beginnings of a national identity after the Civil War, and the melting-pot existentialism that came to dominate a media-obsessed 20th century.


With that in mind, the Arts of the Americas wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) opened November 2010, is something of a misnomer. Nearly all of its collection is comprised of works from the United States, with a large portion concerning New England artists.  Given the location of the museum and its history as one of the oldest in the country, this is hardly surprising. The MFA does have a varied collection of Native American art, but its focus is discriminately upon the years of the emerging American nation. A better name perhaps would be in-line with “Art and the American Evolution”; from the bottom up, the wing gives visitors a well-drawn survey of the development of American art, culture and identity.


Revolution-era America comprises most of the Museum’s collection (again, this is Boston, the hub of the colonial barnstormers) and takes up a whole floor of the wing. The importance of this period closely resembles middle-school history lessons.  Here we see a series of portraits of important personalities alongside artisan crafts such as silverware, weapons, place settings and furniture.  The period-decorated rooms appear very formal; one would think twice about sitting on the furniture even if it were not over 200 years old. The regality of these arrangements bears a stiff-upper lip that, despite the colonists’ claims of sovereignty, is unmistakingly British.


Paul Revere (1770), John Singleton Copley

Paul Revere (1770), John Singleton Copley


The portraits of Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and George Washington by John Singleton Copley will likely be familiar to even the youngest student of American history, as such notables paintings are readily found in most US history books. There’s a certain interest in seeing these paintings up close, in person, especially when coupled with some of the subject’s personal artifacts—some of the smithing work done by Revere, for instance. The set up helps flesh out these myths as real people. Copley was innovative in the use of personal objects in his portraits—a technique that has since become commonplace—but seeing the actual objects possessed by these individuals has a gravitas.


While these big names get the attention in the main galleries, examining a painting of Joseph Green or Nicholas Boylston—a wealthy Boston merchant, in case you didn’t know—provides insight lesser-known entities. According to Museum literature, Copley was on the forefront in documenting citizens of the lower classes, which is great except for the fact that most of these portraits are of the upper and merchant classes. Seeing so many similar portraits of white-men-in-powdered-wigs and ladies-in-lace, the lesson becomes repetitive. To an American audience, it seems too familiar. It’s a nice collection of Copley’s work, but this isn’t the Copley museum.


As a survey, it appears not much was going on in American art at the time, and what was produced is stylistically derivative of British work. Indeed, Copley noted in letter to a friend that “in this Country [America] as You rightly observe there is no examples of Art, except what is to [be] met with in a few prints indifferently executed, from which it is not possible to learn much.” Copley was later “formally” trained in Britain. Several of the sketches and mockups for the more prominent works show the influence of British portrait painters. The concerns for anatomy and interest in classical themes is typical of the period, and Copley—his considerable talent as a painter not withstanding—even borrowed some poses and clothing pieces from his British contemporaries (the aforementioned picture of Boylston has him dressed in Eastern garb, though it is likely the merchant never journeyed out of the Massachusetts colony). America was, despite trying to break away from the British politically, still highly indebted culturally.


The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), John Singer Sargent

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), John Singer Sargent


As the United States began to expand, so did the influences on its art. French, German and Asian influences start to spring up throughout the galleries of 19th century artwork. The portraits of this era often feature the subjects bearing clothes and accessories of Japanese and Chinese influence. In the MFA, the main gallery on this floor resembles a Beaux Arts salon, displaying Neoclassical and Romantic artworks from Americans who studied abroad. Foremost of these is a gallery dedicated to the work of John Singer Sargeant. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is the centerpiece, offset by a variety of watercolors, landscapes and mural mock-ups concerning New England and European subjects. Sargeant’s preparatory drawings for the Museum’s own rotunda murals detail the attention paid to Beaux Arts classicism during the period.


A series of landscapes in an adjoining salon is largely focused on European destinations composed by artists abroad. In contrast, the American landscape works consist entirely of compositions depicting Niagara Falls. This offers a suggestion that to a large extent that America had little to offer its landscape painters—which is, of course, as 20th century artists would reveal, false. It is more likely that the European landscapes and villages offered the romanticism and whimsy that was in vogue at the time—Europe continuing to be the center of Western artistic ideals. The preoccupation with romantic fantasies and gothic revivalism is on display in the selection of furniture, silverware and period rooms—all of European influence. Impressionist pieces, such as those by Mary Cassat (who largely worked in France as part of that country’s inner-circle of outsiders) seek to capture the sensations of the artists featured in the Musee D’orsay.

David Charpentier is perpetually in graduate school, currently earning a MFA in Film Production at Boston University. He also likes to travel, ski, go to concerts and try new foods--if only he could afford to do those things. No kids, one lovely wife, two cats and a whole lot of student loans.


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