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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The New Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Fig. 1: Exterior Landscape Looking into Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard. Photograph copyright of Chuck Choi (2009).

BY ELIOT BOSTWICK DAVIS

Aerial view rendering of The New MFA designed by Foster + Partners (London). Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Fig. 2: Mask, 1150–550 B.C. Olmec, Rio Pesquero area, Veracruz, Mexico, Early to Middle Formative period (900–550 b.c.). Jadeite with black inclusions. H. 8 ½ in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Landon T. Clay (1991.968). Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), opening November 20, 2010, marks the culmination of over a decade’s work to bring together in one place a more inclusive vision of American art. In 1999, renowned architects Foster + Partners (London) were selected to design the new wing for the Art of the Americas and Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard (Fig. 1) accessible through the two redesigned entrances, Huntington Avenue and the State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance. The design reestablishes the MFA’s north-south axis envisioned by Guy Lowell (1870–1927), the museum’s original architect, bringing visitors to the heart of the MFA and improving navigation throughout the building.

Containing fifty-three galleries, the new wing allows for more than 5,000 works from the museum’s Art of the Americas collection to be on view, which more than doubles the number previously displayed. The new wing exhibits art from North, Central, and South America spanning three millennia, including works of the Ancient Americas, such as the Olmec mask of 1100 b.c. (Fig. 2), and Native North America (see “Native American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” pages 168–173), as well as painting, sculpture, and decorative arts up through about the third quarter of the twentieth century (Fig. 3). For the first time since the museum’s founding in 1870 (the present location is its second home), objects representing the Americas across a broad range of media have been brought together, including prints, drawings, photographs, musical instruments, and textiles and fashion arts (see “The Samplers of Colonial Boston,” pages 162–167).

Fig. 3: Winslow Homer (1836–1910), Boys in a Pasture, 1874. Oil on canvas, 15⅞ x 22⅞ inches. The Hayden Collection (53.2552). Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Galleries are arranged chronologically on each of the four floors, allowing visitors to travel through time as they rise through space. Level LG is dedicated to Ancient American, Native American, seventeenth-century, and maritime art. Level 1 features art of the Colonial Americas. The cosmopolitan world of Colonial Boston comes to life with the sumptuous examples of furniture, silver, portraits, and textiles displayed in period settings (Figs. 4, 5). The United States’ emergence as a new nation is also explored in a gallery featuring an enormous, historical portrait of George Washington, The Passage of the Delaware, created by Thomas Sully in 1819 (Fig. 6). Measuring 12 feet high by 17 feet wide, the painting has been reunited with its original frame for first time since entering the MFA in 1903 (to view a video of the painting’s installation, visit www.mfa.org). Level 2 explores nineteenth- century and early-twentieth-century art with special attention given to the work of John Singer Sargent (Fig. 7) in all phases of his career. Level 3 displays twentieth-century art up to the 1970s.

Some of the galleries are devoted to a single artist or to makers, such as John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) and the Goddard-Townsend families, master furniture craftsmen in eighteenth-century Newport; style (the Gothic Revival, the Aesthetic Movement (see “A Tiffany Masterpiece for the New MFA, Boston, Wing,” page 157); or period (American Art and Design in the 1920s and 1930s).

Fig. 6: Thomas Sully (1783–1872), The Passage of the Delaware, 1819.
Oil on canvas, 146½ x 207 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Gift of the Owners of the old Boston Museum (03.1079).
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Fig. 4: Sons of Liberty Bowl, 1768, Paul Revere, Jr. (1734-1818). Silver. Overall. 5½, Base: 513⁄16, Diam.: 11 in. Boston, Massachusetts. Gift by Subscription and Francis Bartlett Fund (49.45). Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Fig. 5: John Singleton Copley (American, 1738–1815), Paul Revere, 1768. Oil on canvas, 35⅛ x 28½ inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Joseph W. Revere, William B. Revere and Edward H. R. Revere (30.781). Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Rendering of The New MFA designed by Foster + Partners (London).
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The North and South Pavilions with their more intimate spaces and domestically scaled ceiling heights offer a variety of period rooms and settings, nine in all throughout the wing, that are placed adjacent to additional galleries. The South Pavilion on Level One is entirely devoted to the re-created rooms of the Oak Hill Mansion, residence of Elizabeth Derby West, daughter of the prosperous shipping merchant Elias Hasket Derby, often described as the first millionaire in the United States. West commissioned Salem architect Samuel McIntire to design the rooms, which attest to her love of neoclassical and feminine motifs such as baskets of flowers, cornucopia, and the goddess of Liberty also known as Columbia, who stands prominently atop the extraordinary chest of drawers in her bedroom (Fig. 8), now far more accessible than ever before.

Fig. 7: John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) , The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 Oil on canvas, 87⅜ x 87⅝ inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mary Louisa Boit, Julia Overing Boit, Jane Hubbard Boit, and Florence D. Boit in memory of their father, Edward Darley Boit (19.124). Photograph Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Fig. 8: Chest-on-chest, 1806-1809. Design and carving attributed to Samuel McIntire (1757–1811) Salem, Massachusetts. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, ebony and satinwood inlay, pine. The M. and M. Karolik Collection of Eighteenth-Century American Arts (41.580). Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Fig. 9: Joseph Stella (American, 1877–1946), Old Brooklyn Bridge, about 1940. Oil on canvas, 76¼ x 68¼ in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Susan Morse Hilles in memory of Paul Hellmuth, 1980. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1980.197).
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Many new acquisitions are displayed for the first time, among them many more artists of color—supported by the initiative of the Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection—as well as women artists, and artists like César Paternosto from Argentina. These additions to the collections speak to the breadth, richness, and diversity of artistic expression emanating from the United States, and, more broadly, from the Americas.

The MFA’s new wing for the Art of the Americas and Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard will open to the public on Saturday, November 20, 2010. In celebration, the museum is hosting a free Community Day to welcome visitors to see The New MFA. The New MFA will enrich the ways in which visitors encounter the museum’s great works of art, improve navigation through its galleries, as well as enhance and increase space for the MFA’s encyclopedic collection, educational programs, conservation facilities, and special exhibitions. In September 2011, the MFA’s new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art will open. For information call 617.267.9300 or visit www.mfa.org.

Elliot Bostwick Davis is the John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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