Museum of Fine Arts
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Quite simply, behind the neoclassic marble facade of the grand Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Ave., 617/267-9300, www.mfa.org, 10 a.m.–4:45 p.m. Sat.–Tues., 10 a.m.–9:45 p.m. Wed.–Fri., $17 adults, $15 seniors and students, $6.50 youth 6–17 but free on weekends, holidays, and after 3 p.m. on weekdays, free children under 6) is one of the best and most beloved art collections in the country.
The Museum of Fine Arts is particularly noted for its collection of French Impressionist works—posters of which have been decorating college dorm rooms for decades. But it also has outstanding Asian and Egyptian collections, as well as many celebrated early American paintings and artifacts. The Museum of Fine Arts began its life as the painting collection of the Boston Athenaeum, the private library located on Beacon Hill. Over the years, it benefited from Brahmin patronage to amass a fine collection of both classical and modern art objects.
Under its current leadership, the Museum of Fine Arts has taken some gambles to bring more modern viewers into the galleries, staging artistic exhibitions on guitars and race cars alongside showstopping special exhibits on the likes of Monet, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. A new addition to the museum, currently being designed by internationally renowned architects Foster and Partners, will provide even more space for exhibition of the museum’s 350,000 works of art. When completed in 2010 or 2011, the renovation will include an entire new wing for American art, glassed in over the current wing of the museum, as well as spiffed-up European galleries and more room for contemporary artwork.
At present, most visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts make a beeline for the 2nd floor, which is home to several jaw-dropping rooms dedicated to works by French impressionists Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and others. Particular highlights are Renoir’s Dance at Bougival, and Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, the centerpiece of a recent Gauguin exhibit that was one of the museum’s most successful shows ever.
Less trafficked but equally rewarding are the American galleries. On display is arguably the most famous American painting ever: Gilbert Stuart’s original unfinished painting of George Washington, which was used as a model for more than 100 paintings of the first president, including the one that appears (in reverse) on the one dollar bill.
The collection includes several paintings by John Singer Sargent, including the arresting Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt, as well as those by Boston’s own adopted artist, John Singleton Copley, including his portrait of Paul Revere. Several examples of the patriot silversmith’s work are on display in adjoining galleries of colonial artifacts and furniture.
John Singer Sargent is also the master behind the Sargent murals that cover the ceiling of the Museum of Fine Arts’ grand rotunda with rich classical imagery. The murals, which Sargent considered the culmination of his life’s work, have caused more than one visitor to develop a crick in the neck from looking up at them in amazement for so long.
The rotunda marks the crossroads of culture, separating galleries dedicated to Egypt and Asia. The Egyptian galleries contain many items that were unearthed in a fruitful museum-sponsored exhibition at Giza that began in 1905; the towering statue of Pharaoh Menkaure and his Queen is one of the finest Egyptian pieces on display anywhere.
The entire Asian collection meanwhile is hands down one of the best in the world. Many of its galleries were filled through the enterprising efforts of William Sturgis Bigelow and Ernest Fenollosa, who were known as the “Boston Buddhists” for their contribution in bringing Buddha into the West. Among the highlights of the collection is a “Japanese temple room” that features three exquisite life-size stone Buddhas, along with other Japanese sculpture contemplatively arranged in a dimly lit alcove.
Tours of various collections within the Museum of Fine Arts are offered free with admission throughout the day. Introductory tours to the entire museum run at 10:30 a.m. and 3: p.m. Monday through Friday, 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday, and 11 a.m., 12:30, and 3 p.m. during weekends. On the first Friday of every month, the Museum of Fine Arts also hosts a popular singles event where the artsy and amorous mingle over red wine and jazz while they ogle the art and each other.
© Michael Blanding and Alexandra Hall from Moon New England, 2nd Edition