$345 Million Addition Showcases American Art Treasures
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, unveiled its Art of the Americas Wing on November 20, 2010. The 121,307-square-foot, four-story addition--the focal point of the museum's $345 million expansion--features 53 distinct galleries and period rooms. From the Lower Ground (LG) level's prehistoric Native American and ancient Central and South American artifacts to the 20th-century works displayed on Level 3, the Art of the Americas Wing tells the story of the evolution of American creativity.
The Art of the Americas Wing houses more than 5,000 works: double the number of American creations previously displayed. And you could spend the better part of a day exploring even without venturing out into the remainder of the museum.
Here are 10 exceptional masterpieces every visitor to the MFA's Art of the Americas Wing should view.
A Colossal Masterpiece
Philadelphia portrait painter Thomas Sully's 1819 Passage of the Delaware measures 146.5 x 207 inches. That's over 17 feet wide! Depicting a pivotal Revolutionary War moment on Christmas night 1776, the scene was commissioned by the state of North Carolina for the State House in Raleigh, but it never hung there. In his zeal to undertake the project, Sully put paints to canvas before receiving final dimensions in a letter from North Carolina's governor, and the final painting proved too large for any of the walls in the State House's Senate Hall. Sully found a Boston-based buyer, and the painting was eventually gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1903. Again, its enormity proved problematic, and the painting and its original frame remained in storage for more than a century.
The wing was built with a reinforced wall specifically designed to accommodate the painting's size and weight which finally assures the public can view this colossal masterpiece.
Sons of Liberty Bowl
This isn't just any rum punch bowl. "This bowl is a declaration of political defiance," says signage that introduces Paul Revere's Sons of Liberty Bowl, one of the most significant items of the 5,000 exhibited in the MFA's Art of the Americas Wing. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Sons of Liberty Bowl has been called one of the nation's three most cherished historical treasures.
The engraved bowl was commissioned by 15 of Revere's fellow members of the secretive and incendiary Sons of Liberty. It honored 92 members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives whose defiance of the Townshend Acts, which taxed British imports like tea, helped to fuel the American Revolution.
A John Singer Sargent Painting Springs to Life
On Level 2 of the Art of the Americas Wing, among the MFA's collection of 19th and early 20th century works, visitors behold the museum's substantial holdings of paintings by John Singer Sargent. This large 1882 portrait of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which was painted at the family's Paris apartment when Sargent was only 26 is a highlight. Flanking the painting are the two blue and white, 19th-century Japanese porcelain vases which appear in Sargent's painting. These prized possessions traveled back and forth between Boston and Paris with the Boits and it is somewhat remarkable to see them paired with the painting... giving it three-dimensional life.
Also on the Art of the Americas Wing's second level, a gallery devoted to Americans Abroad in the 19th Century is designed to resemble a Parisian Salon. Here, in addition to European scenes, there is a section devoted to generations of American artists who painted Niagara Falls. William Morris Hunt's 1876 Niagara is the stunning focal point.
A Frame That's Stood the Test of Time
The gallery devoted to colonial-era art and furnishings on the Art of the Americas Wing's LG level is framed in the wood that once provided the support for the second story of a 17th-century house in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The Manning House Frame, which dates to circa 1692-93, consists of oak and larch beams that have been installed to lend authenticity to a gallery showcasing the MFA's unparalleled collection of 17th- and early 18th-century North American furniture, silver, and portraiture, primarily from New England.
The Most Iconic American Portrait Ever Painted
There were no paparazzi in George Washington's day, so Rhode Island-born master portrait painter Gilbert Stuart filled the void by painting more than 50 portraits of the Revolutionary War hero and first U.S. president. Most were based on this 1796 unfinished oil on canvas, which, most notably, also served as the basis for the portrait of Washington that appears on the $1 bill. You can see the most famous image of Washington, along with Stuart's portraits of Martha Washington and John Adams, on Level 1 of the Art of the Americas Wing.
The Townsends and Goddards were two interrelated Quaker families in Newport, Rhode Island, that developed a distinctive style of fine furniture coveted by antique collectors. With its distinctive block-and-shell motif, these intricately carved cabinets and other fine wood furnishings "represent the apex of art and craft in colonial furniture" according to wall text at the MFA, where the Newport Furniture gallery is located on the first level of the Art of the Americas Wing. The MFA proudly preserves some of the finest creations to come out of the Townsend-Goddard workshop.
A Cherished Boston Scene
On the second level of the Art of the Americas Wing, visitors will want to pay a visit to the gallery devoted to Impressionism in Boston. Among the MFA's superb holdings is this wintry impressionist landscape by Childe Hassam, a Boston native. Boston Common at Twilight is an image that appears frequently on holiday cards and Boston-themed gifts, and I was impressed by how stirring the original oil on canvas is. Hassam was notably one of the first artists to depict American urban life in the style of the French impressionists.
A Rockwellian View of the '60s
The third level of the Art of the Americas Wing is devoted to 20th-Century Art Through the Mid 1980s. One standout was this original oil painting by one of New England's most commercially successful artists: Norman Rockwell. Painted in 1967 to accompany a Look magazine article about middle-class African-American families moving into Chicago's traditionally white suburbs, it captures a slice of American life during a turbulent decade. Interestingly, the wall text accompanying the painting notes that Rockwell relied on local New Englanders, as usual, as the models for this painting.
A Moving Memorial
The Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA, Boston counts this scale model of Walker Hancock's Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial, designed between 1949 and 1952, among its treasures. Looking up into the face of the Angel of the Resurrection, who embraces a fallen solider, is a moving experience: a tribute to art's capacity to evoke the depths of human emotion.