Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! In this week’s post, we are going to explore five must see masterpieces at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Founded in 1870, the MFA has over 450,000 works of art! It was hard to narrow it down to just five, but I believe these works are extraordinary and deserve the spotlight! So, to see them and learn more, keep on reading!
Before we dive in, however, it’s important to establish the history of the museum. The Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1870. Originally located on the top floor of the Boston Athenaeum. Local artist, Francis Davis Millet, founded an art school associated with the museum and he appointed Emil Otto Grundmann as its first director.
Six years later, the museum moved into a beautiful, Gothic revival building in Copley Square. The doors were opened to the public on July 4th, as a part of the nation’s centennial celebrations. At this time, the collection ballooned to almost 6,000 objects! By 1909, it had outgrown the Copley Square space and was moved to a new building on Huntington Avenue. This is where the museum is still located today.
In both 2010 and 2011, the museum was expanded to accommodate its growing collection. Today, as I mentioned in the intro, there are nearly 500,000 objects held by the MFA! The museum is also a part of the Google Arts and Culture project, which means you can explore the spaces from the comfort of your own home! On average, 1.2 million people visited the MFA Boston each year.
Work #1: Watson and the Shark
Alright, now that we have the history down, let’s get into the works! First up is a painting called Watson and the Shark. It was painted by John Singleton Copley in 1778 and depicts the story of a fourteen year old boy named Brook Watson being attacked by a shark in the waters of Havana Harbor in 1749. Thankfully, he was rescued by the crew and only lost the bottom part of his right leg!
This was the first, large scale history painting that Copley executed in his career. It was an unusual choice for this kind of painting, however, because this genre was typically reserved for biblical, mythological, or national history scenes. Instead, Copley chose to create a dramatic rendering of a fairly obscure event, raising it up to the level of an important cultural moment.
Copley’s bold and jarring composition is a perfect transition from the neoclassical to romantic styles. We still have the tight, stacked figures, but with the strong diagonal line. The figures are interacting, but with more intense emotion. The artist puts the viewer right in the middle of the action, almost too close to the shark for our liking!
Finally, one of the most popular (and comical) elements of this painting is the shark itself. Yes, it’s a bit scary with its open mouth rushing towards the boy. But, to our modern eyes, it doesn’t really look like a shark! The animal has forward facing eyes and lips, features not found in any species of sharks. This is because Copely never traveled to Cuba OR saw a shark in real life. So, he honestly just tried his best! And now it’s a fun easter egg for visitors to the MFA!
Work #2: Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,
This next masterpiece is called St. Luke Drawing the Virgin and was painted by Northern Renaissance master Rogier van der Weyden between 1435-40. It shows a multi-dimensional scene. In the foreground, we see the Virgin and Child. She looks lovingly down at her son while she feeds him. St. Luke’s brow is furrowed in concentration as he works on sketching the moment. Outside of the building, we see a couple walking outside near a river. This shows us that van der Weyden was a master of both figural and landscape art.
One of the elements that make this work so remarkable is the fact that van der Weyden used oil paint. This fairly recent invention allowed the artist to create deeper pigment and render the smallest of details. We can see the sheen of the gold and the detailed embroidery on the wall hanging behind the Virgin. St. Luke’s robes have a sense of three dimensionality with its deep folds.
Another fascinating part of this painting is van der Weyden’s use of symbols. The small garden outside the Virgin’s room represents her purity.The artist included images of Adam and Eve on the throne are used as a foil to Jesus and Mary as they are saving humanity from the original sin. Isn’t it amazing how this work is filled with layers of meaning?
Work #3: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Bocca Baciata
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The movement focused on returning to the artistic standards of Quattrocento Italian art. This meant an emphasis on complex compositions, rich details, and intense pigmentation. One of Rossetti’s works that exemplifies this style is called Bocca Baciata or Lips That Have Been Kissed. He painted it in 1859 using one of his favorite muses, Fanny Cornforth. She has pale, white skin, and thick, wavy red hair. Placed against a wild flower background, Fanny stares off into the distance.
Besides the elements I just discussed, viewers can tell that this is a Pre-Raphaelite work through a few other details. Firstly, is Rossetti’s careful attention to the model’s jewelry. We can see each piece’s elements including gold work and pearls. The artist also used deep, jewel tones throughout the piece, another hallmark of the Pre-Raphaelites.
One fun fact about this piece! The title comes from a line from a book called the “Decameron. It was written by 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. The line reads “Bocca baciata non perde ventura, anzi rinnuova come fa la luna” (“The mouth that has been kissed loses not its freshness; still it renews itself even as does the moon”).
Work #4: J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship
The Slave Ship, painted by JMW Turner in 1840, is one of the most jarring works in the MFA’s collection. It shows a large ship, trying to sail through a violent storm. If the viewer looks closely at the waves, there are several people fighting for their lives. This was no accident, they were thrown overboard. This painting depicts the story of a ship called the Zong. It was a British slave vessel and in 1781, its captain ordered slaves thrown overboard because slaves that died of natural causes weren’t covered by insurance. It was a horrific event that helped start the abolitionist movement in Great Britain.
Immediately after painting this work, critics and viewers alike realized what an important work of art this would be. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy and people flocked to see it. For some, it caused utter sadness. For others, it inspired rage at the system. In fact, the Royal Academy show coincided with an international abolitionist exhibition. Turner was able to capture these feelings using swirling, almost violent brushstrokes. The use of red and orange is violent and disturbing. The viewer is confronted with the struggling bodies, they can’t escape the scene. This is a prime example of how art can stir a viewer’s emotions. In fact, the art critic John Ruskin, wrote, "If I were reduced to resting Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this."
Work #5: Carved Head of Pharaoh Tutankhamun
The final work of this video is also an archaeological treasure! It is a carved head of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, who is arguably the most famous king of Ancient Egypt. He ruled from 1336–1327 B.C.E. Despite his fame, we don’t know much about his reign. Instead, King Tut, as he is affectionately known, is famous for the fact that his tomb was discovered almost completely intact. It was uncovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Since then, we’ve learned so much about New Kingdom Ancient Egypt!
Although this carving appears simple, it can actually tell us a lot about Tutankhamun’s reign. Due to its stylized appearance, it was likely carved later in his reign. This is because Tut’s father was Akhenaten, also known as the Heretic Pharaoh. During his reign, Pharaoh Akhenaten did away with the traditional pantheon of gods and focused worship on Aten, the sun disk. Art during this period was distinctive with exaggerated features and lots of curves. This portrait of Tutankhamun is far more similar to the traditional style of Egypt.
Analysis shows that the crown of this sculpture was once painted with gilt gold and blue. So, in antiquity, it would have looked like the famous mask!
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a fantastic institution with a varied, interesting collection! I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the collection. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to examine all 450,000 works, but as I mentioned in the beginning of the video, you can view many of them through Google Arts and Culture. I’ve linked it in the sources below if you’re curious!
The original Museum of Fine Arts building in Copley Square. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, 1778. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1435–1440. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Bocca Baciata, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Slave Ship, JMW Turner, 1840. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Carved Head of Tutankhamun, c. 1336 B.C.E. - 1327 B.C.E. Public Domain via Google Arts and Culture