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A home from home

The kindred spirits of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

claire messud | November/December 2014

I first came to Boston as a teenager, enrolled in a boarding school in the southern suburbs once attended by the young T.S. Eliot. The school was founded in 1798—which, in American terms, is old. For me, Boston was the stuff of novels: after a childhood largely spent in Sydney and Toronto, in what seemed to me a sort of Commonwealth periphery, I was headed, at last, for a city about which memorable stories had been told and great poems written.

It was also a city in which extraordinary paintings had been collected. I loved the fact that so much of Boston’s cultural identity had been confected by eccentric hybrids and expatriates, by odd, thoughtful people who lived in between America and Europe—Whistler (born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he was happy when mistaken in Europe for a Russian), Sargent (born in Europe to American parents, he consolidated his Boston connections only later in life), Henry James (who, in spite of his British naturalisation, is buried in the Cambridge Cemetery, half a mile from my house), Edith Wharton (“I was a failure in Boston…because they thought I was too fashionable to be intelligent, and a failure in New York because they were afraid I was too intelligent to be fashionable”). With a French father, a Canadian mother and the only American passport in the family, I was often anxious about not being American enough: all these painters were reassuring to me. Most of the United States has little interest in Europe, but that seemed not to be the case in Boston—not if you judged it by its art.

As a schoolgirl, I went rarely to the Museum of Fine Art: the café was expensive, the gift shop didn’t sell anything we wanted. We gravitated to the pavements of Harvard Square and Newbury Street, opting for the museum only in winter, to get out of the cold.

But somehow those adolescent visits impressed upon me a proprietorial sense about the place, an almost familial pride. When I returned 20 years later to live here with my husband and young children, I came back to the MFA as if to the embrace of extended family: there were my old friends, John Singleton Cop­ley’s “Watson and the Shark”, Thomas Sully’s “The Torn Hat”, Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”. They became my children’s friends, too. We joined the museum so as to visit for half an hour without guilt, and went briefly and often.

The children found their favourites, and have them still. My daughter Livia, at about six, tried to copy a Frank W. Benson painting of three kids in a boat. Her version hangs in her bedroom, and she thinks of the original as her own. My son Lucian likes Whistler’s “Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice”. We all like Childe Hassam’s “Boston Common at Twilight”. With its grimed snow and sulphurous dusk, it evokes exactly our own winter evenings, erasing the 130 years between then and now.

The museum first opened its doors about a decade before that work was painted, on Independence Day 1876; it moved to its current quarters in 1909. There have been multiple expansions since, including the glassy new Art of the Americas wing designed by Norman Foster, which opened in 2010. These big bright spaces sit surprisingly well around the original 1909 Beaux Arts building, but the quiet core remains my favourite—sepulchral in the way of museums of my childhood, largely unwindowed, with broad corridors and staircases, hushed and echoey like a library, where every footfall speaks.

Rearranged in the new wing, some of our favourites are hard to find. “Watson and the Shark” used to be visible from miles away, illuminated at the end of a long corridor, but can now only be seen from much closer up, and seems a little cramped. More dismayingly, Sully’s “The Torn Hat”—that boy who was like a cousin to Livia and Lucian—is no longer on display at all. After a brief and unfortunate spell behind glass in a mocked-up 19th-century sitting room, it has returned to the mysterious vaults where, I’m told, 95% of the museum’s holdings mutter in darkness. An early 19th-century American portrait of a long-nosed chap with what looked like a sock on his head has vanished too; though others, like Sargent’s Boit sisters, have fared well and are now beautifully shown.

Still, it’s a relief to return to our family’s old haunts—to the damask-lined Koch Gallery with the European masters or to the newly reopened Impressionist gallery—and find things where we expect them to be. One unchanged corner which I always visit, hoping to find it empty, is the little vaulted room containing the 12th-century Spanish frescoes “Christ in Majesty with Symbols of the Four Evangelists”, taken from a small chapel in the Spanish Pyrenees. Mysterious and solemn but full of delight (who is that dancing chap in blue pleats, apparently raising a curtain, stage right?), these frescoes afford an opportunity for contemplation, a moment of retreat.

Even more than these figures with their beautiful Byzantine eyes, I come to this space to visit the Italian sculpture of the Virgin and Child, of the same vintage. Many renditions of the Christ child make me smile (how oddly proportioned He can be, and what funny colours!), but this one brings me near to tears. He and his mother have oddly long heads, it’s true, and in this way are stylised and foreign; but the folds of her dress, the precision of their limbs, the intensity of their embrace, the insistence of his small hand at the back of her neck, the yearning stretch of his face towards her cheek, his slight frown—I feel I know them, and their intense emotion. Theirs is at once the longing of every small child for its mother’s body, and at the same time, strangely, discomfitingly, this Christ has about him something almost adult. The passion of their familial intimacy is recognisable across almost a millennium; this is the most human Christ I have ever seen.

In a completely different manner, Van Dyck’s Princess Mary is totally present too. She’s one of the few genuinely old paintings that my kids, it seems, can really see. The daughter of Charles I of England, Mary is captured around the time of her betrothal to William of Orange; and is fittingly satinned and bejewelled. Her sleeves look like they weigh a ton. But what’s wonderful about young Mary—aside from the shimmer of her fabrics and the precision of their ornamentation, or the light folding of her childishly plump hands over her stomach—is the luminous rendition of her face and its familiar expression. My husband says, each time he sees her, “Oh, there’s Amy!” because she so thoroughly resembles a former colleague of his.

Mary is wary—as she should be, standing stiffly for this great Flemish portraitist, about to be married off at the tender age of nine. She’d be widowed at 19, shortly after the execution of her father at the hands of Oliver Cromwell. And she’d be dead herself by 29. She looks as though she has some sense that her road will not be easy, and that all the luxurious garments in the world cannot protect her.

This Princess Mary came to America in the 1920s, sold by the Earl of Normanton and bought by Alvan Tufts Fuller, a wealthy car dealer who became governor of Massachusetts and lived to the ripe age of 80. If she could only have married him instead.

My kids love the Impressionist gallery best, as I did when I was young—the acid-bright Van Goghs, the hazy purple and blue Monets, the bright flower-filled Renoirs. Even now, as a teenager, my daughter has a frank affection for Degas’s sculpture of the little 14-year-old dancer, her chin up and her hands behind her back, her tulle skirt rather grubby but her satin hair ribbon brand new. Livia will stand beside the glass case and mimic the girl’s pose. She gave up ballet years ago, but she does it pretty well.

My own favourite Degas is the “Ballet Dancer with Arms Crossed”, an unfinished work bought at his posthumous studio sale in 1919. With her folded arms and averted gaze, she appears thoughtful, or near-tearful, possibly even sulky—it’s hard to tell, just as it might be in life. Her face is largely in shadow, though her orangey lipstick glows; and her décolleté is an almost bruised grey, which, along with the black ribbon around her neck, imparts an atmosphere of darkness against the half-painted scarlet background. Her form is harshly outlined in black (how big and clumsy her right hand looks, when she is so generally graceful!); her skirt is pure white; and then, around her, the thin application of red paint allows the raw canvas to show through, balancing the white skirt with white patches on the left of the painting. Degas abandoned it in about 1872, but she remained for over 45 years in his studio: there’s a strange intimacy in seeing this girl, whom the famously difficult painter could neither approve of nor relinquish, standing in her sad defiance on the wall.

Times have changed, and she no longer appears unfinished. A little blurred, off-colour, but intensely alive, she anticipates the contemporary work of, say, Marlene Dumas. Her presence, no less intense than Princess Mary’s, is more emotional and interior, a presence that insists upon the filter of the artist’s eye. As Edmond de Goncourt wrote after visiting Degas’s studio, “Of all the men I have seen engaged in depicting modern life, he is the one who has most successfully rendered the inner nature of that life.”

Which brings me back to Sargent. Everyone at our house has his or her particular favourite: mine is “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a portraitist of extraordinary facility. Claimed by Auguste Rodin as the “Van Dyck of our times”, he had the gift, like Van Dyck with Princess Mary, of capturing surfaces so precisely that their interior is evoked. For many years a society painter, he was both adored and disdained for the elegance and sensuousness of his work.

There’s a celebration of loveliness and ease that cumulatively can seem superficial, insufficient, a rich man’s delight in velvet, brocade and Italian gardens, all of it underwritten by the wealthy and aristocratic patrons whose commissions for so many years occupied Sargent’s time. But the jewel in the MFA’s collection of his paintings is an antidote to this glossy illusory perfection, and proof that he was capable of darkness and complexity. “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” was painted in Paris in 1882, when the artist was in his mid-20s. The Boits were American friends of Sargent’s, originally from Boston but living in luxury in the 8th arrondissement. The four girls—from left to right, Mary Louisa, Florence, Jane and Julia—were painted in the foyer of their apartment, their white pinafores glistening in the gloom.

The MFA’s Erica Hirshler tells us that Sargent was influenced by Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”, which he’d studied at the Prado in Madrid. But the painting is far from traditional: only one of its subjects, four-year-old Julia, looks directly at the viewer, her legs stuck out before her and her doll upon her lap. For these girls, growing older appears to be a matter of retreat. Mary Louisa, the next in age, stands to the left of the painting, staring into the middle distance, her hands behind her back. Her frock is a warm old rose, the brushwork of her pinafore thick and brilliant, slashes of extra white upon her waistband: she is still very much in the light. But the two elder sisters, Florence and Jane, in black dresses beneath their pinafores, have stepped back into the corridor, and Florence has largely turned her back to us, leaning against one of the enormous Japanese vases that command as much attention as the girls. Florence’s eye is on Jane, who has something lost about her, her stance and expression more tentative, more expectant, than her sisters’.

Only little Julia engages with the viewer, and only grown-up Florence engages with one of her sisters. The other two are abstracted, even isolated. As with Degas’s dancer, their thoughts remain opaque, even as we can be certain that they’re thinking.

Sargent, more than 20 years Degas’s junior, was ultimately the less adventurous painter. In his later years, rather like Edith Wharton, he came to be seen as old hat, obsolete, the fusty representative of a lost world. But even today, there’s something about this painting—the four sisters, none of whom would marry, and one of whom would struggle with mental illness—that is profoundly moving, and intimately familiar.

Those girls, like Princess Mary, enjoyed the blessings of privilege and wealth, which cushioned but could not save them. Thanks to their peripatetic parents, they lived between cultures and countries, just as they stand in the painting in their apartment’s dark foyer on their way to somewhere else. There are advantages to this liminal state (I passionately believe in it, as someone also raised between different countries), but how relieving too, at the last, to have a home (not having had one, I wanted to make sure my children did); and how fitting a home the MFA is for these enigmatic Sargent girls, with one eye on the past and the other on the future.

MFA Boston open Saturday to Tuesday, 10am-4.45pm; Wednesday to Friday, 10am-9.45pm; mfa.org

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