Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts Tells a Tale of the Americas

Eleven years ago, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts embarked on an ambitious project to display the history of the Americas through art. In November, the museum unveiled the artistic and architectural undertaking, the new Art of the Americas Wing. The four chronological floors tell an awe-inspiring story through painting and sculpture, as well as ancient artifacts, furniture and household objects that set the scene. After walking through the columns of the museum’s grand marble entrance and passing through the visitor center, one reaches a square courtyard, streaming with light, with glass walls three stories high. Looking up, one glimpses paintings and statues flanking the Art of the Americas Wing. The new wing adds 133,491 square feet and 53 galleries to the museum and houses over 5,000 pieces of artwork. While the addition may seem vast, the exhibition’s organization makes it easy to enjoy in an afternoon’s visit. The exhibition moves chronologically through four floors from ancient Mesoamerican treasures to Modern art. A central gallery on each floor tells a story, like the founding of the nation, or features a particular strength of the MFA, like the oils of John Singer Sargent. From colonial wallpaper to streamlined chairs of the 1950s, the atmospheric details in each gallery create a historical emersion. The galleries mix media, providing eye-catching pieces to look at all around, not only on the walls. The exhibition begins on the basement level. Worn clay figures greet visitors with devious, toothy smiles. This floor features the collection’s oldest piece, an Olmec mask dated 900-500 BC. Unlike some American art collections, this collection stands out for incorporating art from Mexico and South America, alongside displays from the United States. One gallery compares ceramics and baskets from Native American tribes of different regions in the United States. The basement floor also features scenes from the New England colonies, such as a furnished Puritan home. On the ground floor visitors enter Revolutionary Boston. Gold and crimson wallpaper creates a backdrop for mahogany furniture and portraits by John Singleton Copley. Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere stands out with a silver bowl engraved by Revere with the names of the Sons of Liberty. In the next gallery, Thomas Sully’s “The Passage of the Delaware” towers on the far wall. The entire floor’s ceiling height was calculated to accommodate this massive painting. Visitors are forced to literally look up to the determined figure of George Washington, illuminated on a white horse. Andover students will notice some familiar names among the artists and portraits in these galleries. A Joseph Blackburn portrait of Mrs. Bulfinch, dressed in blue silk, hangs in an ornate gold frame. Another surprise is a painting by Samuel Morse who started his career as a painter. The image of a girl in a pink dress holding a startled kitten has some charm, but it is clear why he was more justly famous for developing Morse code. The next floor, devoted to art from the 19th and early 20th century, presents a room full of paintings by John Singer Sargent, including “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” one of the MFA’s prized pieces. Students may sense something familiar about “The Fog Warning” by Winslow Homer. The dramatic scene of a fisherman and an approaching storm is from the same series as “Eight Bells” and “Kissing the Moon” in the Addison Gallery. One of the most striking galleries, “The Salon,” is arranged in the popular European salon style of the 1890s. Densely crowded walls filled with predominantly landscapes provide almost too much for the eye to take in all at once. The top floor moves into the bold pigments and daring concepts of the 20th century. In the central gallery, “Troubled Queen” by Jackson Pollock hangs near a wire cow by Alexander Calder. Pollock uses thick brush strokes and jagged lines along with his trademark drip technique to create a composition with harsh energy. On the back wall, Frank Stella’s huge piece, “Hiraqla” catches the eye. Neons and neutrals complement each other in a labyrinth of interlocking circles. Frank Stella is a former Andover student, class of 1954, and was an artist-in-residence at the Addison. Among the highlights of the surrounding galleries are several Georgia O’Keefe paintings, including some florals and one transfixing image of a deer skull. Another feature is Edward Hopper’s “Drug Store,” in which light shines from an ordinary shop window on a dark street corner. O’Keefe turns to nature for inspiration while Hopper captures the growing urban vibe and makes art out of the unextraordinary. The Art of the Americas Wing draws the viewer into a story of events and emotions. One of the world’s finest fine art collections, not to mention a delicious restaurant and fun museum shop make the MFA well worth a short train trip into Boston on a winter weekend.