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The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is one of the greatest encyclopedic museums in the world. It is also one of the first to be founded in America. Its outstanding and, in some cases, unequaled collections of some 750,000 objects include American and European decorative arts and sculpture; Asian, Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, Near Eastern, African, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, and Classical art; musical instruments; American and European paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs; textiles and costumes; and contemporary art. The Museum has a renowned art school, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and is also an active partner with the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Arts in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Throughout the Museum's 125 years, it has welcomed more than 51 million visitors from around the world who have come to enjoy and learn from these remarkable collections. These treasures are displayed in distinguished and beautiful exhibition galleries, housed in a handsome Classical Revival building that dates from the early years of the twentieth century.
The Museum of Fine Arts was founded on February 4, 1870, when the Massachusetts Legislature passed an act establishing the trustees "for the purpose of erecting a museum for the preservation and exhibition of works of art, of making, maintaining, and establishing collections of such works, and of affording instruction in the Fine Arts." Less than four months after the incorporation of the Museum, the city of Boston awarded the MFA a tract of land that faced what was later to become Copley Square. The 91,000-square-foot lot was granted to the trustees on the condition that they erect upon it, within three years,a building costing $100,000. A committee was appointed to solicit funds for construction, and they moved forward with such energy that before the summer of 1871, nearly $250,000 had been pledged. The trustees chose architects John H. Sturgis and Charles Brigham's plan of a red brick and terra-cotta gothic structure for the Museum, which opened to the public on July 4, 1876. The trustees then raised $126,000 to complete the facade and the East Wing, which opened on July 1, 1879. The building would be expanded again in 1890.
In 1899, deeming it the proper time to plan for new and enlarged facilities, the trustees purchased land on Huntington Avenue, approximately one mile from the Copley Square location. Construction of the present granite building, from designs by the Boston architect Guy Lowell, commenced in 1907, and the Museum of Fine Arts reopened in 1909. From the planning stages of the Huntington Avenue museum it had been hoped that contemporary artists would adorn the building and grounds with their works. In 1913 the well-known bronze equestrian statue Appeal to the Great Spirit (page 1) by Cyrus Edwin Dallin became the centerpiece of the forecourt of the Museum.
The new building was financed entirely by private individuals, led by the trustees. Shortly after its opening, Mrs. Robert Dawson Evans contributed an extraordinarily generous gift of one million dollars, in her husband's memory, to provide a new wing. The Evans Wing opened in 1915 and offered a forty percent increase in exhibition space. Since then, the building has continued to grow with expansions in 1928, 1967, 1969, 1970, and 1981, with the opening of the new West Wing designed by I. M. Pei. This exciting space houses the Museum's shop, restaurants, auditorium, and largest special exhibition space, the Graham Gund Gallery.
The Department of Education (established in 1942) fulfills the Museum's mission "to serve a wide variety of people through direct encounters with works of art." Twenty percent of all visitors come to the Museum to attend education programs. The department organizes countless lectures, seminars, art classes, concerts, and film screenings on almost every day of the year. The Education department greatly enhances the Museum's reputation as a valued resource for the New England community and beyond.
The Museum of Fine Arts presents some eighteen stimulating temporary exhibitions and collection rotations each year. In addition, there are reinstallations of permanent displays and a nationally famous flower festival—Art in Bloom—which is celebrated each spring. The Museum is constantly growing and changing. For instance, the Garden Court reopened to the public in April 1996. This European garden, with its statues and fountains, dates from 1928 and is located in the heart of the Museum. There are two additional gardens, the West Courtyard Garden and the Japanese Garden, Tenshin-en or "The Garden of the Heart of Heaven." These beautiful green spaces flourish three seasons of the year, providing our visitors with a pleasant retreat and the perfect complement to the Museum's varied displays.
Throughout the years, generous donors have not only enriched the Museum's collections, they have also provided endowment funds. The Museum, founded as a private institution, still receives virtually no government funding for its operations. Only a few of the many contributors can be mentioned in this brief introduction. The Museum's Asian collection, considered one of the finest in America and the most comprehensive under one roof in the world, was formed primarily through the munificence of Edward Sylvester Morse, William Sturgis Bigelow, Ernest Fenollosa, Charles Goddard Weld, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Denman Waldo Ross. Morse, a zoologist, traveled to Japan in 1877 to collect marine brachiopods. Once there, he became fascinated with Japanese ceramics and formed a collection of approximately six thousand pieces. Morse then encouraged Fenollosa and Bigelow to visit Japan. These men of great vision formed superb collections of Japanese art, which they brought to the Museum of Fine Arts on their return to the city. Their contributions began the Museum's outstanding Asiatic collection, which now includes works of art from Turkey to the Far East.
The tastes of these important Bostonians also shaped the character of the Museum's collection of paintings, which has grown to be one of the foremost in the world, with works ranging in date from the eleventh to the twentieth century. Boston collectors were among the first to appreciate the revolutionary developments of nineteenth-century French art, and the Museum has unparalleled holdings of nearly seventy paintings and pastels by Jean-François Millet. Works by the Impressionists—especially Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir—were eagerly sought by Bostonians and donated to the Museum, and now form a high point of any visitor's tour.
The collection of American art is one of the finest in the country. This city of historic and cultural tradition has provided the Museum of Fine Arts with a spectacular panorama of painting in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. Particularly significant are the Museum's Colonial and Federal portraits, dominated by over sixty works by John Singleton Copley, and the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings from 1815 to 1865, as well as the donation, also from the Karoliks, of some three thousand American drawings that span the nineteenth century.
In 1928 the Museum of Fine Arts built a new decorative arts wing to house the American and European holdings and several furnished period rooms. The collection is exceptionally strong in the period of pre-Civil War New England. The European decorative arts and sculptures include a comprehensive collection of English silver and porcelain as well as a marvelous group of French silver, the bequest of Elizabeth Parke and Harvey S. Firestone, Jr. In addition, there are fine collections of medieval art, fascinating and rare musical instruments, and a preeminent collection of textiles and costumes. In 1870 Boston was the center of the United States textile industry, and the Museum's founders set out to form a collection to provide access to examples of good design. In 1890 Denman Waldo Ross, Harvard professor of design and a Museum of Fine Arts trustee, established the collection with his gifts of Coptic and Andean textiles; European, Turkish, Indian, and Persian silk weavings; Indonesian batiks; and Middle Eastern rugs. These splendid textiles can be seen in changing exhibitions in the Museum's Textile Gallery and Tapestry Gallery.
The Museum's Classical holdings, including Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art, are equally impressive. The Museum acquired its first Classical antiquities in 1872, when a group of objects from Cyprus was purchased from General di Cesnola. The major part of the collection was formed between 1890 and 1910; during this period more than four thousand objects entered the Museum. The pursuit of many of these objects was the work of one man, Edward Perry Warren, the Museum's agent in the acquisition of Classical antiquities. Purchased by the trustees, these objects, many of remarkable quality, form the nucleus of the Museum's classical holdings. They stand today as a monument to Warren's taste and connoisseurship.
Unlike the Museum's other collections, that of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern art was formed largely as a result of scientific excavations. In 1905 the Museum of Fine Arts joined with Harvard University to form an expedition in Egypt based at the Pyramids of Giza under the direction of curator Dr. George Andrew Reisner. Over the forty-year duration of this expedition, the Museum acquired, through the share of antiquities assigned to it by the Egyptian government, exceptionally beautiful and significant Old Kingdom sculptures, a group unparalleled outside Cairo.
In 1971 the youngest of the Museum's departments was formed: the Contemporary Art department, which includes art in all media by artists who have emerged since 1955. Abstract paintings constitute an important part of its holdings, including major canvases by Morris Louis and paintings by Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland.
The Museum's collection of prints, drawings, and photographs is one of the world's greatest resources. It consists of approximately three hundred thousand prints, drawings, watercolors, illustrated books, posters, and photographs of American and European origin, dating from the mid-fifteenth century to the present day. The Objects Conservation and Scientific Research Laboratory and other Museum conservation laboratories for furniture, paper, paintings, and Asian paintings are also centers for scientific study and analysis, providing care for the Museum's varied collections.
This book provides a tour of just some of the very many treasures housed within the walls of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, some of which, due to their fragile nature, can be exhibited only occasionally. The goal of this volume parallels that of the Museum as a whole: to encourage inquiry and to heighten understanding and appreciation of the visual arts.
The Ancient World
Art of Asia
Art of the Americas
Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Index of Donors' Credits
Index of Illustrations
Author Biography: Malcolm Rogers is the Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gilian Wohlauer is senior lecturer in the Department of Education at the Museum.