There is no doubt that the Museum of Fine Art (MFA) in Boston houses some of the world’s most famous paintings. Yet, after viewing its collection of impressive and easily recognizable pieces, I was most drawn to the Ukiyo-e prints, East Asian inspired furniture and portraits done by a proud American who is rarely in the United States.
Despite my short trip due to the museum’s early closing time on Saturdays, my visit to the MFA was satisfying. As I stumbled through the expansive building, I found myself in the midst of chairs, dressers and other common home furnishings that were a far cry from the rickety IKEA tables so popular in today’s society (especially amongst college students). Works from the “Made in the Americas” exhibit were intricately carved and had an undeniable East Asian influence.
A basin crafted by Diego Salvador Carreto particularly piqued my interest; the repeated complex pattern engulfs the images of a man on a horse, two men walking, and the last holding what appears to be an umbrella. While the description of the content does not suggest any Asian undertones, the soft and detailed execution reveals a strong Chinese influence. This incredible emulation of East Asian artistic styles reflects the greater theme of globalization due to the increased trade between East Asia and the Americas.
I continued to make my way through the exhibits and ended up in a well-lit room containing portraits. Next to the entrance was a sign that read “John Singer Sargent.” Sargent rarely stayed in America, which led novelist Henry James to question his authenticity as an American painter. The artist fiercely defended that he was indeed an American.
Naturally, like many artists featured in the MFA, Sargents’ works are outstanding and the curation of the exhibit beautifully displays the works in their best light — unadulterated by unnecessary lighting or strange placement. Each work is displayed with expansive space on large white walls. What makes his portraits, such as “Mrs. Fisher Warren and Her Daughter Rachel,” particularly interesting is his attention to detail. In the aforementioned work, argent uses broad strokes to paint Mrs. Fisker Warren’s dress sleeve and continues to use that technique on the reflection on the armrest of the wooden chair. Small details like such are present in all of Sargent’s works on display and what makes them so encapsulating.
Traveling to the edge of the museum, I find myself in an exhibit reminiscent of the “Made in the Americas” pieces, but with greater authenticity. Pupils of Hokusai, a Japanese painter and printmaker, do not hide the teachings of their mentor in their works. Each piece is characterized by strong strokes of paint, simple coloring and inked detailing, much like Hokusai’s works. Yet each pupil brings a new element to Hokusai’s style, whether that be through content or mediums.
In the case of Yanagawa Shigenobu, who was not only a pupil but also Hokusai’s son-in-law until he divorced his mentor’s daughter, all of Hokusai’s techniques are utilized. However, Shigenobu also incorporates bolder colors and fills the frames of his pieces more than Hokusai had.
Unlike the exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s works, Hokusai’s pupils’ works were in a smaller space, which effectively and quickly allowed visitors to note the obvious similarities and contrasts between each students’ works.
With that being said, a trip to the MFA is often made with the intention of seeing early Monets or portraits of George Washington. However, after my encounter with these lesser known exhibits, I recommend visiting “Pupils of Hokusai,” “Made in the Americas” and John Singer Sargent’s exhibitions before they are gone. These exhibitions are more than just galleries; they are enlightening and thought-provoking experiences.
Photo Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts