Boston, the ” American Athens,” possesses magnificent pictures, not only in the Museum of Fine Arts, the second important gallery in this country, but in the Public Library of Boston and in Mrs. John Lowell Gardner’s rare private collection in her Italian Palace, Fenway Court.
Visiting first the Museum of Fine Arts, organized in 187o, one may begin with the exceptionally fine Velasquez portraits. These include a full length of Philip IV. of Spain and a charming picture of his little heir, ” Don Baltazar Carlos and his Dwarf “probably the earliest likeness of the young prince, then not two years old, and perhaps the very picture to execute which Velasquez was recalled by his Majesty from a visit in Italy, where he had been spending a year or two in study.
Next are Dutch paintings, including Rembrandt and the so called ” Little Masters of Holland,”little only in the size of their canvases. A Rembrandt portrait of a wizened ” Old Man ” is believed to be of the artist’s father, Harmen van Rijn, the miller of Leyden. One of Rembrandt’s few mythological subjects pictures ” Mercury and Danaë ” (1652), and shows his wonderful mastery of light, particularly appropriate to Danaë, upon whom Zeus showered his golden gifts. One recalls how Danaë, though imprisoned by her father in a brazen tower in hope of thwarting the oracle, was nevertheless sought out by Zeus and became the mother of Perseus; whereupon her father in further effort to prevent the fulfilment of the warning, set mother and child adrift on the sea in a brazen chest. From this peril they were rescued, however, in order that the romantic destiny of Perseus might be carried out.
A fine Gabriel Metsu (163o-1667), entitled ” The Usurer,” shows a tearful woman about to part with her jewels to a money lender, who has spread his coins temptingly before her.
In contrast now, we turn from Dutch to Flemish painting. In the superb ” Charles I. and Henrietta Maria and their Children ” the Boston Museum owns a Van Dyck Stuart group of perhaps equal or even greater value than the famous portrait in New York of the handsome Duke of Lennox. Though King Charles was beheaded, his children pictured here ruled later, the elder as Charles II. and the little one as James II. of England. The beautiful Queen, daughter of Henry IV. and Maria de’ Medici of France, is said to have ” won the love of the errant prince Charles by a single glance.” This group was one of the many painted during the artist’s long residence in England.
To the American painter, Gilbert Stuart, many portraits of Washington in various cities are attributed. But, according to the artist, the Boston Athenaeum owns the only original painting in this country, and this picture is loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts Stuart made many replicas, of course, and these may be seen elsewhere.
The charming ” Boy with the Torn Hat,” by Thomas Sully (1783-1872), is well known.
Turner’s ” Slave Ship “a glowing canvas of red and orange sunset over a wreck at sea is reported to have aroused more discussion than any other picture ever brought to this country. Of it Ruskin says, ” I believe, if I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this, the color is absolutely perfect.” Yet the metaphysical Inness, on the other hand, called it ” the most infernal piece of claptrap ever painted. There is nothing in it,” he said. ” It is not even a fine bouquet of color.” But William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), when asked if he thought the ” Slave Ship ” worth ten thousand dollars, replied, ” Well, I see a good many ten thousands lying around, but only one ` Slave Ship.’ ”
Of the Fontainebleau Barbison School of Romantic Naturalism, Millet is perhaps most famous. His ” Harvesters Resting,” in the Boston Museum, is quite in keeping with his well-known ideals of the dignity of manual labor as expressed, also, in ” The Gleaners ” (p. 194) and other pictures. ” The Shepherdess ” is another Millet in Boston, and suggests the artist’s own words: ” I would wish that the beings I represent should have the air of being consecrated to their position and that it should be impossible to imagine that the idea could occur to them of their being other than that which they are-the beautiful is the suitable.”
Of Millet, his contemporary Corot of the Barbison School says: ” His painting is for me a new world; I do not feel at home thereI see therein great knowledge, air, and depth, but it frightens me; I love better my own little music.”
The harmony of Corot’s music is always present in his pictures, and it is not lacking in ” Dante and Virgil,” in the Museum of Fine Arts. It tells the story of Dante, about to begin seeking Beatrice in the unknown:
“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” This picture shows, as in the poem, a panther and a lion. As Dante was fleeing before these terrors, quite as most of us incline to give up our fine projects in the face of discouragement, he is met by Virgil, whom we see guiding him to Beatrice, of whom he says to Dante:
“With her at my departure I will leave thee.”
We almost wonder if Millet were familiar with this interesting and famous scene when he asserted: ” Corot’s pictures are beautiful, but they do not reveal anything new.”
Several Whistler portraits are especially worthy of note, including the ” Little Rose of Lyme Regis ” and ” The Blacksmith of Lyme Regis.” The former recalls Whistler’s ” Study in Rose and Brown,” in the Muskegon Gallery, Michigan, which seems to be the ” Little Rose” of Boston grown a bit older.
Whistler’s credo in painting, from the ” Gentle Art of Making Enemies,” is perhaps better expressed in other works of his than these in Boston, unquestionably fine though they are: “As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or color.”
John La Farge, who has been called the ” American Nestor,” is represented in a striking and beautiful painting, ” The Halt of the Wise Men,” the coloring of which may suggest the opalescence of stained-glass.
Another interpretation of the mystery of ” The Sphinx ” is presented by Elihu Vedder’s picture, showing an African leaning his ear to the lips of the silent Sphinx, in the midst of the vast desert. There is always more than a hint of mystery in Vedder’s painting, and it is strongly present in the great ” Lazarus ” a face filled with wonder.
Sargent’s portrait of ” The Misses Boit ” is of four little girls, who have stopped their play for a moment and given the artist just time to catch them on canvas, pinafores and all. Though born in Florence, John Singer Sargent is an American, our greatest living portrait painter, and something even more, as all will say who see his decorations in the Boston Public Library.
Two other Americans must not be omitted: Winslow Homer (1836-1910), well represented in ” Fog Warning,” a picture of a fisherman in an open dory pulling for his distant ship. Homer lived for years at Scarboro, Maine, and thus knew well the moods of ocean, which he loved to paint. The second is John W. Alexander (1856-1915), who tells a romantic story in ” Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” recalling Keats’ poem of the old medieval legend. The picture is a weird and exquisite harmony of color and composition.
The early Italian Schools are included in the Boston Museum. Especially worthy of mention is a beautiful Fra Angelico, ” Madonna and Child “; there are also many other fine primitives. The School of Painting of the Museum of Fine Arts is well known.
In the Public Library of Boston are three great series of mural decorations, in addition to the charming ceiling de-sign of the Children’s Room, which all will wish to see.
The important wall paintings (1896) of the stairway and upper hall by Puvis de Chavannes are seen first after entering the building. These works were finished abroad and brought to this country so that the artist did not know quite their environment in making them. As the leading French mural painter of the nineteenth century, Puvis leaned strongly toward the early primitives, a Romantic tendency which is plainly exhibited in the upper picture of ” The Muses Saluting the Spirit of Enlightenment.” This design aroused much discussion on account of its flatness, low tones of color, and strange drawing, though it has now become very generally accepted. The eight beautiful panels of the ” Arts ” and ” Sciences ” were more readily appreciated by American critics.
” The Quest of the Holy Grail,” by Edwin Austin Abbey, is too well known to require description. To appreciate this story of Galahad, however, each picture must be carefully studied, its gorgeous color and virile composition observed, and its place in the series understood. This is the latest great interpretation of a theme which inspired renewed exposition in both painting and poetry during the nineteenth century.
Passing now to the third floor, one enters what has been called ” an American Sistine Chapel ” of magnificent wall and ceiling decorations by John Singer Sargent. In this ” Pageant of Religion ” Sargent portrayed first the triumph of monotheism over the polytheism of the ancient world. The ” Frieze of the Prophets,” unveiled in 1885, with its vivid delineation of Judaism in Old Testament character, has long been ranked with Michelangelo. The second series, entitled the ” Dogma of the Redemption,” finished in 1903, illustrated in a quite different style the Christian theme of the New Testament. At Christ-mas, 1916, the third portion of this great work was opened to the public, termed officially ” Judaism and Christianity, a sequence of mural decorations.” The allegorical treatment of this latest part shows a new side to the artist, so generally, recognized as a great portrait painter. He becomes now a Romantic mystic. The recent subjects, in gleaming gold and brilliant colors, represent the following: ” Judgment,” on either side “Heaven” and “Hell”; “Law” with ” Gog and Magog” on one side, and on the other ” The Messianic Era,” suggesting anew the redemption of man in the youth of the race. The joyousness of the “Ancilla Domini” (Handmaid of the Lord) or “The Madonna and Child” is matched by the grief of the “Mater Dolorosa, or The Madonna of Sorrows.” The former is a young girl; the latter an older woman. Likewise, “The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary” are balanced by “The Five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.” Sargent has treated his subjects with the greatest seriousness, and revives the religious enthusiasm of the Renaissance. It will be interesting, however, to see what place this great work will come to occupy in the growing metaphysical thought of future generations.
Mrs. John Lowell Gardner has served well the cause of art in our country in bringing to America a rare collection of old masters, housing it in a palace of Italian character, open at suitable times to the public.
To mention but a few of her wonderful treasures, we may begin with the ” Madonna ” known as the ” Chigi Botticelli ” because once owned by Prince Chigi in Italy. This is also called the “Madonna aux Epis from the wheat ears which the Madonna is taking in her fingers, as offered by the angelic St. John. Prince Chigi was forced to pay a large fine for permitting this work to leave his country.
The Giorgione ” Head of Christ,” bearing the Cross, is one of the most beautiful acknowledged paintings of this master. The face suggests the ” Knight of Malta ” (p. 224) in its purity and sweetness of expression.
Many other notable works are found in the Gardner collection, including a ” Pietà ” by Raphael. Titian’s famous ” Europa ” is a large canvas seventy inches tall and eighty inches wide, which once belonged to Philip IV. of Spain, for whom it was painted. It pictures brilliantly the story of Ovid and other ancient writers. Europa was a Phoenician maiden, whose beauty, it will be recalled, charmed the sensuous Zeus. Taking the form of a white bull, he carried her away to Crete, where she bore Minos, later to be King, with the celebrated Minotaur of legend. In Titian’s picture Europa rides through the waters on the back of the metamorphosed Zeus, followed by three sportive Cupids, one of them on a dolphin. Rubens made a copy of this picture, now in the Prado at Madrid, and of it he wrote that ” to him it was the first picture in the world.”
The State House in Boston has interesting mural scenes from the history of Massachusetts, executed by American artists.