In the past month, I’ve been to three museums that I haven’t posted about yet, so I’m trying to catch up. Over Memorial Day weekend, PJ and I were in Boston for the conference of the American Literature Association. While we were there we visited the Museum of Fine Arts. Our visit was a little hurried, since PJ had to get back to the conference and we also wanted to fit in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which I’ve already blogged about. As we rushed through the museum, I kept track of which works I liked the best. Here’s a few of the highlights:

Dead Christ with AngelsI’m not usually into Renaissance religious paintings, but I really liked Rosso Fiorentino’s The Dead Christ with Angels from the mid-1520s. I really like this painting’s color pallet, the contrast between the two most visible angels’ robes with the skin tones of the dead Christ, which helps to contrast his fleshiness with their alabaster skin. The whiteness of their skin reflects their heavenly purity and innocence, while his humanity is represented in the almost sepia tones of his body (rather than in the deathly pallor of whites).

I also couldn’t help but notice that this Christ has pubic hair. This touch reinforces Christ’s humanity: he is a man, in contrast to the cherubs around him, an important quality in Christian myth. Without Christ’s full humanity, his being made of carnal flesh, the salvation story doesn’t work. For me, this painting captures that duality: Christ’s divinity within his humanity. It’s a wonderful illustration of the myth.

PanniniAnother painting I admired was Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome, painted in 1757. Perhaps because I’m a literature professor, I like works of art about being works of art. This painting’s dazzling array of paintings- within-a-painting is gorgeous when seen in person. The level of detail in the painting is remarkable. The words that stand out in the description of the painting on the museum’s website are “extravagant” and “meticulous.” If you go to the website, you can click on the image of the painting to enlarge it; you can then zoom in one individual portions of the work to see just how meticulous it is.

Slave ShipAnother amazing work, but in a completely different way, is Joseph Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), painted in 1840. In contrast to Pannini’s work, Turner eschews meticulous detail for broad impressionistic blurs and colors. One certainly can’t help but see the emotional content of this work, which depicts a scene from a poem about a slave ship caught in a typhoon. As the museum’s website explains, the poem is about a real event, in which “the slave ship Zong whose captain, in 1783, had thrown overboard sick and dying slaves so that he could collect insurance money available only for slaves ‘lost at sea.'” The painting definitely captures the horror of this inhuman act.

Boy with a SquirrelEarly in the Spring Quarter, my honors students had read William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. They were tickled by a scene in which Margery Pinchwife worries that her abusive husband might kill her pet squirrel. So, I was delighted when I saw John Singleton Copley’s 1765 painting Henry Pelham (Boy with a Squirrel).

This is definitely going out on a limb, but I couldn’t help but think that this painting is (obliquely) a comment on slavery in America. They squirrel, kept on a chain by its master, seems so pathetic to me. Whether it is or isn’t about slavery, the painting does show that squirrels were kept as pets across the Atlantic during the eighteenth century. When I shared this image with my students, they were as delighted as I was to see it.

Fog Warning Finally, while we at the museum I failed to remember that Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning is a painting that I had seen before: my mother has long kept a print of the painting in her bathroom. I knew that it looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t make the connection. While we were visiting my parents earlier this month, PJ pointed it out and couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed it when we were at the museum. It’s true that it’s an image that I practically grew up with, but it just goes to show that the old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind,” is really true!

There were lots of other paintings that I liked at the Museum of Fine Arts. These included El Greco’s Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino, Jacob Jordaens’s Portrait of a Young Married Couple, Canaletto’s Bacino di San Marco, Venice, Thomas Sully’s Torn Hat, Arthur Clifton Goodwin’s Copley Square, Boston, and Fitz Henry Lane’s Boston Harbor. This is definitely a good museum, one that I hope to have more time to see next time I’m in Boston.

 

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