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ARTmonday: The 50 Best Paintings in New England

By Stylecarrot @StyleCarrot

This Sunday, The Boston Globe art critic (and handsome Australian) Sebastian Smee put forth his picks for “The 50 Best Paintings in New England.” He speculated, if disaster strikes, which would he salvage? He gave himself some rules, like no more than three paintings per artist, no murals, and just paintings. Having to choose sculpture and the rest would be too Herculean a task. He likens the exercise to that which curators face routinely, pointing out: “Only a fraction of their collections (at the Museum of Fine Arts it’s around 4percent) are on display at any given time.”

I’m not intimately familiar with the MFA’s collections (I must must must make it there more often), and embarassingly ignorant when it comes to works in the collections of the Harvard Art Museums, Yale University Art Gallery, and Worcester Art Museum, so I won’t critique Smee’s choices. I understand them, though my knowledge on early religious work is little to none. (I audited a 17th century European art class once and was baffled by all the church terms.)

The only piece of Smee’s 50 picks I actively dislike is Paul Cézanne’s “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,” c. 1877. It’s creepy, and she looks like a strained wax figure to me. Maybe Boston doesn’t have other, better, Cézannes? Probably I’m just in the minority of appreciating what is probably considered a masterpiece.

I pulled my dozen favorites from Sebastian Smee’s 50 Best Paintings in New England, below.

court-ladies-preparing-newly-woven-silk-mfa

“Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk”  •  1100s  • China
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
I studied Mandarin in undergrad, and a bit of Chinese art in grad school, so the image is somewhat nostalgic for me. Nevertheless, these ladies from the Northern Son Dynasty, are supremely graceful. 

mars-and-venus-poussin-mfa

Nicolas Poussin  •  “Mars and Venus ”  •  c. 1630  •  France
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This is an early mythological work based on the poetry of Lucretius. The landscape is lush, and the scene almost divine.

paul-revere-copley-mfa

John Singleton Copley  •  “Paul Revere”  •  1768  •  United States
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I studied colonial American painting in grad school with Barbara Novak, one of the country’s premier art historians. I learned to appreciate what I once thought was dry portraiture from her (we certainly studied this masterpiece), as well as how to travel through the landscapes of the Hudson River School painters.

young-woman-countess-le-brun-mfa

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun
“Portrait of a Young Woman (Countess Worontzoff?)”   •  c. 1797  •  France
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I don’t know anything about this artist. Smee mentions she is self taught. Her depiction of this woman is exquisite. The crispness of her clothing looks as though it was sharpened in PhotoShop, accentuated even more so against the Impressionistic clouds in the background. Her eyes and lips so expressive, with the sunlight making her skin simply luminous.

odalisque-with-a-slave-ingres-harvard-

 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres  •  “Odalisque With a Slave”  •  1840  •  France
Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge

Ingres’ “La Grande Odalisque” became an immediate favorite of mine when I learned about it in a summer art history class at NYU. While this odalisque (an odalisque is a concubine, by the way), is not quite as arresting, her body is painted beautifully, and I like the detailed depiction of the textiles and decor.

daughters-of-edward-darley-boit-sargent-mfa

John Singer Sargent
“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”  •  1882  •  United States
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Of course I chose this, not just because it is painted by John Singer Sargent, but because it portrays young girls, one of my favorite subject matters. I actually wrote a paper for Barbara Novack in grad school on the depiction of women and children in colonial American painting, and what could be deduced from their frocks and props. This painting dates to much later, thus is more playful and decorative. Smee mentions that the MFA’s Erica Hirschler wrote an entire book, called Sargent’s Daughters, about this painting.

dance-at-bougival-mfa

Pierre-Auguste Renoir  •  “Dance at Bougival”  •  1883  •  France
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A universal favorite by Renoir. A life size Impressionist piece that is just magical.

postman-joseph-roulin-van-gogh-mfa

Vincent Van Gogh  •  “Postman Joseph Roulin”   •  1888  •  Netherlands
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

While I’m not much for uniforms, the color and movement (especially in the brushstrokes in the beard) of this painting is so distinctly Van Gogh. This was his postman in Arles. Delightful.

brooding-woman-gaugin-worcester

Paul Gauguin  •  “The Brooding Woman”  •  1891  •  France
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

A woman lost in thought, another common theme of my ARTmonday blog posts. But this is a Gaughin, as you can tell by the woman’s robust form. Something seems amiss about that straw hat. This may be worth going to Worcester to see.

Summer Night's Dream (The Voice), 1893, Edvard Munch, Norwegian, 1863Ð1944

Edvard Munch
“Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice)”   •  1893  •  Norway
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I love the almost unfinished quality of this almost scene, which evokes thoughts of fairytales for me.  Smee calls it “the greatest Munch in any American collection.”

rooms-by-the-sea-hopper-yale

Edward Hopper  •  “Rooms by the Sea”   •  1951  •  United States
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

This is one of my favorite Hoppers (the list is long). The fields of color are spectacular, the sunlight, the water, all of it.

untitled-1954-rothko-yale

Mark Rothko  •  “Untitled” 1954  •  United States
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

And Rothko. Love most of his work. That this is lilac and orange makes it even better.


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