Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Family History and the newly renovated Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Paul Revere surrounded by his silver
We were lucky to attend an opening gala at the recently re-opened Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I wasn’t planning to include my visit as a blog post, until I saw the galleries in the new Art of the Americas Wing. Instantly I started looking for history, genealogy and surnames as soon as I walked into the MFA. Maybe it’s just the way my brain works, but there was family history all around me. If you are a genealogist you’ll like it, too.

As director Malcolm Rogers was giving his remarks on the 53 new galleries (Yes! The museum is one third bigger than the last time you visited!) I could see Paul Revere’s portrait by John Singleton Copley over his shoulder. The last few times we were at the museum, Revere and the other colonial portraits were in storage. It was exciting to see these icons of New England History, by Copley, Gilbert Stuart and John Singer Sargent again, along with all the other art works, and their new exhibit halls were worth the wait.

This summer and last year I blogged about visiting my in-laws in Spain. We had seen many of Sargent’s paintings on display in Madrid, at a very interesting exhibit showing the two contemporaries Joaquin Sorolla and Sargent together. Sargent’s famous Daughters of Edward Darley Boit had been shown in the Prado opposite Velasquez’s most famous Las Meninas. I suppose that during a renovation, it was a great time to lend out paintings for special exhibits. It was fun to see these paintings abroad, especially with our Boston/Madrid family connections, but wonderful to see these back home at the MFA.

John Singer Sargent’s
Charles Stewart Sixth Marqess of Londonderry,
Carrying the Great Sword of State at the Coronation of King Edward V,
11 August 1902.
I photographed it last year when it was hanging near the grand staircase.
Now it is in the new wing, hanging on the back of the wall
displaying Sargent’s more popular The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.
Obviously, this guy never lived in our Londonderry!
 Instead of visiting the portrait gallery, and then the decorative arts gallery, and then the furniture gallery, in the new MFA Art of the Americas Wing Paul Revere’s portrait is surrounded by his silver hollowware, and there is even one of his famous cartoons of the Boston Massacre hanging nearby. Portraits of famous families are displayed with similar furniture, like the chairs upon which they sit, and even the tea services and textiles. History comes alive, as well as the stories of the families. Many of these pieces have been in storage, and were not regularly on display before.

On one wall, not far from Paul Revere, there was a collection of miniature family portraits, and a receipt for two larger husband and wife portraits hanging across the room. I found the receipt especially interesting, since it was similar to things I’ve found in family paper collections. You rarely see these receipts on display along with the art. In the same case was a wine corkscrew painted onto a door jamb from the Codman estate in Lincoln, Massachusetts. John Singer Sargent was a guest at the Codman house, and one evening they were lacking a corkscrew for dinner- so he painted one hanging on a hook. Wouldn’t you love a houseguest to do the same? This is history I never read in any history book! All in one small display case.

Breaking from the traditional art displayed before at the MFA, there are more pieces of folk art, including quilts, weathervanes, and carousel animals. There nine new period rooms of furnishings from famous houses, showcasing styles from colonial to the twentieth century. Art is displayed salon style in several galleries, and my favorite example was the Vinik gallery, which even had a painting of a salon style gallery in the MFA from 100 years ago!

In an hour and a half we saw only part of two floors, a small portion of the 53 new galleries. We will definitely be returning to check out the other floors and special exhibits. For those who love family samplers and mourning embroidery, there are examples on display in the new main galleries, but Gallery LG26 will have an exhibit of “Embroideries of Colonial Boston: Samplers” from November 20, 2010 through March 13, 2011 and then in the same gallery “Embroideries of Colonial Boston: Schoolgirl Pictures” from April 2 – August 28, 2011.

The Greenwood Lee Family, 1747 by John Greenwood (1727 – 1792) Greenwood is my second cousin, 8 generations removed. He began by painting his own family and friends, before removing to Europe where he achieved prominence. He was well known in Boston as a portrait painter just before John Singleton Copley rose to fame. Sorry for the poor quality of the photos, since flash is not allowed inside the MFA.

For more information:

The best new guide to the MFA Art of the Americas Wing was a special issue printed in the Sunday 14 November 2010 issue of the Boston Globe. It is available as a reprint at the MFA. the link to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston website from Boston’s Public Radio station WBUR, this page includes several links to reviews, video tours, and slide shows.


Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Wow! That's definitely somewhere I want to make a trip to see!

  2. I second what Bill said! I hope I can get there someday!

  3. This makes me really want to head over and see the new wing!

  4. That's one enticing museum! Goes on the "must visit" list.