Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Harvard Art Museums, Boston

The third museum I went to in Boston was Harvard Art Museums, a new building bringing together three museums and their collections. Straight up the Red Line on the underground and you come to Harvard with its colleges and big library and, of course, it's art museum.

I found it to be a very odd place. Is it a public museum of a university exhibition area? It has a great collection but it had a feel of 'one of those, and one of those, and two of those please' in its choice of paintings. It didn't feel like a collection so much as a selection from a collection to put on display. If the latter is true then what's in the vaults? That's what I want to know.

The first floor (or Level Two in American) is where the early European paintings begin so that's where I headed and, almost immediately, stumbled across a gorgeous triptych by Bernardo Daddi. There are five scenes in this triptych which makes it rather unusual, with paintings of saints rather than scenes from the life of Christ. It's a lovely little altarpiece that would've been used by a travelling priest or merchant who could open it up at the end of the day in their lodgings for evening prayers. It's a lovely, delicate thing.

A painting that grabbed my eye was in a glass case and labelled as 'After Jan van Eyck (?)' from the 16th Century. The date is much later than van Eyck but the composition is very similar.  If you've ever seen 'The Arnolfini Portrait' in the National Gallery in London then this composition will jump out at you as being incredibly similar. The dating of the work means it's not a van Eyck but is a later copy of a work or is inspired by an original, But wow!

Of course, there are many more things to go 'wow' about in the Harvard Art Museums. There's a  Fra Anegico panel for a start (mentioned in another blog) and paintings by Botticelli and his school, There's a bit of everything in there really.

Downstairs on the ground floor is the cafe and the shop and, of course, more galleries, this time for 'modern' works. It still feels like a 'one of those and one of those' collection but there's a nice range of paintings.

One of my favourites was a Picasso painting from 1901 in which he painted both sides of the canvas in different styles. One side is his emerging style and the other is his take on a 'traditional' Nineteenth Century style. These were really quite stunning to see back-to back and was a new idea to me. I haven't seen any like these before - traditional versus his own style. If the 'traditional' painting hadn't been labelled I'd never guess it was a Picasso. These were on display in a glass case next to a large, more recognisable, blue period painting of a mother and child.

Something that really surprised me was finding a corner with loads of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, particularly by Rossetti. I don't know why, but I always think of the Pre-Raphaelites as a peculiarly British movement that wouldn't necessarily resonate with collectors away from this island but it appears that they were collected and appreciated in New England. Perhaps one of the curators is a particular fan which might explain the number of them on show.

Of greater interest were paintings by Seurat, Klee, Gaugin and van Gogh and, of course, the inevitable Impressionists. I loved this painting by Monet, 'Red Boats, Argenteuil 1875'. Just look at those gorgeous colours. I want to drift in a rowing boat on the river at Argenteuil in the summer and absorb the sunshine and colour.

A final painting I want to mention is 'Summer Scene (Bathers)' by Frederic Bazille from 1869-70. I've never really noticed Bazille before but this really caught my eye, in particular - with my drawers hat on - the figure of the lad being helped to leave the pond. It struck me as a great pose for drawing, with the tension in the lead arm and leg. Then you notice the shadows and the couple towards the back in the sun and the whole laziness of the scene in the painting, a perfect summers afternoon.

I enjoyed the museums and there's a lot there to keep me interested despite it feeling a bit over-curated and forced with the choice of paintings on show. I can't help but wonder what might be in storage. Typically, of course, the shop didn't have anything remotely resembling a catalogue or a range of postcards, but had lots of children's toys and ladies scarves. I had expected more from a Harvard museum, with learned works on the collection or even individual artists from formed PhD students, but it wasn't to be. O well. Definitely worth a visit if you're in Boston.

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