Thursday, June 28, 2012


With our love of history, many of our past tandem trips have meandered into historical sites from Civil War forts to 19th century factories,  from quaint New England graveyards to played-out Western gold mines.  In the past few years we've become increasingly drawn as well to art museums, and have plans for this year's tour to visit over a dozen of them even before we hit New York City and the Mothers of All American Art Museums, the Metropolitan and MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).

So it's not surprising that we've already stopped by two major ones even before we climb on the tandem: the Denver Art Museum and Boston's Museum of Fine Art, or "the MFA" as any Bostonian would say.
The DAM is almost 120 years old, but only became a major player in 1971 when it opened a large new permanent home across the park from the state capitol.  It almost doubled in size in 2006, and we visited parts of both buildings, connected by a sky bridge.  We started with their small but pleasant collection of European art, with our favorite piece an 1894 painting called "Autumn, Poplars, Eragny" by Camille Pisarro.  They also had two unusual and historic paintings of British royalty.  The first portrait of King Henry VIII as king was done in 1513, four years after his coronation and marriage to Catherine of Aragon at the age of 18.  At the time of this painting it is still a dozen years before he will begin pursuing Anne Bolyn and starting the process of divorcing Catherine. 

The third European painting that caught our particular notice was this portrait of the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Bolyn, Queen Elizabeth.  It was done about 1570 by Hans Eworth, a Flemish artist who is said to have been the first to accurately depict the queen.  She is about 37, and a dozen years into her long reign.

One gallery in the museum defied all labels other than "highly creative."  We'll share four items with you, all by women who created them in their mid-60s to mid-70s, starting with a panorama created in 2010 by Carol Shinn.  As you can see better in the detail shot, it is a "freestyle machine embroidery." We've included the museum's description of what that means.  Even after reading the commentary, we can't truly imagine how she created this beautiful work.

The next item, also done in 2010, is "Beware of Cranes," by Carol Eckert.  As the museum puts it, it combines "the intricacy of an illuminated manuscript with the immediacy of a pop-up book," using just cotton and wire.

Third is the witty "Teas With Good Friends," also done in 2010, by Cindy Hickok.  Like the first work it is a freestyle machine embroidery, but done on a water-soluble ground fabric that has disappeared, leaving only the stitches holding the image together.  How many of the references to famous paintings can you guess?  We've included the key after the fourth work, so you don't peek too quickly.

Finally we have Lia Cook's woven cotton and rayon image from 2007 called "Face Maze: Tera." It truly is a maze, as well as amazing, as you can see in the detail photo (of the right nostril, in case you're wondering).

[Answers to the art quiz]

DAM has a respectable collection of American paintings by Eastern artists, including an impressive allegorical painting by one of our favorites, Thomas Cole.  This is called "Dream of Arcadia," done about 1838.

But the real gold in their collection is Western art.  They have quite a few Remingtons and Charley Russells, and also some excellent paintings by lesser-known artists such as Henry Farny, who did "A Successful Hunt" in 1906.  We took special notice of "A Dude's Welcome" by Olaf Seltzer, done in 1909.  We've entered many a Western town on two wheels, luckily not like the subject of this painting.

One of the final galleries held la creme de la creme, including several massive Bierstadts.  Louise is studying "Estes Park," done in 1877 (a detail of which we also include).  95 years after Bierstadt's visit, Jeff led a group of teenagers through the town of Estes Park, by then filled with motels, gas stations and fast food outlets, as they headed on up into Rocky Mountain National Park and fabled Trail Ridge Road, the highest non-dead-end road in the US at 12,183' above sea level.  He recalls that, once out of the town of Estes Park, it was indeed spectacular

For contrast, DAM exhibits and we include two other images of Estes Park, both by Charles Partridge Adams.  The first is a watercolor of uncertain date, the second an oil from 1900.  These three Western landscapes and many others in the collection at DAM are certainly worthy successors to those works of the earlier Hudson River School that celebrated the Eastern mountains.

In Boston we found lodging a few blocks from the Riverside trolley line and just a mile from the Museum of Fine Arts, and planned a whole day around a visit there.  A pair of odd statues greated us by the entrance, named "Night" and "Day."  Sorry, just had to make use of a fountain to comment on what some days of child-rearing can be like.  Inside the museum, by just focusing on our favorite periods, Dutch masters through European and American paintings from mid- to late-Nineteenth Century, we filled the day and had to be scooted out by the guards at 4:45.

The MFA has an amazing collection of American art.  One of its paintings was so large that it could not be displayed until recently when a gallery was created that was tall enough for it, and even then they had to modify the ceiling to make it look right.  This is "Passage of the Delaware" by Thomas Sully, done in 1819 but commemorating Washington's surprise attack on the Hessians on Christmas Day, 1776.

We bicycled past Washington's Crossing in 2008 (and wrote about it in this post: also through Marblehead MA where artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851 celebrated the event by depicting Washington being rowed across the Delaware by General Glover's Marblehead Regiment, which you can see in this post (

Famous paintings or photos make us think of certain people as always old, such as Einstein, or always young, like Paul Revere holding that silver cup he's about to embellish in John Singleton Copley's well-known painting (which the MFA owns).  But they also possess this view of Paul Revere as a 78-year-old, done by Gilbert Stuart in 1813, 6 years before Revere's death.

They have a terrific collection of Hudson River School art, including Thomas Cole's 1843 "River in the Catskills" and Jasper Francis Cropsey's "Schatacook Mountain, Housatonic Valley, Connecticut," a detail of which we also show.  The mountain is now spelled Schaghticoke, and it stands on the border with New York so we may well see it from the far side in late August as we bike down the NY side of the border to New York City.

Just as DAM had lots of paintings of the Rockies, the MFA has plenty of New England.  The next one is of a beach we will be close to next week but probably not see, but we know from past visits to the area that there are many others we will bike past that look much the same.  It's called "View of Coffin's Beach," a place in Ipswich MA, and was done by Fitz Henry Lane in 1862.  Next is "Salt Marshes, Newburyport Massachusetts," done by Martin Johnson Heade sometime between 1866 and -76.  Having ridden past salt marshes in Newburyport now, at the time this entry is being posted, we can say that the haystacks are not built the same way, but that it otherwise looks much the same today as then.

Frederick Church visited Mt. Desert Isand in 1850 when he painted "Otter Creek."  We have a cabin rented for a week in late July this summer, right in the village of Otter Creek!  We wonder if we will ever find the spot where Church stood to paint this?  We have higher hopes of duplicating the perspective John Frederick Kensett took in 1855 of Bash Bish Falls, MA.  We've never been to the falls but will take a short detour to see them in August as Jeff recalls his folks telling him how many times they visited, since it was one of their favorite state parks.

The museum of course has numerous works by famous New England painters.  In "Boys in a Pasture" (1874) Winslow Homer, one of the most famous of them, turns one boy's head and barely suggests the face of the second, successfully giving the boys an air of universality.  In 1882 Homer moved permanently to Prout's Neck ME and turned increasingly to scenes of the sea, such as "The Fog Warning" (1885), which tells its story so well that we begin to wonder whether the fisherman will make it to safety with his heavy halibut before the fog rolls in.

Of the MFA's many John Singleton Copley's, we most admired his 1882 portrait, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit."  The museum's commentary was astute, saying of this "daringly empty composition" that "the effect is moody and enigmatic.  The sisters' isolation, their serious expressions and the shadowy, cavernous background create a sense of mystery that helps set this painting off from fashionable portraits of the day.". Louise visited the MFA with her parents when she was 9 or 10 and was given money to buy one copy of a painting to bring home, and this is the one she chose.  From then until she left for college, it was the only picture in her bedroom.

We'll leave the Americans with a native Bostonian who achieved fame as one of America's best, and certainly most prolific, impressionists, Childe Hassam.  Although he studied in France during the rise of Monet, Renoir and others, Hassam himself had little or no direct contact with them, yet adopted many stylistic traits of theirs.  "Boston Common at Twilight" is an early work from 1885 when he was in his late twenties, so not  representative of his later palette and brush strokes, but it does capture the time and place and mood of a winter afternoon wonderfully.

We have a family connection to the MFA.  In 1981 they opened a West Wing designed by the architectural firm of I.M. Pei, and Louise's architect brother was so involved in the project that he moved from New York City to Boston for the five years it took to plan and build it.  Last fall it was transformed into the museum's center for contemporary art, which perhaps explains (or perhaps not . . .) the kids flying through its atrium.

We'll close out our visit with some European art, starting with one of the museum's most famous paintings, J.M.W. Turner's "Slave Ship," subtitled "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On." Turner painted it in 1840, based on an actual incident in 1781 of a ship captain doing just that in order to collect insurance on "slaves lost at sea."

The MFA has perhaps the best collection of Impressionist art north and east of New York, and we'll end with two photos showing five paintings.  First are two of Claude Monet's many images of the cathedral at Rouen as he explored how color and form changed during the course of the day.  The one to the left is a morning view, the other apparently mid-day, both from 1894.  It's said that he often had several paintings going at a time, shifting from one to another as the sun moved across the sky.

Finally we have three iconic scenes of dancers by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, all from 1883.  At the left is "Dance at Bougival," capturing the informal cafe atmosphere in this Paris suburb.  Next are "Dance in the City" and "Dance in the Country," with a friend of Renoir's as the male, a model for the woman in the city, and Renoir's future wife in the country scene.

We hope you've enjoyed our first forays into art this summer.  We'll finally climb on that tandem bike of ours in the next blog entry!

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