BOSTON — The town of the great tea party slowly gives the occasional visitor an impression of itself based as much on fiction as observation. Memories of the radical independence of Thoreau and Emerson blend with the barroom banter of "Cheers" and the high-minded doctors in "St. Elsewhere." The real Boston is nailed together with cultural and historical monuments from the populism of Faneuil Hall to the elegance of the Boston Public Library and the magnificent folly of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. On a nice summer night picturesque Newbury Street is ribboned with Ivy League college kids. They look comfortably clean-cut in topsiders and Bermuda shorts and occasionally smile at passers-by, without of course being intrusive about it.
The local 11 o'clock news makes it appear that the entire population of city and state passes its days in noble protest against nuclear proliferation, dumping toxic wastes, cruelty to animals and other admirable causes. One snuggles into a hotel pillow nurturing notions of having stumbled into a town full of souls that are cultivated, unpretentious and right-minded. A moment's reflection brings back the Boston Strangler, shanty Irish harassing new Asian emigrants in the suburbs and the town's recent reputation as the auto-theft capital of the United States.
Piffle. Just another big American city, its light and shadow blending into gray.
All the same, there is no mixing up the place of the strapping Charles River and the courteous Boston Common with the erect electricity of Manhattan or the pastel sweep of Los Angeles. Palimpsest layers of historical character distinguish the city behind veils of modern sameness.
Anybody sharing a fascination with the personality of places can glean good clues to the poetry of Boston in an exhibition on view at its renowned Museum of Fine Arts through Sept. 14. It will travel to Denver in October and Chicago next March, but not to Los Angeles. Anyway, it is better experienced in Boston--for obvious reason.
The exercise is called "The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age" and consists of 112 works by 44 artists associated with the town between 1870 and 1930, a period representing something of an apogee for the visual arts in Boston. BMFA's curator of American art, Theodor H. Stebbins Jr., organized the spread along with assistant curator Trevor J. Fairbrother. Stebbins reminds us that from the early Colonial days of the Feake Limner through Smibert, Copley and Gilbert Stuart, "Boston always took it for granted that the best painters in America were hers."
The town was the wellspring of America's visual genius. Today, of course, she has no reputation for nurturing visual artists and no associated aesthetic sensibility comparable to those broadcast by, say, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. (It must also be noted in passing that those sensibilities have not grown appreciably in the past couple of decades.)
Anyway, Boston was not hurting for painters in the period under review. They left some splendid images, but the general development of the period may provide some clues as to why the city's visual arts fizzled out as modernism flourished in Manhattan.
Significantly, the premier artist in this exhibition never really lived here. John Singer Sargent was an expatriate who sallied forth from his base in London to paint Boston portraits and some late murals in the library. He was enormously influential, and it's easy to see why in such a work as the 1882 "Daughters of Edward D. Boit." It is probably the only American painting that really gives Velasquez's "Las Meninas" a run for its money. It is a great picture of palpable invisible interior space. The four young girls who inhabit it serve more to articulate the emptiness than to express their own personalities. In some ways the human figures are foils to lend scale to two giant Chinese porcelain vases.
The picture expresses subtexts we see again and again in the Boston artists, a fervent respect for Old World traditions and an almost maniacal rectitude that loves the plainly beautiful but is repulsed by the frivolous and the fancy. Somehow that links to the Henry James character, Mrs. Luna in "The Bostonians," who said the civic motto was "Whatever is, is wrong." It also connects to the fact that Boston collectors were very early on fascinated by Greek antique art and its appearance of idealistic purity.
Virtually all men's portraits, be they by Marie Danforth Page or Ignaz Gaugengigl, depict men who seem a little suspicious of having their portrait painted. Gretchen Rogers' wonderful "Woman in a Fur Hat" finds a young beauty (in Germanic finery but sans makeup) glancing over her shoulder as if at some remark just made by a male viewer. She is equally prepared to laugh at a pleasantry or snap at an impertinence.