A Little Bit of Boston in Gallery 3
December 13, 2016
For lovers of American art, Gallery 3—the large yellow gallery filled with American art produced between the 1870s through the early 1900s—has two spectacular new additions that give us a glimpse into the changing art world of the United States in the 1890s.
Impossible to miss at the center of the room stands a nearly life-size bronze figure by the American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies. Entitled Bacchante and Infant Faun and originally modeled in Paris in 1893, this work was at the heart of one of the culture wars of the 1890s. The work came to prominence when an early cast of the Bacchante was presented by the artist to architect Charles McKim, who placed it in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library designed by his firm McKim, Mead & White.
When the Bacchante went on public view, some Bostonians were offended by the subject: a nude, pagan reveler feeding (wine!) grapes to a (very happy) baby. This did not square at all with late 19th-century ideals of motherhood. When these Bostonians—including temperance crusaders and clergy—protested the “drunken indecency” of the sculpture, McKim withdrew the gift and donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it remains today. The scandal made the sculpture famous, and the artist produced several casts in sizes ranging from monumental (84 inches high) to tabletop. The version on view here is one of four casts at this scale made during MacMonnies’ lifetime.
The commotion over the Boston Bacchante played out in the national press, inspiring cartoonists and writers to make fun of the licentious sculpture or the prudery of New England, depending on their position. My favorite response came from within the artistic community, when artists Harry Watrous and Francis Jones designed a mockery of the Bacchante for the 1899 Twelfth Night party hosted by the exclusive Century Association of New York. Their spoof sculpture was labeled “Back Bay Auntie by F. Makemoneys,” and represented a middle-aged schoolmarm more appropriately educating her young charge—by reading of course. It was described with delight in the Century Club’s annual yearbook:
No nude alluring siren this, dancing in the heedless joy of life, dangling aloft the luscious grape, enticing forth the nascent soul to Love, and Wine, and Song. Here was a maiden after Boston’s own heart. Chaste and forbidding, bespectacled, skirted hideously to the tops of her unspeakable footwear, she sternly held a book before the helpless manikin on her arm, bidding the new-awakened mind to the formal learning of the schools, teaching it to find the Hope and Triumph of Life in self-repression and the printed page.
Off to the side of MacMonnies’ Bacchante, a painting has gone on view that signifies the other big topic of conversation in New England art circles in the 1890s—Impressionism. The striking and dramatically lit self-portrait of a woman clad in furs represents the painter Lilla Cabot Perry, who hailed from a prominent and progressive Boston family. After her marriage and the birth of her children, Perry began to paint seriously. She spent a good part of the 1880s in Paris where she befriended impressionist painters Mary Cassatt, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet, who she joined at Giverny during several summers. When she returned to Boston in 1890, Perry was at the vanguard of American Impressionism, which was stirring up the entire American art scene at the time.
While Impressionism, like the Bacchante, seems tame to 21st-century viewers, it was the talk of the American art world in the 1890s. The critic for the Boston Evening Transcript, William Howe Downes called the French painters, “those mad outlaws, the Impressionists,” and marveled at the admirers and collectors already present in Boston by 1888. The humor magazine Life, where another prominent Bostonian Francis G. Attwood was on staff, decried the “harshest horrors, rank in color, and startling from the brutality of their execution” on view at the annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists in 1892. Impressionism was still strange to most Americans when Perry returned from Paris, and she helped push the style into the mainstream through exhibitions of her own work and others in Boston and nationally. With its dark, realist palette, Perry’s Self-Portrait is rather subdued in style. Only the active brushwork hints at her impressionist tendencies, better exemplified in this gallery by a brilliant, dramatic Seascape by Connecticut painter John Twachtman.
I’m excited to showcase these stories of the Boston art scene here in Delaware this winter. MacMonnies’ Bacchante is on long-term loan to the Museum and the Perry Self-Portrait is a recent acquisition.
Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art