Museum of Fine Arts, BostonIf you were to list all the things for which the city of Boston is famous, near the top of that list would be money and good taste. Both come from the same source, the international trade that having one of the best seaports on the East Coast has long guaranteed. An excellent example of these two items can be found in the person of Elizabeth Derby West. She was the daughter of Elias Hasket Derby who made his shipping fortune after the Revolution by taking Boston to the rest of the world and bringing the rest of the world back to Boston. His daughter, therefore, came by both her money and good taste quite naturally. Her minister said of her, "She never violated the chastity of good taste." Be that as it may, she was also a very strong-willed woman who, it seems, lacked the good taste not to quarrel with her husband. When their marital spats reached the shocking point of divorce, all of Boston society, including her own children, sided with her husband. After the divorce, her minister's opinion changed somewhat: "A more unreasonable, cantankerous woman never existed." Yet, despite her divorce, no one could fault her good taste. She retreated to her home at Oak Hill and there she poured all her good taste and her father's money into one of the most exquisite collections of rooms and furnishings, not just in Boston, but in the whole country. The entire world was her shopping mall. Ironically, the site that was once Oak Hill (in Danvers, Mass.) has now become a shopping mall. But thanks to the foresight and persistence of the curatorial staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, the money and exquisite good taste of Elizabeth Derby West is preserved within their hallowed Greek Revival walls for generations to come.
I suppose every art museum is a repository of good taste, but this seems to be especially the case with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. And like that of Mrs. West, there is an international flavour to the museum's 350,000 holdings that is exceptional in its refinement and good taste. In keeping with this international element, the museum has also established a sister museum in Nagoya, Japan. Whether it's in the form of Cyrus Edwin Dallin's centrepiece sculpture on the front lawn Appeal to the Great Spirit, or Willem de Kooning's massive abstract Standing Figure, or the Japanese garden in the courtyard, there is a robust breadth and depth that is very much the result of hundreds of men and women like Elizabeth Derby West, who have donated their collections of good taste to the museum.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is where one would go to see Copley's Paul Revere (and Paul Revere's silver), or Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, or Zurban's St. Francis, or El Greco's Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino. While searching out these treasures one might stumble upon a Donatello relief sculpture, a Gauguin mural, a Monet haystack, a giant O'Keeffe rose, a Chihuly work in glass, or a Lichtenstein painting of a glass. And when you grew tired, there is also a unique collection of exquisite chairs and settees, each works of art in their own right, by exceptional American artisans upon which to sit and rest. (How many other museums allow you to sit on their art?)
Founded in 1876, the museum boasts, in addition to the usual American and European works, enormous collections of Asian, African, and Oceanic items, as well as works from ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures. With more than 500 full-time employees and almost that many more part-time workers, as well as about 1,000 volunteers, the museum has the size, atmosphere, and population of a small town. And despite her "cantankerousness," Mrs. Elizabeth Derby West would no doubt be pleased, not just because the museum has saved the most important part of her Oak Hill, but that her collection is in the company of so many others of such exceptional good taste...oh, and great wealth too...mustn't forget all that Boston money.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
22 October 2001