A Legacy of Beauty: Paintings in the Boston School Tradition

by Christopher Volpe



The Drop-Out Connoisseur

Boston's early love affair with modern French art began roughly mid-century with the rapt enthusiasm of a wayward Yankee. While studying painting in Paris in 1853, a Vermont congressman's-son-turned-Bohemian (he'd been expelled from Harvard University for practical joking) bought Jean-Francois Millet's masterpiece, The Sower, for today's equivalent of sixty dollars.[3] A kind of warning shot had been fired. William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) eventually displayed his painting (now one of the treasures of the Museum of Fine Arts) at the Allston Club, a short-lived artists' association that he'd founded in 1866 primarily to raise money to buy the country's first work by French realist and sometime Barbizon School painter Gustave Courbet, whose disdain of ornamentation as well as his spontaneous, often rough handling of paint were as opposed to the calculation and finesse of the Hudson River trend in New York as to the refinements of the French Academy.

Hunt became a major tastemaker in Boston, having married into one of the more influential families in a city famous for them. Hunt was a successful and well-liked teacher and painter in the 1860s and '70s. He encouraged prominent figures in Boston's social scene such as Martin Brimmer, later president of the Museum of Fine Arts, to defy conventional wisdom and invest heavily in French art, which is a major reason that the museum's holdings by French masters like Millet, Monet, and Renoir are as strong as they are.[4] In 1871, Boston Brahmin Quincy Adams Shaw visited and commissioned a painting from Millet; less than a decade later, his collection of paintings by Millet exceeded fifty works. [5] By 1892, Boston collectors held more than 40 paintings by Monet, so it is no surprise that, in 1911, the Museum of Fine Arts mounted Monet's first American museum exhibition.[6]

Hunt was on the original advisory board of the Museum of Fine Arts, founded in 1870 in part "to afford instruction in the fine arts" through both example and education.[7] In 1877, the first students attended classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the same building. In a notice at the time, the influential Atlantic Monthly applauded the application of "rigorous European training" to achieve a "systematic cooperation of sentiment and skill" to yield an art infused with "thoroughness and sincerity."[8] The formula is quite close to that applied by the painters who would later be called the Boston School. The most conspicuous member of the group, then and now, was Edmund C. Tarbell (1862-1938) -- so much so that critics at the time referred to the group as the "Tarbellites."


The Tarbellites Ascendant

The original Boston School artists represented in this exhibition, Paxton, Benson and Tarbell, all of whom were on the faculty of the Museum School, trained in Paris at the Academie Julian under Gerome, Lefebvre, and Boulanger.

As a young man, Tarbell enrolled in the Museum School in 1879, two years after it opened. He traveled to Paris with Dennis Bunker and then to Rome between 1883 and 1885. Four years later, he was appointed to teach the painting class he'd formerly attended at the School, a post he held until resigning 1912 in protest of changing administrative policies.

The Tarbellites specialized in bright, Impressionistic open-air landscapes, often decorated with "wholesome girls in white dresses."[9] A second tendency retreated indoors with what seemed at the time a very modern focus on non-narrative, sparsely populated (and very Bostonian) bourgeois interiors. These paintings, as Homer Saint-Gaudens (1880-1958) noted, recall "the Dutch indoor scenes of women about their household duties"[10], and the best evoke the spellbound vignettes of Vermeer.

Many consider these restrained domestic interiors and their idealized feminine occupants the Boston School's most representative works. But the Boston artists painted numerous distinctive Impressionistic and Barbizon-influenced landscapes and figural works as well. Carefully nuanced still life compositions were also a frequent subject, often combining flower arrangements with ceramics and other visually appealing (and often emblematically "cultured") objects.[11]

The founders of the Boston School explicitly rejected modernism. The famous Armory Show of 1913, which introduced European modernism to America with the force of an explosion in New York and Chicago, in Boston elicited little more than a shrug.[12] Tarbell was by then a recognized leader of the Boston School and a prominent member of the "Ten American Painters" who had seceded from the official painting establishments to stage their own annual exhibitions in Boston and New York. In 1914, Tarbell was named the first president of the newly formed Guild of Boston Artists. Established in the months following the Armory Show, the Guild, which is still active today, provided the members of the Boston School with an independent stronghold for their beliefs in professional standards of workmanship and a sanctuary for their faith in the power of art and the importance of beauty.[13]


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