Boston Painters, Boston Ladies

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Oscar Wilde, who had something clever to say on almost any subject, visited Boston about 1880, attended a debutante ball, and is supposed to have found the state of feminine beauty so low that he now understood why the city’s artists were reduced to “painting only Niagara Falls and millionaires.” It has been thought sophisticated to slur Boston girls ever since. Of course, it is all nonsense.

For proof we begin this issue with a portfolio of Boston ladies taken from a recent exhibition, one of several with which the famous Museum of Fine Arts in Boston recently celebrated its centennial. Called “The Boston School: Turn of the Century,” it astonished museum goers perhaps surfeited with the uncertain features of modernism by reviving almost a dozen skilled Boston artists who had worked and played and studied together some two generations ago. Masters of realism who had studied in the academies of Paris, they nevertheless welcomed the new influences of their time —impressionism, which many of them had absorbed firsthand in France, and the rage for the Japanese so early espoused by Whistler. Indeed, the Boston Museum had one of the first and greatest collections of Japanese prints and artifacts, brought back by some of its founders. And the Museum housed the school of art at which all these painters studied and taught. Two of them, Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank W. Benson, had studied in Paris under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre, and they helped to teach and shape the others, who included William M. Paxton, Joseph Rodefer De Camp (our cover artist), and the noted couple, Lilian and Philip Hale, he being the son of Edward Everett Hale, author of “The Man Without a Country.” Their child, Nancy Hale, the writer, recalls in Life in the Studio what her happy parents, and their friends, had in their minds in those days of realism:

“My mother and father had the utmost contempt for painters who painted things out of their heads. Not that they wanted to paint what is sometimes called photographically; far from it. They wanted to ‘render the object’—an immensely subtle process involving the interplay of the painter’s subjective view with the way the light actually fell upon the object. The conflict—rather, the marriage—of objectivity and subjectivity was what made art such a wildly exciting and magical thing. …”

Carlo Davidson