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JOEL Joel's Blog

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts


 A wonderful portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow by John Singleton Copley. 1773
A wonderful portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow by John Singleton Copley. 1773

In my last blog post, I described a Boston museum visit that I found disappointing and frustrating. Fortunately, we also had a delightful visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that lasted all afternoon. The art was great; the galleries were well laid out; and the information about the art was very helpful without being too intrusive. And the food at the museum cafe was really good! I was entertained and I learned lots.

As you would naturally expect in a Boston museum, there was a fair amount of colonial furniture to check out. The craftsmanship of these Colonial and Federal pieces was awesome, but what particularly struck me about the furniture is how irrelevant most of these pieces are to modern living. I'm not talking about specific designs - it's the entire category. I love the stuff and I enjoy the artistry and craft, but I just don't really have any need for the pieces. Even the category that I find most relevant, chairs and desks, would have trouble fitting into a modern home. In our society, increasingly a “desk” is wherever you lay your laptop. And what of the writing instruments, stationery, storage? They have literally vanished from many offices. The museum has a bunch of great-mid 18th century pieces by John Townsend and others from Newport, Rhode Island. These iconic pieces to my mind show "Colonial style" at its best. The desk shown below is glorious. My own desk accessories these days are a giant screen, keyboard, mouse, mouse pad, fountain pen, ink, pencil, sharpener, printer, and two scanners (flatbed and document). So, sadly, no matter how much I love this desk, it doesn’t give me space for my monitor or any of the other gadgets, and I can't fill the cubbyholes in a useful way. It's a crying shame. It really is.

I love this Six-shell blockfront desk and bookcase - maker unknown C. 1755–70 Newport
I love this Six-shell blockfront desk and bookcase - maker unknown C. 1755–70 Newport, Rhode Island

The wonderful display of upholstered chairs shows how styles evolved - but these chairs don't really exist in a modern home. As a society, we invite other adults over less and less frequently, and when we do, the informal setting of a kitchen or the sofa in front of a TV is the usual gathering place. It's a real loss of modern living that people don't gather around to eat, sing and play music together, and none of that leads to dancing anymore. Where rich colonial-era Bostonians would have owned townhouses in the center of the city, modern urbanites almost never have the staff for entertaining. Young adults still mingle as always, but not in private houses and not in formal parties.

A great exhibit of chairs
A great exhibit of chairs, with explanations on how the styles vary and evolved

 The rest of the chair exhibit
The rest of the chair exhibit

The strictures of a formal society are very significant. The museum’s objects come from a rich society that excluded poor people and rigidly enforced the gender, racial and class hierarchies - and the entire party was made possible by indentured or enslaved people. But when I look at the furniture, I can see the freeing aspects (for at least the people whose furniture is displayed) of living in a formal society in which people know how to behave. Think of this for a second. You are invited to the Petersons for dinner and cards next Thursday. You might not be the most social of butterflies, but you have been taught over the years, and so you know how to play cards and which fork to use for salad. And you know how to make appropriate conversation. This means that you will have the confidence and opportunity to meet new people at the Petersons, an environment in which everyone knows what is expected of you. So instead of plunging into a swipe-right situation and starting what should be a casual meeting as a blind date, you are eased into connections. The furniture is part of some useful activities that we no longer practice, making the artifacts almost as alien as the tomb relics of the pharaohs. We might not walk sideways anymore but it is kinda cool.

Desk from Ecuador
Desk from Ecuador, late 18th century. South American walnut, canary wood, and cedrela with black olive and glassywood marquetry

Furniture from South and Central America
Furniture from South and Central America

I thought all the exhibits had something to offer, but aside from the feeling on how furniture usage and behaviors have changed, my big takeaway, and it's a big one, was in the Central and South American exhibitions. What was new to me is that while the Colonials up north were making fancy carved furniture of a distinctive style, the folks down south were making the same basic forms of furniture, but the details of materials and decoration reflect their culture and style.

Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (Elizabeth Lewis) by John Singleton Copley. 1771
Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (Elizabeth Lewis) by John Singleton Copley. 1771

Another thing that blew me away is the number of portraits by John Singleton Copley, the distinguished Boston-born painter, in which the costumes might seem a little dated but the people themselves seem as alive and engaged as in any modern photograph. A lesson that can be learned from Copley’s portraits and many other works in the museum is that, while technique and subject matter have changed, the basic vocabulary of how humans communicate hasn't. I can't paint or draw, but I can take a picture. Anyone with a smartphone can. But if I want to take a compelling picture that conveys some emotional content about the people in the picture, the lessons of Copley are the same as ever.

Leopard Chest by Judy Kensley McKie
Leopard Chest by Judy Kensley McKie, 1989

The museum has lots of well curated modern work on exhibit. I was very pleased to see the "Leopard Chest" by the Boston-based furniture designer Judy Kensley McKie on display. I think I first saw a picture of this chest in Fine Woodworking decades ago. The B+W photo of the time doesn't do it justice. And while just a few lines above in this blog I am mourning the obsolescence of l traditional designs, I could easily see this chest sitting at the foot of my bed elegantly holding extra linens, pillows, and blankets.

RCA Victor Special Portable Phonograph
RCA Victor Special Portable Phonograph, about 1935 - possibly the coolest item in the entire museum

Join the conversation
08/10/2022 Larry A. Coates
Joel, if you enjoyed the MFA in Boston, you should make sure you get to the Peabody Essex Museum in Peabody, MA! As at the MFA, Many of the pieces of furniture in the PEM, have been restored by Philip Lowe, the master furniture maker that ran the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, until his death in 2020.
I loved the Peabody (article probably next week). I didn't know that Phil Lowe did a lot of the restoration. Nice to find out.
08/10/2022 Joe Samalin
Joel - to your point re the practical contemporary utility of some (all?) colonial pieces like that awesome desk you have pictured, is anyone doing contemporary mashups of this period (or other historical eras) and contemporary use? Might be cool....I could see the desk above having open shelving below the desk surface for scanners and the storage space above being resized for the other needs you mentioned.
08/10/2022 Randall Wright
Enjoyed your discussion of classic furniture, and great photos. I would suggest your analysis of modern need for such furniture is a bit harsh and premature. We still sit on chairs, sit at tables lie in beds dont we ? Yes an 18th cent secretary wont hold a computer or TV, but modifications could be made. Ultimately these pieces may be as much art as they are functional, you dont get much practical use out of a sculpture or painting, but they are still great to look at. Thanks
We sit on chairs but not the beautiful but formal chairs of the colonial period. We sit at tables, but just for informal dining. A early card table is just awesome but we don't practice that kind of group entertainment anymore. If I took a Newport desk and modified it so it would fit my monitor and keyboard, aside from the crime against furniture I would be committing, what I would get is a butchered version of something that didn't quite fit the new. There is a lot of room for new modern furniture that retains the craft and decoration of old. I am seeing really wonderful stuff made by modern makers with great skill. So I have hope. BTW. The space requirements to collect furniture or sculpture make it hard to collect either in the apartment where I live. Don't get me wrong, I love the style, I just am sad that as a society we don't have much use for them and the loss also reflects some good things in our social interactions that have been lost.
08/12/2022 Dan
I agree the phonograph is very cool. It makes me hate plastic even more.
08/21/2022 Morgan Holt
Joel, your description of the times reflects the elite, gentleman and ladies with staff. Really the grunts of the era may have danced exceedingly well, but probably in a rustic hall and furniture to match. I think us grunts have decent comfortable chairs and furniture. Technology has certainly changed our habits. Entertainment centers are out… and consoles with big screen TVs on the wall are in. Mid century modern furniture is in and very functional 70 years later. Less is more?
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