Museum of Fine Arts curator George Shackleford has brought together some of the museum's "most familiar faces" to welcome guests entering through the recently reopened State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance.
Entering the Museum of Fine Arts from the Fenway side, visitors will be greeted by Lord Byron, a distraught woman with her haughty husband and a bare-breasted beauty named Carmelina.
MFA curator George Shackleford has brought together some of the museum's "most familiar faces" to welcome guests entering through the recently reopened State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance.
The museum's curator of modern art, he organized an eclectic installation of painted and sculpted portraits by eight masters of European art from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century.
Modest in size yet dazzling to look at, "Great Company: Portraits by European Masters," like the grand new entrance, jolts visitors into realizing striking art and museums can be seen anew through freshened eyes. They will be on view through Jan. 5.
Six paintings and two sculpted busts have been installed in the Coolidge Gallery in the curved Upper Hemicycle just a short walk from the reconstructed entrance with 22 Ionic columns.
Marietta Cambareri, assistant curator of decorative arts and sculpture, described the installation as "a pantheon of old friends."
Busts of two wildly different figures, poet and adventurer Lord Byron and the Italian beauty Beatrice who inspired Dante's "Divine Comedy," face the portraits with their backs to the Fenway.
Cambareri said she liked the early 19th century busts because each came with its own interesting story.
The great neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova began his statue of Beatrice as a portrait of a renowned beauty. But when the original plaster bust with its long fleshy neck displeased her, he changed it into an idealized image of Dante's teenage muse. Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvalden's marble bust of Byron was acquired by a Boston collector directly from the artist and later given to the MFA, providing a "direct link" from the great Romantic poet to the museum.
The installation includes six large striking portraits including three with pairs of people comprising masterworks by Thomas Gainsborough, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh that reveal in a small area the remarkably varied ways these giants rendered the human form.
Subjects of the double portraits range from Degas' sister Therese and her supercilious husband Edmondo Morbilli to Max Beckman's Expressionist tribute to two friends who escaped Nazi Germany.
Each portrait has a revealing back story that adds to potential interpretations. While Degas' sister appears to be grieving a child lost a year before, her husband's assertive body language suggests an iciness bereft of compassion. Though his two subjects never posed together after the war, Beckman's work unites them through a portrait with one holding a candle as a tribute to enduring friendship.
In an enigmatic double portrait, Renaissance painter Gioanni Battista Moroni depicts a man and boy once thought to be a count and his son but whose true relationship remains unknown.
The three portraits of women suggest changing attitudes to feminine beauty.
Gainsborough's 1765 portrait of Elizabeth Jackson, named in the painting as "Mrs. Edmund Morton Pleydell," depicts a distant elegant beauty dressed in satin while Matisse's nude of his model Carmelina conveys a bold earthiness that presaged a bold acceptance of her sexuality.
While reactions will vary, perhaps the single most striking work is van Gogh's luminous "Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle." It presents the artist's friend in a burst of eye-popping yellows and greens set against a floral background of daisies exploding like Roman candles.