August 4, 2012

Stonehill Art Crime Symposium Visits Boston Museum of Fine Arts

by Virginia Curry, Stonehill Art Crime Symposium

Our class was warmly welcomed to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Professor Candice Smith-Corby from Stonehill College arranged for a private lecture presented by Victoria Reed, the Monica S. Sadler Assistant Curator for Provenance and the first Curator of Provenance in the United States. Her job is to research works with questionable histories both in the collection and on the MFA’s "shopping list". As a result, Reed’s other job is to break curators’ hearts.

The MFA, which like many museums has had to return works in recent years, took special care in creating Reed’s post in 2010. She is the first and only endowed curator of provenance at an American museum.

Ms. Reed elaborated on the practices of past acquisition management at the MFA and the steps that it now takes to ensure that the Museum exercises due diligence in acquisitions and researches any questionable provenance of exhibits already accessioned into the MFA collection, which opened its doors to the public in 1876. The class learned that the MFA, due to Ms. Reed's research, has already returned numerous accessions in the collection when she proved that the title to each of the exhibits lie elsewhere.

Rhona Macbeth the Director of MFA Painting Conservation directed our class on a private laboratory tour of her on-going conservation of the painting "Allegory of Justice" dated 1636, by Gerrit van Honthorst (Dutch, 1590–1656) on loan from the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. The scale of this painting is such that the MFA uses a towering painting tube to transport the huge canvas within the Museum. 

"Allegory of Justice", 1636, Gerrit van Honthorst
This photograph of some of the members of our class with Ms. Macbeth gives a sense of the scale of the canvas, which was pieced together by the artist to present a larger than life portrait of Elisabeth, Electress Palatine and (briefly) queen of Bohemia (August 19, 1596 – February 13, 1662). She was born Lady Elizabeth Stuart, the eldest daughter to King James VI of Scotland and his Queen consort Anne of Denmark. She was thus sister to Charles I of England. With the demise of the Stuart dynasty in 1714, her direct descendants, the Hanoverian rulers, succeeded to the British throne.  In 1613, she married Frederick V, then Elector of the Palatinate, and took up her place in the court at Heidelberg. In 1619, Frederick was offered and accepted the crown of Bohemia, but his rule was brief, and Elizabeth became known as the "Winter Queen". She was also sometimes called "Queen of Hearts" because of her popularity.  Driven into exile, the couple took up residence in The Hague, and Frederick and their son drowned in 1632. Elizabeth remained in Holland even after her son, Charles I Louis, regained his father's electorship in 1648. Following the Restoration of the British monarchy, she traveled to London to visit her nephew, King Charles II, and died while there. Her daughter (illustrated in the paining as a winged figure flying above the scene, was known later as Sophia of Hanover. Her grandson became George I of the United Kingdom, thus making all her direct descendants heir to the British throne.  Honthorst depicts Elizabeth crushing Neptune, who is shown with his trident, under the bladed wheels of her carriage as her husband and son beckon from death to she and their surviving children.
Detail from "Allegory of Justice"

Our class also spoke with conservators who were preparing the severed head from the 2nd century A.D. cult statue of Juno for casting, and the conservation of the Etruscan couple sarcophagus of Larth Tetnies and Tanchvil Tarnai (approximately dated 3rd to 4th century B.C.E0.

After lunch at the MFA, we proceeded to Vose Gallery in Boston where we were met by Beth Vose, the director of the oldest family owned gallery in the United States. Ms. Vose gave our class a presentation concerning the history of collecting of the Vose Gallery, which first opened as an artist supply shop, and has been actively operated by descendents for six generations. Ms. Vose explained the role of the private gallery as collection consultants and the due diligence as they perform their acquisition and conservation of American paintings and sculpture from the northeast.


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