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Museum of Fine Arts offers a new way to experience work

It is, to say the least, an unexpected way to treat a not-so-famous 377-year-old painting. But the Museum of Fine Arts has decided to use “The Triumph of the Winter Queen: Allegory of the Just,” a sprawling oil portrait by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst, in a new experiment.

The 10-by-15-foot painting has been put on view in the museum’s Loring Gallery accompanied by a nine-minute film created for the MFA. There’s also a lot to read. The gallery walls are covered in texts detailing the history of the painting, the museum’s extensive restoration of it — done over 18 months in full view of the public — and the lives of the characters who became Honthorst’s subjects. The painting is on long-term loan to the MFA by an anonymous donor.

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The idea, says museum director Malcolm Rogers, is to simply put more attention on a lesser-known work.

“We know that on average in a museum people spend 15 seconds looking at a work,” Rogers said. “Now they’re going to spend 20 minutes.”

The Rogers tenure has been defined not only for the museum’s physical expansion, but by its embrace of celebrity, whether shows of photography by Herb Ritts and Mario Testino or an exhibition displaying fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s car collection. In the case of the “Winter Queen,” the celebrities are part of a royal family you won’t see on the cover of any tabloids.

Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart, the king and queen of Bohemia, are little known to today’s viewing public. The painting shows the family while they were in exile in the Netherlands, their reign ending after they were forced from the throne.

The nine-minute film that plays on two screens near the painting.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

The nine-minute film that plays on two screens near the painting.

Michael Zell, a Boston University associate professor of art history who specializes in 17th-century Dutch art and Rembrandt in particular, took it as a good sign that the MFA is putting such emphasis on the “Winter Queen.”

“They are highlighting a picture that might otherwise seem remote to the public,” he said, taking in the display on a recent afternoon. “They’re trying to bring it back to life. It’s definitely a worthwhile experiment, especially with a picture that’s going to be likely ignored.”

The Loring Gallery has been used for new media in the past. In 2011, the MFA showed “The Clock,” the popular film by artist Christian Marclay, in the space. At times, during those screenings, the couches were stuffed with observers, eager to catch a new segment of the 24-hour movie.

For the “Winter Queen,” two couches offer seating for about eight people. Film screens on either side of the sprawling canvas are narrow but tall. And as the film plays, detailing the story of the characters in the frame, the lighting shifts to highlight portions of the portrait. Three-dimensional animations are used in the film, as are impressionistic snowflakes, which fall between the text-heavy scenes.

The exhibit also inlcudes wall texts detailing the painting’s history.

The Boston Globe

The exhibit also includes wall texts detailing the painting’s history.

Just how closely the MFA is watching this experiment became clear last week when the museum decided to change how often the film plays. Since opening Feb. 14, the video has been shown every half-hour. Sometime early next month, that will shift to once every 20 minutes.

“What’s the right balance of using media to draw people into the story but giving people plenty of time to look at the painting fully?” said Barbara T. Martin, the museum’s curator of education.

Initially, the museum wasn’t going to put up the two screens but, instead, install monitors all over the gallery walls to tell the story.

“But putting screens on the walls is kind of like wall panels,” said Janet O’Donoghue, the museum’s director of creative services. “We decided to push it further.”

On a recent weekday, visitors said they appreciated the way the “Winter Queen” was presented.

“Someone was just saying they should have these videos for every painting,” said Sharon Camm, who was helping chaperone a group of students through the MFA.

“So often you’re looking at a painting in the gallery and you don’t know the back story,” said Ken Ishii, another chaperone.

People viewing “Triumph of the Winter Queen.”

David L Ryan/Globe Staff Photo

People viewing “Triumph of the Winter Queen.”

To that end, Rogers says that the MFA could present other works in this way. As far as size, the museum does have several paintings that compare, including Thomas Sully’s “The Passage of the Delaware,” Frans Snyders’s “Boar Hunt,” and Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

The issue, though, is choosing a work with as much of a back story as the Honthorst.

“This was Hollywood when it was first painted,” he said.

Zell, the Boston University art historian, watched other gallery visitors during his trip to the MFA. He wasn’t surprised that they sat for the film and, when it was over, left without going back to the wall text to read more.

“Part of it is the convention of how we watch a film,” he said. “You sit, you wait, and when it’s over you walk out.”

He has seen multimedia brought into a museum badly in the past. A few years ago, the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, presented Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” with lights, noises such as a barking dog and rain, and “when the theme park experience ended, the people walked out.”

“It was a distraction and the picture seemed mute in comparison,” Zell said. “This one, the painting is more conventional and less accessible. It’s an interesting work of a clearly skilled painter but it doesn’t have the dazzle and inventiveness. So doing this makes sense.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers
@globe.com
.
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