That “museum” in the subtitle of “Brilliant Beginnings: The Athenaeum and the Museum in Boston” isn’t generic. It refers to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Long one of the world’s great art institutions, the MFA didn’t start out that way. It began in the shadow of and was much beholden to another local cultural establishment, the Boston Athenaeum. The early relationship between them is the subject of this charming, handsomely mounted show, which runs at the Athenaeum through Aug. 3. The show’s small size (not quite 70 items) enhances that charm.
“Brilliant Beginnings” was organized by Hina Hirayama, associate curator of paintings and sculpture at the Athenaeum. It coincides with the publication of her book, “With Éclat: The Boston Athenaeum and the Origin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” Hirayama’s job title may come as a surprise to some. But the Athenaeum isn’t exclusively a library. Its founders envisioned a “general . . . collection in every branch of knowledge,” with that collection extending to a “Repository of Arts.”
The Athenaeum started collecting and exhibiting art in 1827. When the Athenaeum moved to what is now its present home, on Beacon Street, in 1849, it included a first-floor sculpture gallery and third-floor painting gallery. Today its holdings include more than 100,000 artworks (as well as more than 500,000 books).
The MFA was founded in 1870 and opened its first building, in Copley Square, in 1876. During the intervening six years, it held its exhibitions at the Athenaeum. Furthermore, having as yet no collection of its own, what it exhibited was largely drawn from its host institution.
The close relationship between the Athenaeum and infant MFA should come as no surprise. Then, even more than now, Boston was a small town socially, with clannishness a byword among the Brahmins. The Athenaeum and MFA could almost be described as sister institutions, except that “fraternal” would be more accurate. Edward Newton Perkins headed the Athenaeum’s Fine Arts Committee. His younger brother, Charles, was a prime mover in founding the MFA.
“Brilliant Beginnings” focuses largely, though not exclusively, on that 1870-1876 period. There are works specifically about each institution, such as Enrico Meneghelli’s painting “Picture Gallery of the Boston Athenaeum,” from 1876, and several renderings of the MFA’s Copley Square building. Most are works that were exhibited by the MFA at the Athenaeum.
Without necessarily meaning to, “Bright Beginnings” evokes a sensibility particular to a certain time (the decades after the Civil War) and place (the major cities of the American Northeast and Midwest). It was an era of aspiration, affluence, and art. Actually, there was a fourth A: America. Nowhere else in the world sought so eagerly to ape Europe as American cities (or at least their tonier neighborhoods) did.
Paradoxically, the items in the show that contemporaries would have been proudest of — busts of Raphael and Rubens, the many copies of European works ranging from Greek coins to Old Master paintings — now seem the least interesting. Some of the works with the greatest appeal — an oversize key, a selection of exhibition tickets, architectural drawings — would have been considered banal, at best, if not outright lacking in any aesthetic value.
Valuable as “Brilliant Beginnings” is as a chapter in Boston history, it’s even more so as a kind of time capsule of a moment in the history of taste. The genteel tradition, just starting to flex its cultural muscles, was doing its best to find out what it was that gentility entailed, aesthetically and institutionally speaking. As we can now see, the Athenaeum represented the past: private, primarily of the word, insular. The MFA was the future: open to the public, dedicated to image and object, expansive.