Arts

sebastian smee

The 50 greatest paintings in New England

It’s an ugly thought experiment, but let’s say a disaster scenario threatens, widespread destruction is likely, and you have the task of salvaging for posterity the 50 greatest paintings in New England. There’s no time for more. You must limit yourself to three works by any one artist (sorry Rembrandt, sorry Van Gogh). Murals are out (sorry Sargent). And relax: Other good folk have been put in charge of sculpture, furniture, drawings, and so on.

Artificial and arbitrary as it sounds, the exercise is just an extreme version of the task curators at our art museums are routinely charged with. Only a fraction of their collections (at the Museum of Fine Arts it’s around 4 percent) are on display at any given time. Curators must discriminate between the worthiest and the merely very worthy. It ain’t easy.

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So which works really stand out from the crowd? Which are the paintings that really matter, the ones that have accumulated the most prestige and importance over time, the most singular, the most convincing, the most powerful and profound?

It’s a quixotic enterprise. I concede. I am not usually one for “canons.” I defend fervently the solipsism of the fan (which I undoubtedly am) because in the end, art love is not a public utility; it’s at its best when privatized. I know for sure that if I were to choose my own favorite works in New England, this list would look very different.

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But here is my humble attempt to apply criteria that go beyond personal infatuation, historical curiosity, and a loosely applied ideal of variety (which is more or less how I choose the works I write about in my fortnightly column, “Frame by Frame”). It’s an attempt to set aside, too, market value and statistical popularity, by far the dominant criteria in discussions of art in our time.

Why do it?

Simply because I want to remind people how incredibly blessed we are in this part of the world when it comes to great painting. The list here is as good, I believe, as a comparable list would be almost anywhere else in the world. Only Paris, New York, and London might have an edge, and even that is by no means certain.

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I have tried to be ruthless about avoiding pandering to desirable outcomes, politically speaking. This has produced disappointing results. There are very few works by female artists, and not many modern works. The historical reasons for the exclusion of women from careers in painting are well-known, and probably don’t need reheating here. (Times have changed, thankfully: A list of the most important 50 artists working today — certainly any list I drew up — would be at least half women, and would range from Cindy Sherman and Sheila Hicks to Shirin Neshat, Bridget Riley, Doris Salcedo, Kara Walker, and Marlene Dumas.)

The paucity of works by modern artists can be explained two ways. Firstly, New England collectors never really got into the swing of acquiring vitally important works by modern artists. The Museum of Fine Arts passed up the chance to buy Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” in the early 1980s, which says it all. Secondly, and more simply, greatness and prestige take time to settle down.

The very high number of works — more than half — from the MFA is also somewhat surprising. But then, if you tried a similar exercise in London or Madrid, I suspect you would have a similar proportion of works coming from, respectively, the National Gallery and the Prado, even though both cities have plenty of other great museums. In New England’s case, the MFA simply tends to have more of the singular, knock-down masterpieces than even the great college collections like those at Harvard and Yale. That’s partly because collectors who own those truly special pieces have tended to prefer the idea of giving them to the MFA: Very simply, more eyes will be on works that end up there.

Everyone will be able to think of great paintings that should be on this list. I have thought of plenty, too, I promise: I have a list of almost 100 works which were at one point in the top 50, and which I subsequently removed, including paintings that are listed as national treasures in Japan, as well as works by Botticelli, Raphael, Norman Rockwell, Rembrandt, Millet, Piero della Francesca, O’Keeffe, Pollock, and Matisse. The bar, in other words, is very high.

So . . . let the disputation begin! But let’s remember, as we squabble, what extraordinary quality we have in our midst. Quarterbacks, pitchers, and great conductors come and go. These babies are here to stay.

Use the drop down below to navigate through Smee’s picks by the city where the work is housed or the time period of the painting:

Yan Liben (attributed)

“The Thirteen Emperors,” 600s, China

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

More than 17 feet long, this bewitching hand scroll represents almost 800 years of Chinese rule. Painted on silk, it is one of only a few early imperial portraits still surviving.

Emperor Huizong (attributed)

“Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk,” 1100s, China

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This beautiful early-12th-century (Northern Song Dynasty) painting depicts a ceremony, held annually in spring, in which the empress leads ladies of her court through the various stages of silk production. It was probably painted by artists in Emperor Huizong’s painting academy.

Anonymous

“Night Attack on Sanjo Palace,” from the Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era, 1200s, Japan

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Considered the greatest battle scene in the history of Japanese art, this hand scroll is 22 feet long, and shows, with tremendous pictorial detail and compositional dynamism, a swarming pre-dawn attack. Intended to be read from right to left, it shows soldiers torching the palace, women throwing themselves into wells, defenders hacked to death, and horses bolting. It is the most famous Japanese artwork outside of Japan.

Duccio and workshop

“Triptych: the Crucifixion; the Redeemer With Angels; Saint Nicholas; Saint Gregory,” 1311-18, Italy

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of few surviving works by the great Sienese painter, this portable triptych, lavishly decorated on the back, superbly renders the confusion and despair of mourners crowded at the foot of the cross.

Giotto

“The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple,” c. 1320, Italy

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

With affecting economy and psychological realism, Duccio’s Florentine contemporary, Giotto, often described as the father of Italian Renaissance art, casts off cliché as he shows the moment when Simeon and the prophetess Anna recognize Jesus as savior.

Barna da Siena

“The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine,” c. 1340, Italy

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of the most mysterious paintings to have survived from 14th-century Siena, this large panel, with lots of gold leaf, shows the adult Christ placing a ring on the finger of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The scene, representing Catherine’s vision, is complemented by scenes of saints subduing demons and a moving reconciliation. It may have been commissioned to mark the end of a feud.

Fra Angelico

“The Death and the Assumption of the Virgin,” c. 1432, Italy

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

This exquisite painting by Fra Angelico shows the Assumption of the Virgin Mary — her ascent into heaven — immediately above a scene centered on her dead body. In its depiction of human actions — note the different attitudes of the men preparing to lift the bier — it is one of the most psychologically subtle of Fra Angelico’s later works.

Rogier van der Weyden

“Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,” c. 1440, Flanders

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of the MFA’s greatest masterpieces, this large painting in oils shows Saint Luke — once popularly believed to have painted the first likeness of the Virgin Mary — making a preparatory sketch of Mary as she feeds the infant Christ. This is the original version of two later copies made by the artist.

Sofonisba Anguissola

“Self-Portrait,” c. 1556, Italy

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Three-and-a-quarter inches high and 2½ inches across, this beguiling self-portrait was painted by Sofonisba Anguissola, who painted more self-portraits than any other artist of her time. This miniature shows her holding a large medallion inscribed in Latin with the line: “The maiden Sofonisba Anguissola, depicted by her own hand, from a mirror, at Cremona.”

Titian

“Europa,” c. 1562, Italy

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Titian’s “Europa” — or “The Rape of Europa,” as it’s more commonly known — shows Jupiter, in the guise of a beautiful bull, plowing through the waves of the Mediterranean Sea toward Crete, with the virgin princess Europa on his back. The greatest of Venetian painters, Titian had entered his profound late phase, full of freedom, poetry, and a thickening sense of mortality.

Rembrandt

“Artist in His Studio,” 1629, Netherlands

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In this small, unusual work by the young Rembrandt — it may or may not be a self-portrait — a painter is seen in shadow in a studio notable for its crumbling walls and all-around austerity. Such is the gilded intensity of the light limning the canvas, it almost seems to be generated from within the picture, rather than merely reflected. Rembrandt thereby suggests painting’s spiritual power.

Rembrandt

“Self-Portrait, Aged 23,” 1629, Netherlands

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

One of the first in the greatest and most famous series of self-portraits in history, this vaunting self-portrait, with its extravagant costume and dramatic lighting, gives an early glimpse into Rembrandt’s lifelong theatricality.

Nicolas Poussin

“Mars and Venus,” c. 1630, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

An early mythological work by the great, profoundly influential French classicist, this painting, based on a passage from the Roman poet Lucretius, reveals the influence of the sensuality, the evocative landscape, and the poetic light of Titian.

Soga Shohaku

“Dragon and Clouds,” 1763, Japan

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Thirty-five feet in length, this dramatic, eight-paneled work by one of Japanese art’s great mavericks was originally part of a larger suite of paintings that adorned the interior of a Buddhist temple hall.

John Singleton Copley

“Paul Revere,” 1768, United States

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Copley’s portrait of the silversmith and revolutionary leader Paul Revere shows him in his work clothes. It was made before the American Revolution, but in its democratic plain-spokenness — “Here I am, as I have every right to be!” — it feels hauntingly prescient of the world-changing events to come.

John Singleton Copley

“Watson and the Shark,” 1778, United States

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Copley’s first full-scale history painting, showing a shark attack and a dramatic rescue in Havana, was made three years after his move to Britain. This version, which Copley made the same year to keep in his studio, is one of the MFA’s most beloved paintings.

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun

“Portrait of a Young Woman (Countess Worontzoff?),” c. 1797, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A ravishing picture, rich in color, movement, and decorative panache, by one of the leading portraitists of her day. Because women were not allowed to attend art schools, Vigée-Le Brun was largely self-taught. She fled France after the French Revolution, but found aristocratic subjects aplenty elsewhere in Europe. This one may have been Russian.

J.M.W. Turner

“Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On),” 1840, Great Britain

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, wrote, “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.” The incendiary image shows dying slaves thrown overboard by a sea captain hoping to collect insurance on them, as a typhoon catalyzes the sea and sky all around.

Édouard Manet

“Street Singer,” c. 1862, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

An early masterpiece by the painter most often credited with kick-starting modern art. Manet’s favorite model, Victorine Meurent, who was 18 at the time, poses as a singer emerging from a street cafe. With his characteristic nonchalance and sly sense of mischief (those cherries!), Manet lends an ordinary subject a whiff of the Baudelairean unknown.

Edgar Degas

“Edmondo and Therese Morbilli,” c. 1865, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Degas had a nose for marital disharmony, and this commanding double portrait of his sister Therese and her husband Edmondo vibrates with psychological tension.

Edgar Degas

“At the Races in the Countryside,” 1869, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This touchingly intimate scene combines many of Degas’s loves: portraiture, movement, animals, and (intermittently) landscape. It shows his friend Paul Valpincon, his wife, and their infant son being breast-fed by a wet nurse at a racetrack in Normandy. The picture was reproduced on the cover of the great Degas retrospective of 1988-89 that traveled to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Claude Monet

“La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume),” 1876, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A portrait of Monet’s wife, Camille, and one of the most original and audacious Impressionist paintings in the world. Camille is dressed in a sumptuous kimono that is wittily decorated with a fiercely grimacing warrior. Oriental fans adorn the wall behind her.

Paul Cézanne

“Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,” c. 1877, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Lozenges of color and light are mobilized across this painting of Cézanne’s long-term mistress, and later wife — Hortense Figuet — as if she were a forest or a mountain in Provence. Accordingly, although the picture is relatively small, Hortense appears monumental.

Mary Cassatt

“The Tea,” c. 1880, United States

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

You can almost hear what they’re thinking! At once intimate and robust, this beautifully colored picture by America’s greatest Impressionist is fraught with interesting psychological dynamics.

John Singer Sargent

“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” 1882, United States

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sargent’s masterpiece. Good enough to warrant a whole book (“Sargent’s Daughters” by the MFA’s Erica Hirshler), and still to remain as captivating and unknowable as ever. One of the world’s great images of childhood.

John Singer Sargent

“El Jaleo,” 1882, United States

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Wait! No! THIS is Sargent’s masterpiece, isn’t it? The most dramatic — and dramatically installed — painting Sargent ever executed, this nighttime flamenco performance is impossible to dissociate from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where it hangs.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

“Dance at Bougival,” 1883, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Renoir at his finest. A life-size painting of the painter’s friend, Paul Auguste Llhote, a notorious ladies’ man, twirling in an amorous embrace with the trapeze artist and painter Suzanne Valadon, at an outdoor cafe on the outskirts of Paris.

Winslow Homer

“The Fog Warning,” 1885, United States

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Homer’s gift for narrative suspense was rarely better displayed. A fisherman has hauled in his catch, but must now row back to his ship as a storm approaches.

Vincent Van Gogh

“Postman Joseph Roulin,” 1888, Netherlands

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Roulin, the postman in Arles whom Van Gogh befriended and likened to Socrates, was one of his favorite models. He painted him several times, but never more boldly and convincingly than here.

Edvard Munch

“Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice),” 1893, Norway

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The greatest Munch in any American collection, this painting dates from the beginning of his most astonishingly inventive period, inaugurating a series that he came to call “The Frieze of Life.” It evokes a memory of first love, and a girl who left a mark so deep “that no other image can ever totally drive it away.”

Paul Gauguin

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” 1898, France

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Gauguin’s great statement — or really, his question: a frieze of life packed into one painting. Intended to be read from right to left, it is less polemic than poem, and its color palette is pure enchantment.

Pablo Picasso

“Standing Figure,” 1908, Spain

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This revolutionary painting captures the moment when the great Spaniard’s infatuation with African sculpture morphed into Cubism — an attempt to convey three-dimensional presence (and in this case, movement) in shallow space by breaking up volumes into flat facets and planes.

Rosso Fiorentino

“The Dead Christ With Angels,” c. 1527, Italy

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of only about 20 known works by the artist, this strangely scaled but intensely moving depiction of Christ is regarded as the greatest example of Italian mannerism in the United States.

Diego Velazquez

“Don Baltasar Carlos With a Dwarf,” 1632, Spain

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This double portrait by the Spanish court’s dazzling painter shows King Philip IV’s 2-year-old son with one of the more than 100 dwarves he kept at his court. It was painted shortly after Velazquez’s return from Italy, and reveals, again, the influence of Titian’s rich coloring and nonchalant touch.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

“Odalisque With a Slave,” 1840, France

Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge

The great French neoclassicist was famous for his icy eroticism and sinuous line. But in this late work, showing an odalisque serenaded by a white slave girl with an African eunuch in attendance, he combines this linear mastery with extraordinarily powerful color and an almost obsessive profusion of decorative detail.

Claude Monet

“The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train,” 1877, France

Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge

A study of billowing steam and dread-inducing urban atmosphere — a train station in Paris — that is as stirring and majestic as any of Monet’s great landscapes or cathedral facades.

Max Beckmann

“Self-Portrait in Tuxedo,” 1927, Germany

Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge

Something about this self-portrait — one of a number Beckmann made in his maturity — sears itself into your consciousness. Combining nonchalance and severity, directness and shadowy deflection, it candidly conveys both the straightforwardness and the monstrosity of the 20th-century self.

Roy Lichtenstein

“Forget It! Forget Me!” 1962, United States

Rose Art Museum, Waltham

“I’m fed up with your kind!” continues the caption. Canned emotion gets the high-art treatment in this key early painting by one of Pop Art’s seminal figures. Lichtenstein brought irony and open-heartedness onto the same song sheet, thus nailing the communal state of our times.

Piero della Francesca

“Virgin and Child Enthroned With Four Angels,” 1492, Italy

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

The only intact altarpiece in the United States by the great Florentine Renaissance artist, this painting has all the qualities for which Piero is celebrated: cool coloring, harmonized composition, and an aloofness that opens out onto the sacred.

Jean-Honore Fragonard

“The Warrior (Fantasy Portrait),” c. 1770, France

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

The ravaged face, red nose, and collapsing cheeks of this aging “warrior” — really an actor — cannot disguise the sheer energy he emanates, nor the drama conveyed by Fragonard’s sizzling brushwork. One of 14 so-called “fantasy portraits” painted late in Fragonard’s career, it is said to have been painted in a few hours.

Piero di Cosimo

“The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus,” c. 1499, Italy

Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

Painted for the Vespucci family of Florence, this painting by the great eccentric Piero di Cosimo shows satyrs making a loud din with household utensils in an effort to attract bees. The story, which leads up to the discovery of honey, is based on a poem by Ovid.

El Greco

“The Repentant Magdalen,” c. 1577, Spain

Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

Signed in Greek but painted shortly after El Greco’s arrival in Spain, this moving image depicts the soft and glossy-eyed former prostitute living as a hermit, contemplating death and the afterlife.

Paul Gauguin

“The Brooding Woman,” 1891, France

Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

This key picture from the first of Gauguin’s two extended stays in Tahiti conveys something of the resistance that the real world — and this Tahitian model in particular — put up against Gauguin’s delirious dream factory.

Caravaggio

“Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy,” 1594, Italy

Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford

Caravaggio’s first-known religious work revolutionized depictions of Saint Francis. Showing him swooning into the arms of an angel, it made an explicit connection between Francis’s vision and the Pieta, in which the dead Christ is cradled by his mother.

Édouard Manet

“Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume,” 1863, France

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

Painted within a year of his “Street Singer” and the same year as “Olympia,” this erotic tour de force is one of Manet’s strongest expressions of the things that infatuated him: women, Spain, clothes, oranges, and paint.

Vincent Van Gogh

“The Night Café,” 1888, Netherlands

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

Clashing colors and greenish gaslight convey the soul-sickness Van Gogh succumbed to in this local dive in Arles, where Van Gogh came to carouse with prostitutes, vagrants, and his friend Gauguin.

Marcel Duchamp

“Tu m’,” 1918, France

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

Duchamp’s last oil on canvas was painted for his patron Katherine Dreier. It functions as a kind of inventory of Duchamp’s better-known readymades, including the bicycle wheel and the hat rack. It also features a sweeping line of color swatches. Wry, cool, and objective in spirit, it suggests a whole new repertoire and mood for painting in the future, even as it constitutes Duchamp’s own personal signing off.

Edward Hopper

“Rooms by the Sea,” 1951, United States

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

An unusual excursion into near-emptiness, this great late Hopper shows him tinkering at the edges of abstraction (just then reaching its apogee in America) and showing the likes of Rothko that painting could be musical and poetic without forsaking the world of appearances and the sensual realities of wind, sunlight, and windows.

Mark Rothko

“Untitled,” 1954, United States

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

Stand in front of a great Rothko, and you’re forever on the hook. The color harmonies in this classic work trigger sensuous befuddlement and a kind of spiritual swoon.

Édouard Manet

“Repose,” 1871, France

RISD Museum, Providence

The most accomplished in a series of portraits Manet made of the great painter Berthe Morisot, who later married his brother Eugene. Beneath a cascading white dress, Morisot’s body squirms with vitality and, perhaps, thwarted passion: She and Manet were in love, but he was already married. A Japanese print hangs on the wall behind her.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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