Theater & art

G cover | Frame by Frame

The joy of artistic surprises

“Checkout Time at the Marlborough-Blenheim,” by Bradley Phillips
“Checkout Time at the Marlborough-Blenheim,” by Bradley Phillips

I have no particular love for “art,” if by that you mean a category of activity that needs defining, rhetorical enhancing, and constant, vigilant defending. Definitions bore me. They bring things down in the world. When people say to me, indignantly, “You call that art?!” I don’t know what to say. If I can muster up the presence of mind, I shrug.

What I do love are individual works of art. I love, in particular, coming upon something unexpected, something arresting — not necessarily because it is spectacular and novel, but because it carries the full force of conviction on the part of the person who made it.

“Wellesley Girls,” by Alice Neel

What can beat that sensation of having hit upon something shockingly fresh, cheek-slappingly lucid, or caressingly tender — some mournful reminder, perhaps, of past lives, or an electrifying glimpse into the future?


As art critic at The Boston Globe, my brief is to review exhibitions in New England’s art museums. Since I arrived at the Globe from Sydney in 2008, I’ve been traveling to these shows as they open (or at least, in busy periods, before they shut!), and I do it with great anticipation, excitement, and pleasure.

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But a good museum is about more than just its temporary exhibits. And so, whether I am going to a show in Boston or farther afield, I always try to leave time to peruse the permanent collections of these museums. Some of them are college museums (and what an abundance of exceptional college art collections New England has!) while others are public museums with storied histories, such as the Peabody Essex Museum, the Boston Athenaeum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

After all, it’s the permanent collections that are, in almost every case, the great pride of these places, and of the communities they serve.

From the very beginning, what I saw, as I traveled from Connecticut and Rhode Island to Maine and New Hampshire, blew me away. Four years later, I continue to marvel.

The sheer range of art on display — from trumpeting masterpieces to historical oddballs

“Mourning Picture,” by Edwin Romanzo Elmer

and whimsical improvisations — is thrilling. And they’re all just waiting there, five, six, or seven days a week, in beautiful, spacious buildings that make it their business warmly to welcome the general public and then, their duty done, to leave you to your own thoughts, your own devices.

The idea to establish a column called “Frame by Frame,” which would focus on individual works in these permanent collections, came out of this excitement, an excitement that only grew after my first year at the Globe.

Art can be about anything and everything; there’s no limit on what it can make you feel or think. So I have followed no guidelines, and there have been no parameters defining the choices I have made. The only criterion is that the work be on display in the permanent collection at the time of writing.

The Globe launches “Frame by Frame” as its latest e-book today. I hope the short pieces collected in it, which I have tried to keep as urgent in tone and as personal as possible (without entirely evading my journalistic duty to be informative), allow you to share some of the pleasure I have had in looking at the works themselves.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at