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Artworks with revealing histories in Boston-area museums

Porto San Giorgio altarpiece.Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Most art exhibitions focus on the works’ appearance and creation, meaning and context. But every museum piece comes with other stories as well. Here are some works in area museums that have histories their wall labels might not reveal.

Porto San Giorgio altarpiece

By Carlo Crivelli

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

“Ornament & Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice,” Oct. 22-Jan. 25,

Crivelli, a Renaissance painter, created the six-panel altarpiece for a town church in 1470, depicting a variety of saints and biblical scenes. “It was a jewel of Crivelli’s early work,” says Nathaniel Silver, the Gardner’s assistant curator of the collection.


When the church was rebuilt in 1803, the tempera paintings were taken to the palace of a local noble family, which later sold them to Henry Hudson, an English employee of the Portuguese embassy in Rome. Hudson in turn sold five of them to the Earl of Dudley, William Ward. The panels were sold off separately in 1876, ultimately landing as far afield as Krakow and Detroit.

Isabella Stewart Gardner acquired one, “Saint George Slaying the Dragon.” Now four of the six panels will be reunited at the Gardner for “Ornament & Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice.”

Model D pianoforte and stools

By Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Clark Art Institute

“An Eye for Excellence: Twenty Years of Collecting,”Oct. 25-April 10,

Financier Henry Gurdon Marquand, a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commissioned the Dutch-born British romantic painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema to design a deluxe Greco-Roman music room in his Madison Avenue mansion in the 1880s. The centerpiece: A Steinway grand, which Alma-Tadema had inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl.

Marquand died in 1902, and his estate was auctioned. In 1923, theater impresario Martin Beck purchased the piano. “But it was too bulky for their New York apartment,” says Alexis Goodin, curatorial research associate at the Clark Art Institute. Beck built the Martin Beck Theatre and put the piano in the lobby, where it sat for roughly 50 years, acquiring stains from sweaty glasses and cigarette butts under its lid. Sold to a private collector in 1980, the piano appeared at auction again in 1997, and the Clark snapped it up.


‘Incised Standing Figure’Worcester Art Museum

‘Incised Standing Figure’

Olmec culture

Worcester Art Museum

Jeppson Idea Lab,Nov. 14-April 3,

“This is one of the great pre-Columbian artifacts,” says John Garton, associate professor of art history at Clark University. The Olmec were Mesoamerica’s earliest organized civilization, predating the Maya, known for their colossal heads. This small, 2,800-year-old figurine, made from dark green stone sanded down and drilled, has a pear-shaped head and incisions across the mouth.

Garton worked with Karl Taube, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, determining the design of the incisions.

“Karl made a link with representations of the star god,” Garton says. They suggest that the star-like incision may represent a measurement of time, or an epic battle between the morning star and the sun. Either way, it’s a find, Garton says. “Portrayals of the star gods are quite rare.”

One of the panels from ‘The Virgin and St. John the Evangelist at the Foot of the Cross’ by John La Farge.McMullen Museum of Art

‘The Virgin and St. John the Evangelist at the Foot of the Cross’

By John La Farge

McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College

“John La Farge and the Recovery of the Sacred,”through Dec. 13,

La Farge made these panels in 1862-63, as a commissioned Crucifixion triptych for the Catholic Church of St. Peter in New York. But the commission was yanked before he finished the center panel.


La Farge kept them until 1884, when William Collins Whitney purchased them, ultimately installing them on the grand staircase of his New York mansion. So began a century-long love affair between the Whitney family and La Farge’s “Virgin and St. John,” according to curator Jeffery Howe.

Stockbroker James Henry Smith bought the mansion lock, stock, and barrel after Whitney died. Then Smith died, and an auction was set to disperse the contents. Whitney’s son Harry Payne Whitney swooped in to buy it all.

Harry’s widow gave the panels to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931, but in 1950 the museum divested itself of pre-20th-century art. Harry’s son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, bought them back. In 1983, they finally left the family.

museum of fine arts

‘Workmen before an Inn’

By Isack van Ostade

Museum of Fine Arts

“Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer,” through Jan. 18,

Until recently, “Workmen Before an Inn” (1645) was seen as an exemplar of van Ostade’s style, depicting genre and rural scenes. Ronni Baer, the MFA’s senior curator of paintings, dug deeper. The workmen, she determined, are beer porters. A boy opens the door for them; a man who might be the innkeeper looks on. Breweries were Haarlem’s chief industry, because the water was clean and good to brew.

“It was the most popular beverage in the Netherlands in the early 17th century,” says Baer. “Beer brewers were among the wealthiest in the city.”


The barrels, which could weigh more than 300 pounds, were branded with the emblems of the city and brewery. “Deliverers were responsible for picking up city sales tax and reporting how much they transported,” says Baer.

Such stories make up the backbone of “Class Distinctions,” Baer says. “All these details that have been taken at face value and not been paid attention to give texture to these paintings.”

Harvard College

‘Sea Garden, Bahamas’

By Winslow Homer

Harvard Art Museums

Viewable by appointment, Art Study Center,

Helen Cooper, curator emeritus at Yale University Art Gallery, was working on her dissertation there in the late 1970s when she came across two fragments of a Homer watercolor. They had once been tacked on the wall of the room where he slept in his Prouts Neck, Maine, studio. They depicted palm trees on a spit of land, and part of a black man standing in water.

Soon after, she visited Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and found an 1885 watercolor of a young man holding a fan of coral to show a young woman on a boat. It looked familiar.

“So I run back to New Haven to take these two fragments to Boston,” Cooper says. “And sure enough, they fit.”

She speculates that Homer cropped the piece for commercial reasons. “If you only show the boy and the girl, you have a little narrative,” Cooper says.

Cooper says she has seen almost every Homer watercolor in public collections. “But I’ve never seen anything so blatantly redesigned,” she says. “He kept the fragments. Isn’t that interesting?”


Peabody Essex Museum

Shanghai Bund photographic panorama

By Kung Tai studio

Peabody Essex Museum

Viewable and interactive at

In 1882, the Shanghai photo studio Kung Tai made a practice of piecing together urban panoramas with individual albumen prints. The 11-foot panorama of the city’s waterfront in the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection features 13 conjoined prints. It’s the largest known to exist.

A vibrant port, Shanghai was changing rapidly in the 1880s. “Shanghai was a hotbed of globalization then, and now,” says Sarah Kennel, the museum’s curator of photography.

On the museum’s new microsite spotlighting the panorama, viewers can read scores of annotations by the original owner. “He is someone very interested in buildings that have to do with trade: consulates, maritime offices, trading companies,” Kennel says. “I’m hoping clues in the annotation might be able to tell us who he was.”

Cate McQuaid can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.