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.
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.
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.
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:
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.