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The van Gogh in the attic

Boston-area museums own more world-class artwork than they have room to display. Here’s a rare look at what you’re missing.

Bequest of William A. Coolidge.

PEOPLE TEND TO CONCLUDE that art museums, especially the powerhouse ones we’re fortunate to have in our area, get hold of a world-class work and immediately put it out for all to see. Only that’s not always what happens.

We tend to assume that those van Goghs we’re looking at are the only van Goghs in the joint. Except, there’s a good chance they’re not.

Consider the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: The MFA owns close to half-a-million objects, and visitors to can check out photos of nearly 375,000 of them. These are remarkable numbers, but they’re all the more so when you realize that the museum regularly displays merely 21,000 items — just 5 percent of its total collection.


The issue can be as simple as lack of space, but sometimes the problem is preservation. That’s the case with watercolors, notes Cliff Ackley, chairman of the MFA’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. “Watercolors are particularly sensitive to light,” he explains, “and for preservation reasons, their time on view is limited.” So some 300,000 watercolors and other sensitive objects get rotated through the museum’s 143 galleries and are generally on display for only three to 12 months at a time.

Then there’s the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, with its own special circumstances. “Our collection has to be on view all the time as a stipulation of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will,” says Michael Busack, media relations manager. But that doesn’t mean you can actually see them all in full. The museum’s valuable correspondence and detailed travel journals are fragile and kept in dry storage. The Gardner preserves such works out in the open, perhaps tucked away in bookcases or displayed in protective glass cases literally under the noses of visitors.

Meanwhile, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, as in other museums, curatorial decision-making is also perpetually afoot. And making those sorts of artistic selections might be the toughest job of all. “No matter how huge a museum can be, you just can’t show all of your great stuff,” says Daisy Yiyou Wang, curator of the PEM’s Chinese and East Asian Art. “Sometimes it’s apples and oranges, and you have to choose one.”


5. Enclosed Field with Ploughman Vincent van Gogh (Dutch (worked in France), 1853–1890) October 1889 Oil on canvas * Bequest of William A. Coolidge * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, BostonMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Enclosed Field With Ploughman


Oil on canvas | October 1889

The MFA has two van Gogh canvases on display, but this one is temporarily tucked away out of view. Because of its small size, this painting would be typically shown in what curators call a “double hang,” meaning it would be above or below another work. But the design of the current installation would not gracefully accommodate this, observes Emily Beeny, assistant curator of paintings in the Art of Europe Department. Van Gogh executed what feels like an inversion of his famous “Starry Night.” Here, it’s terra firma making a march on the heavens while a lone worker toils in an expanse of unblended brush strokes. Repose seems a long way off.

Fish Scroll, ID of Fish Ink and color on paper, mounted in scroll format Museum purchase, 2005Peabody Essex Museum

Fish Scroll


Ink and color on paper | first half of the 19th century

Think of this PEM piece like art as menu: another too-delicate-to-display work that was commissioned by a guild of Japanese fish traders and may have been hung on the wall of their shops to entice customers. East Asian paintings on paper or silk like this one are light-sensitive and in the United States tend to be displayed for just six months every five years, says Wang. Although little information about Nanrei exists, he probably thought of himself as a commercial painter, not an artist. It was a job this early adman just happened to execute particularly artfully.


3. Children Playing under a Gloucester Wharf Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910) 1880 Watercolor over graphite pencil on paper * The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, BostonMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Children Playing Under a Gloucester Wharf


Watercolor over graphite pencil on paper | 1880

This is one of the MFA’s delicate watercolors, rotated in and out of storage. The diaphanous forms of these cheeky kids are practically one with the Cape Ann water they move in, which dovetails with just about any New Englander’s childhood experiences of summer, sea, and play. But fret not, Homer enthusiasts: Sixteen of his works are on display now, most in the Barbara and Theodore A lfond Gallery, and visitors can always see other fragile works on paper by appointment in the Morse Study Room. About 2,000 pieces are viewed this way each year.

8. Poultry Market at Gisors Camille Pissarro (French (born in the Danish West Indies), 
1830–1903) 1885 Tempera and pastel on paper mounted on wood * Bequest of John T. Spaulding * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, BostonMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston/Bequest of John T. Spaulding. Ph

Poultry Market at Gisors


Tempera and pastel on paper mounted on wood | 1885

Two Pissarro works are on display at the MFA; one owned by the museum hangs in the Impressionist corridor, one on loan from local collector Scott Black is in the Impressionist gallery. But this third one, according to Beeny, is so delicate — an effect mimicked by the softly burnished colors — that it “can only be exhibited for limited periods of time.” Rarely does bustle look so stately, and note how good-natured the haggling is. This ain’t the cutthroat Saturday morning scene at Haymarket.

1. Vase of Flowers Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954) 1924 Oil on canvas * Bequest of John T. Spaulding © 2011 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), 
New York. * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, BostonMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston/Bequest of John T. Spaulding, ©

Vase of Flowers


Oil on canvas | 1924


Quite the visual rhythm in this work, with the eye bouncing between a vase, which looks like it’s been fused from sea water, and the sea itself in the distance (and check out that candy cane pattern, which presages Jasper Johns’s treatments of the flag). The MFA is now exhibiting two Matisse works — find them in the Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery — and this piece is about to have new (temporary) digs for all to see. “It will soon be joining the traveling exhibition ‘Looking East: Western Art and the Allure of Japan,’ headed to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville in January,” says Beeny.

Gardner Museum

Illuminated page of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy


Ink, colors, and burnished gold on vellum | circa 1375-1425

They don’t make books like they used to, do they? The illuminated “P” for Purgatory is apt in the largely frozen-in-time Gardner Museum, where this early copy of the Divine Comedy sits closed in a locked glass case. Visitors who lift the protective curtains get only a glimpse of the books and memorabilia inside, which must be a little like Limbo if you’re a work of art. The colors pop from the page, much as Dante’s images often do. It’s as if verse and visual art have paired up in an attempt to make it to Paradise.

Icon, late 15th century-early 16th century 
By After the style of Gunda Gundie Monastery Origin: Africa, 
Medium: Painted parchment, embossed leather
Dimensions: L: 89.00 cm
Donor: Gift of Mr. And Mrs. Charles Langmuir

Description: Historically, Ethiopian Christian painting juxtaposes medieval Christian iconography with scenes of local life. St. George, prominent in this folded parchment, was a popular subject among Ethiopian religious artists. Icons were usually commissioned by individuals and then given to churches, where they were put away and thus preserved, sometimes for hundreds of years. Jeffrey r. dykes

Folding parchment


Pigment on parchment and leather | circa 15th-16th century

Here we have a delicious irony. The public has not seen this parchment in its full glory since 2006. Yet, as Karen Kramer, PEM’s curator of Native American art and culture points out, one of the nine apostles is featured on the cover of Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland” (turns out Simon knew the work’s previous owner). Neat, right? A long-out-of-view treasure that has been seen by at least 14 million music buyers. This piece will be on display again between January 24 and February 2, when it will be on loan to the Winter Antiques Show in New York City.


2. Brig "Antelope" in Boston Harbor Fitz Henry Lane (American, 1804–1865) 1863 Oil on canvas * Bequest of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection 
of American Paintings, 1815-1865 * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, BostonMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston/Bequest of Martha C. Karolik for

Brig “Antelope” in Boston Harbor


Oil on canvas | 1863

The MFA has eight of its 18 Fitz Lane works on view, many in the Dr. Lawrence H. and Roberta Cohn Gallery, but not this treat from the Gloucester luminist. “For the paintings on view in the ship-model gallery, we decided not to limit them to portraits of ships, but rather to include more complex harbor compositions as well,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas. This canvas suggests a bit of both: The sails seemingly drained the clouds of their whiter aspects, and there’s a dialogue of darkness between sky and sea. The painting, which was being conserved between 2008 and 2010, will soon go on display in the Art of Americas Wing.

Colin Fleming is a freelance writer, fiction author, and arts critic based in Boston. Send comments to


The MFA is letting the public help select works to display for an exhibition of Impressionist paintings slated to open February 14. Starting January 6, visit or the museum’s Facebook page to vote for your favorites.