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Famous Faces of European Collection Showcased in Installation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889. Vincent van Gogh (Dutch (worked in France), 1853–1890). Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of John T. Spaulding. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON.- A selection of portraits, both painted and sculpted, by European masters dating from the Renaissance to the 20th century goes on display today in the Coolidge Gallery in the Upper Hemicycle at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), in the special installation, Great Company: Portraits by
European Masters. Featured are six paintings and two sculptures, representing some of the finest European works from the MFA’s collection. Great Company: Portraits by European Masters, on view through January 5, 2009, is one of three installations that debut tomorrow in celebration of the opening of the State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance in the Museum’s Robert Dawson Evans Wing.

“To welcome guests entering the MFA from the newly-reopened entrance on the Fenway, we wanted to assemble some of our most familiar faces—including Degas’ portrait of his sister and brother-in-law, as well as van Gogh’s portrait of his friend Augustine Roulin,” said George Shackelford, Chair, Art of Europe, and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art at the MFA, who organized the installation.

The MFA’s European masterworks included in the installation are:
• Portrait of a Man and a Boy (Count Alborghetti & Son), about 1545–50, Giovanni Battista Moroni (about 1520–1578) This double portrait by Renaissance artist Moroni was probably painted during the time he lived in the city of Brescia. It depicts an assured man in middle age, thought to be Count Alborghetti, but his relatively modest clothing suggests that he may instead be a prosperous businessman rather than a member of the nobility. Pictured with him is a boy with a somewhat enigmatic expression who is about to hand him a letter. The youth had been identified as his son, but is now thought to be a page, his servant.

• Mrs. Edmund Morton Pleydell, about 1765, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) Gainsborough painted portraits characterized by their elegance, technical virtuosity, and ability to capture the fleeting moment. His portrait of Mrs. Pleydell reveals the painter’s acumen in balancing observed truth and artistic imagination. It was commissioned by the sitter, Anne Luttrell (Mrs. Edmund Morton Pleydell) of Dorset, England. Mrs. Robert Dawson Evans, who underwrote the construction of the MFA’s Evans Wing in her husband’s memory, bequeathed the collection they had formed, including this work, to the Museum at the time of her death two years after the opening of the wing.

• Bust of Beatrice, 1819–22, Antonio Canova (1757–1822) Canova, generally considered the greatest neoclassical sculptor, was the most famous artist of his day. This bust began as a portrait of renowned beauty Juliette Récamier, celebrated in Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of her. Because Canova's original plaster bust did not please Récamier, he idealized his sitter's features in this marble bust, transforming it into an "ideal head" of Beatrice, muse of the Renaissance poet Dante.

• Bust of Lord Byron, 1821, Bertel Thorvaldsen (1768 or 1770–1844) An English patron commissioned in 1817 a portrait bust of the great Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), from the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen, then living in Rome. Although Byron rejected the idea of a bust crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves—sacred to Apollo and symbols of poetry—Thorvaldsen kept to the truncated form of ancient Greek and Roman busts and classically sculpted hair in this marble depiction of the poet. This example of the composition was acquired by Boston collector Joseph Coolidge directly from the artist.

• Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli, about 1865, Edgar Degas (1834–1917) This portrait of Degas’ sister, seen in the shadow of her self-assured husband (who was also her cousin), was probably painted during the couple’s visit to Paris after the loss of their child a year earlier. The artist sets off the subtle grays and blacks of their clothing against the simple, ocher-and-gray drapery behind them and the richly embroidered Islamic textile on the table, which recalls portraits from the Italian Renaissance.

• Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse), 1889, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) This portrait is of Augustine Roulin, wife of Van Gogh’s friend Joseph Roulin. The sitter uses the rope in her hands to rock a nearby cradle. The artist painted his model with bold, exaggerated colors against a vividly patterned floral background. Her husband, a postal worker in Arles, was the subject of several portraits by Van Gogh, including one in the Museum’s collection.

• Carmelina, 1903, Henri Matisse (1869–1954) Matisse represented the female nude many times, both in painting and in sculpture. The scene is the artist’s studio—a glimpse of the painter at work is visible in the mirror at the back of the room, a mirror that also reflects the back of his boldly posed model. This work was shown at Matisse’s first one-man exhibition at the gallery of vanguard dealer Ambroise Vollard in June 1904.

• Double Portrait, 1946, Max Beckmann (1884–1950) Max Beckman, living in Amsterdam after his exile from Nazi Germany, painted this double portrait of his two close friends, Hanns Swarzenski (left), a scholar of medieval art and former curator at the MFA, and Curt Valentin, a New York art dealer. Valentin grasps a candle, a recurring motif in Beckmann’s paintings that might represent the artist’s hope of a new life in America. Although the two friends never posed together for this portrait, it is a tribute to the power of friendship.

Great Company: Portraits by European Masters has been organized by the MFA to mark the opening of the State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance on June 20. Two other installations are featured, as well, Winslow Homer: American Scenes, showcasing 70 of the MFA’s most beloved works from this American master; and Preserving History, Making History: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, an exploration of the MFA’s history from its founding in 1870 to the present, with a look to the future.

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June 19, 2008

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