But, Rogers adds, "I don't think we've taken a New England focus, to be honest. I think we have a New England nexus to the collection, but the focus is actually broader." Which is true, but that broader focus actually keeps the MFA from digging into what Boston and New England mean in American art and history. The fear is that we'll be seen as provincial — and that, of course, is Boston's traditional fear, dating back to the way colonists looked to London for style cues. But New England's contribution starts with a pioneering Yankee craftsmanship and egalitarianism, the linking of our arts with American liberty, and proceeds through New England Transcendentalism, Henry James–type expatriate Americans, and 20th-century technological invention (which takes in photography).
The second floor is anchored by some three dozen works of John Singer Sargent, among them his 1882 masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, with its strikingly nervous arrangement of young sisters in a darkened room. The seven-foot-square canvas was formerly displayed in a room that was barely higher; the new gallery's 16-foot ceiling makes it appear to have shrunk. How American was Sargent anyway? He identified himself as such, and he's connected to Boston through murals he painted here, but he was born in Italy and spent most of his life in Europe. Here he symbolizes the many American artists, from Lowell native James McNeill Whistler to Boston-born Winslow Homer, who trained in Europe after the Civil War. Looking elsewhere for inspiration, magpie style, is the signature of American art's melting pot. It runs parallel to America's scrappy, DIY, reverse-engineering ingenuity, in all its eccentricity and warmly human imperfections.
Behind the Sargent gallery, New Yorkers Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and others from the Hudson River School paint the American wilderness, sometimes in New England. Gloucester's Fitz Henry Lane, inspired by New England Transcendentalism, and Martin Johnson Heade paint becalmed marshes and harbors along Boston's North Shore, making the gallery seem to glow. Heade also depicted fever dreams of Caribbean hummingbirds and orchids. Homer paints coastal Maine. American Impressionist Mary Cassatt in France paints women at tea; Boston-affiliated artists Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell, and Frank Benson — inspired by French Impressionism — paint saccharine landscapes.
The vision thing
On temporary display is freed slave Harriet Powers's appliqué quilt from the 1890s. The jaunty Biblical scenes made from arrangements of simple silhouette figures echo Fon textiles from West Africa. It's one of the best American quilts ever made, and one of the many amazing donations to the MFA from the Russian Jewish opera tenor Maxim Karolik and his millionairess Boston Brahmin wife, Martha. When the MFA looks for vision, it should ask itself: what would the Karoliks do? During the mid 20th century, they resurrected the careers of Lane and Heade and, as the MFA has said, "spurred a nationwide reassessment of 19th-century American art."