ART: The (mostly) Affable Ladies of the Boston MFA

Good portraits are ineffable – they capture not just a likeness, but an expression, a gesture, some small glimpse of personality. In the faces below I see boldness, thoughtfulness, crotchety sarcasm and flirtatious friendliness. Some seem amused, others sad – a few merely private, content to keep their own counsel.

These ladies drew my attention in my recent visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, made me wish I could gather them together in one room (or hallway, à la Hogwarts?) where they could converse together while I eavesdrop  to see how well they match up to my perceptions.

Most seem like they would enjoy each other’s company, or at least be quite capable of making some incisive observations on the parade of visitors that come before them each day.

What would you have them thinking or saying?  Feel free to provide a pithy comment or two in the comments on each painting. They’re worth an individual “visit”. 🙂

Note: I chose to spend most my time in The European and American art sections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, since they  focus heavily on portraiture. So that limits the “extraction” of my collection here.

Of course all these women were at least relatively wealthy to have access to a portrait artist and I’m sure are often bundled up in cultural markers that may not convey the same significance over time.

The only self-portrait here is also the only work by a female artist, as far as I could see – the inkwell of Sarah Bernhardt there at the end. If I could choose just one to visit at it’s moment of conception and creation, that would be my selection.

I’ve separated many of these ladies from their husbands or fathers, whether by showing them individually or changing the titles of the paintings when they were labelled Mrs. John Doe (so to speak).

The menfolk in the pairings I’ve separated did not interest me so much – they were stolid and authoritative, but not so conversational or easily amused/ They didn’t look like they would bother thinking of the people in front of them at all, self satisfied in their positions and markers of power.

These ladies have their own kind of influence, but none were noted for their accomplishments or activities – the captions only occasionally remarked on their wit and conversation and hospitality.

I’ll follow up with a few of my favorite men later – the individuals that seemed to shine through the formality of their portraits, or were willing to twist the traditional trappings of power to their own ends.


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