Magazine article The Spectator

Undying Passion

Magazine article The Spectator

Undying Passion

Article excerpt

You would be a valuable Acquisition to the Art, and one of the first Painters in the World,' wrote Sir Joshua Reynolds to John Singleton Copley, `provided you could receive these Aids before it was too late in Life, and before your Manner and Taste were corrupted or fixed by working in your little way in Boston.' Sir Joshua, it appears, took a low view of the artistic potential of Boston. As it happens, he was wrong, even then when Boston was still a provincial outpost of British rule. Copley did most of his best work in Boston, before his manner and taste were corrupted by exposure to Europe. Nowadays, over two centuries later, he would be even more wrong. Boston, as I discovered on a recent visit, is - despite overpasses, underpasses, congestion and the big city grittiness described in George V. Higgins's excellent crime novels - what the French describe on road signs as a `ville d'art'.

I was drawn there by the superb Monet in the Twentieth Century exhibition, which began in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts - where it is magnificently hung and moves to the Royal Academy in the New Year when I shall write about it at length (anyone who is going to Boston in the next couple of weeks is recommended to take a look, if they can get through the seething crowds). While I was there I took the opportunity to look around, and found that, in three days, I had my work cut out to do justice to all the artistic sights. America is, of course, even more than France or Italy, the land of the art museum. As with a number of other innovations the radio, the motor car - Americans did not actually invent the museum, but they certainly exploited the idea on a grand scale once they had adopted it. A number of large American cities are lavishly supplied with public art collections - New York, of course, and Washington it goes without saying, but Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia also have world-class museums (this is in part a reflection of the decentralised organisation of the country). So too does Boston, and there, in the oldest of the great American cities, one can most easily trace the origins both of the indigenous American styles of art, and also the American passion for Art (as Sir Joshua would doubtless have capitalised it).

Already before the revolution, however, it is possible to detect American style moving away from the English model at a slight, but ever increasing angle. The characteristics of American painting, as one knows it - realistic, straightforward, flat and full of pazazz - can be traced early. The no-frills matter-of-factness can be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts collection of John Singleton Copley (which contains almost all his best work). The 18th-century buildings of Boston seem just that little bit more four-square, simpler, starker, than their transatlantic equivalents (with the possible exception of the Anglican Kings Chapel, with its ornate, canopied governor's pew). Charles Bulfinch's Massachusetts State House - where there hangs a wooden codfish as a reminder of the source of Boston's wealth - is based on Sir William Chambers's Somerset House. But it is different from, and also better than, the sprawling, pompous original - neater, trimmer, spryer. Bulfinch's white portico against his red-brick wall has a visual punchiness known to sign-writers as 'snap', and which I have heard abstract painters call 'popping'.

You get the same feeling for rectilinearity and simplicity from the clapboard houses around Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass. …

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