MFA Opens Crowdsourced ‘Boston Loves Impressionism’

The incredible power of technology and the Internet makes crowdsourcing a widely popular and effective method of decision-making. Recently, it has contributed to the organization of the exhibition Boston Loves Impressionism at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston-which will be open until May 26. For the first time, the museum invited the public to choose their favorite Impressionist masterpieces, voting online during the month of January. Thirty were selected from a list of 50 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, to be put on display in the Lois and Michael Torf Gallery.

The exhibition is exclusively Bostonian in the way that it not only presents artworks by main Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, but also sheds light on the history of Boston’s taste for Impressionism. Encouraged by American painters, particularly J. Foxcroft Cole and Lilla Cabot Perry, Bostonians began to purchase large numbers of Impressionist paintings in the late 19th century, when many critics in Paris still laughed at them. As more and more of these works appeared in exhibitions, such as the 1892 show of 21 Monet paintings by the Saint Botolph Club on Newbury Street, Impressionist artists captured the heart of the city of Boston.

Bostonians’ love for Impressionism never diminished, but their taste for works within this category has been evolving. In the ongoing MFA exhibition, voters’ top three favorites-which hold “a place of honor” near the entrance-reflect the preferences of art lovers nowadays. With 4,464 votes, Van Gogh’s Houses at Auvers (1890) beat out all other works in the collection, while Monet’s famous Water Lilies (1907) came in second with 3543 votes. Edgar Degas’ Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (original model 1878-81, cast after 1921) was ranked third with 2,869 votes. As the only sculpture on display, the young ballerina stands proudly between the houses and the water lilies.

The captions for the top three are also evidence of what Bostonians think about the artworks they picked. If one is curious as to why the Van Gogh piece received more votes than Monet’s more famous works, he can find voter Jordan Spiers’ explanation in the caption-“Monet painted looking outward. Van Gogh, looking inward.” Meanwhile, it is interesting to see how present day voters’ views differed from the Impressionists’ contemporary critics. For instance, Degas’ sculpture was seen as a “grimly realistic portrayal of a scrawny teenager” in his time, while voter Kelly Knight, who grew up in Revere, Mass., expressed her childhood attachment to it. She remembers that, as a little girl, the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer was one of the first artworks that she “ever completely fell head over heels in love with.”

Even though the three favorites help to characterize the city’s taste for Impressionism, the diversity of the rest of the collection reveals more details about the art movement itself and its connections to Boston. For example, the snow scene in Monet’s Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter (1875) (“an unusually raw and somewhat unlovely glimpse of Argenteuil”) reminds visitors of what they see as they walk down the streets of Boston in the snow. Entrance to the Village of Vetheuil in Winter (1879), another painting by Monet, shows the more “lovely” side of a snowy day-as noted in the caption, “Monet’s rendering of freshly fallen snow appealed to New England audiences.”

The only American and the only female artist to appear in the exhibition with the French Impressionists is Mary Cassatt. Many of her works were images of modern women in everyday social scenes. Cassatt’s In the Loge (1878) is on display in the exhibit. It features a woman holding her opera glasses and looking not at the stage, but across at someone else. The question of what or at whom she is gazing triggers great curiosity in the observer, and this makes Cassatt’s piece stand out among the 30 Impressionist pictures.

The MFA’s Assistant Curator of European Paintings, Emily Beeny, wrote to visitors, “We must acknowledge that our tastes-why we like the things that we like-have a history.” This exhibition explores the history of Bostonians’ appreciation for Impressionist art and offers a snapshot of their views today.