An Unexpected Masterpiece

The Monitor invites you to sit in on the first in a series of conversations with art museum curators on choice objects in their collections

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is considered one of the top five art museums in the United States. The MFA's 750,000 objects include renowned examples of American and European painting, Egyptian Old Kingdom art, and Asian art. Part 1 of five parts.

One of the great things about being a curator is that you decide which the great works are!"

Or so - with a certain humorous relish - believes Theodore Stebbins Jr., who has been curator of American Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for some 20 years.

And one of the "great works" in the collection he is quite decided about is the "Wreck of the 'Ancon' in Loring Bay, Alaska," by Albert Bierstadt.

"It's a small painting," Dr. Stebbins says, "the kind of thing people might miss. And not particularly well known. I love it because it is somehow so perfect....

"An artist can have a moment where everything works well. Even out of the most unexpected or modest circumstances can come something sublime that will last for generations - for hundreds of years, I hope."

"I think 'Wreck of the Ancon' was rarely on view much before I became curator. Nowadays, it's on permanent view.

"And Bierstadt would be so surprised to find it on view in a museum. It was meant just for his own use. In the 20th century we have come to value such sketches. When Bierstadt died, about a thousand were found all in a pile, oil sketches on paper. Some literally stuck together. But most you wouldn't ever exhibit in a museum.

"Also, Bierstadt was way past his prime when he painted the 'Wreck.' He had become famous as a landscapist of the American West in the 1860s. But this is late 1889; he ... wasn't painting much. His finished oils in this period are very dismal and overworked. There was no indication that a really beautiful work of art might appear. It has an astonishing freshness, as if made by a very young artist, with great simplicity."

The "Wreck" is one of a number of oil sketches the artist made during a trip to Alaska. "Most of the other studies are not very interesting," Stebbins says. "And there were no finished paintings of any interest from the Alaska trip. So it is extraordinary.

"It is also very quiet - undramatic. He was generally a painter of dramatic sunsets, waterfalls, huge panoramas of nature, and this - although it's called the 'Wreck of the Ancon' - it is a very quiet, peaceful wreck. No one was hurt. The ship was caught by a strong tide and pulled out onto some rocks, but it is probably only 30 or 40 yards away from the dock where the artist stood later to make his sketch. Everyone had been rowed ashore, and there was no drama, no great action.

'AND then somehow Bierstadt had the wit to see the possibilities of this little ship sitting out with only empty sea behind it. It is really a picture about the blues of sky and water on this gray day.... He was such a realist that I assume that the ship actually had these yellow paddle wheels; I don't think he would have made that up.

"No abstract painter could have produced a more fortuitous color combination. It is a blue-gray, very monochromatic painting; and then these two spots of yellow make it something that Nicolas de Stal or Hans Hofmann or any 20th-century painter would appreciate."

Stebbins has a number of more typical - large, finished, and dramatic - Bierstadts under his charge. They hang near the "Wreck."

"We have at least 10 finished oils," Stebbins says. "But the viewer, I think, would never know it was the same artist.

Bierstadt was the greatest of the painters who portrayed America as a kind of paradise, Stebbins says. The artist "paints wildernesses, untouched places, a kind of Garden of Eden. It was really through his paintings that Yosemite was made a National Park.... They woke people up to the glory of the American West.

"Often his figures [sometimes native Americans] are very tiny. Or they don't exist at all. There will be deer grazing, or buffalo.... If figures had been introduced into the 'Wreck,' it would have ruined it somehow, would have reduced its extraordinary simplicity."

Stebbins has written about light in American painting. I wondered if that was why this Bierstadt interests him particularly. "Maybe it is," he replied. "There is a theory of Bierstadt as a Luminist - a number of American painters, starting in the 1850s, who were very much interested in light and reflection and water and mountains, in the unity of all of nature. Bierstadt was one of those. I hadn't really thought of that, but this painting ... is very much about subtleties of atmosphere. I personally like paintings that are about atmosphere, rather than anecdote or the grandeur of nature.

"This is probably one of the least valuable paintings on our walls, but if I were to be given one painting...!" (Even curators are allowed moments of fantasy.)

"It would," he muses, "be a wonderful painting to live with."

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