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Boston MFA Purchases Caillebotte&#146s Male Nude, Denudes its Permanent Collection—Part I

Gustave Caillebotte, “Man at His Bath,” 1884, private collection
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (which has acquired it)

[Part II is here.]

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts this week announced its problematic plan to sell eight works (images below) at Sotheby’s this November to fund the purchase of Caillebotte’s “Man at His Bath” (above), a rare, nearly life-size Impressionist male nude. The museum’s press release describes this candid post-ablution depiction as “one of the greatest works by artist” and “the first Impressionist nude to enter the museum’s collection of paintings.”

George T.M. Shackelford, BMFA’s chair, Art of Europe, and its curator of modern art, told the Boston Globe‘s art critic, Sebastian Smee (who broke the story on Monday):

I hope in 50 years’ time people will say that this was a good thing, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Or else they might say, “What were they thinking?”

And that’s precisely the problem with monetlzing museum-quality works from the “permanent” collection to acquire works that today’s curators covet but can’t otherwise afford.

Tomorrow’s curators (not to mention today’s museumgoing public) may reasonably disagree with this judgment call to sell what are arguably second-tier works by first-rank Impressionists in order to acquire a single first-tier work by a relatively obscure Impressionist (although Caillebotte is much admired for such well known works as “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” Art Institute of Chicago, and “The Floor Scrapers,” Musée d’Orsay).

So that the Caillebotte can take its place in Boston’s collection, a Monet, Pissarro and Gauguin—the three paintings in the eight-work dispersal that have the strongest exhibition histories—will (if the auction succeeds) irrevocably leave the building.

Already, Boston’s tradeoff is getting some pushback. Writing for “The Angle,” the Globe’s news analysis site, Scott Lehigh debunked the sale of “eight paintings—several with prestigious exhibition histories” for “a view of a gentleman’s just-bathed backside. Call me a Philistine, but somehow this just doesn’t strike me as an astute trade.”

Rebutting the butt critics, also on the “Angle” site, Dante Ramos, deputy editor of the Globe’s editorial page, praised the BMFA for “selling familiar works to buy an unusual one.”

Call me a Philistine, but I strongly believe that museum-quality works that are in the public domain should stay in the public domain. If they belong in the museum, they should stay there. As I’ve stated time and again, they are held in public trust and should not be used as trading chips.

Here are the images of the soon-to-be-auctioned works, supplied (at my request) by the museum. See for yourself what Boston will cast off to bring home the rosy derrière. (The online version of the Globe article did not publish these images.)

Claude Monet, “The Fort of Antibes,” 1888
Presale estimate: $5-7 million

Paul Gauguin, “Forest Interior,” 1884
Presale estimate: $1.2-1.8 million

Camille Pissarro, “View from the Artist’s Window, Eragny,” 1885
Presale estimate: $1.8-2.5 million

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Bust Portrait of a Young Woman,” c. 1890
Presale estimate: $1.8-2.5 million

Alfred Sisley, “Overcast Day at Saint-Mammès,” c. 1880
Presale estimate: $1.5-2 million

Alfred Sisley, “Saint-Mammès: Morning (Le Matin),” 1881
Presale estimate: $2-3 million

Vasily Vereshchagin, “Pearl Mosque, Delhi,” late 1880s
Presale estimate: $3-5 million

Maxime Camille Louis Maufra, “Gust of Wind,” 1899
Presale estimate: $300,000-500,000

I’ll have more to say in Part II, probably tomorrow, about “Bath’s” slippery slope and the downside of trading up.

an ArtsJournal blog