At The Athenaeum

The Athenaeum must be one of the loveliest hidden delights of Boston.

I went there over the weekend while I was in town recording an episode of VoiceBox about street musicians with my friend, Sophia, who is a member. I doubt I would have even noticed the inconspicuous stone building wedged between other more imposing edifices in downtown Boston had I not been in the company of someone in the know. I’m so glad we went in.

The Boston Athenaeum is a membership library founded in 1807. With its tall, wooden shelves of old books, big windows and spacious tables and armchairs, it reminds me a bit a similar institution in San Francisco, The Mechanics Institute, which I used to call my “office” when I first started freelancing in The Bay Area back in the early 2000s.

One very visible advantage that The Athenaeum has over The Mechanics Institute is the art collection, which dates back to 1827. It’s both magnetic and rather eccentric.

For one thing, many of the paintings are hung on the very narrow, twisty-turny corridor walls of the library. So one is forced to view much of the collection from up close. This enables you to notice things you might not have noticed had you stood at the usual distance of several feet away.

For example, in “Trying on Furs,” one of my favorite oil paintings by the twentieth century artist Polly (Ethel) Thayer, a slovenly-looking woman sits droopy eyed with one hand on a knee and the other dangling loosely across the back of the chair. When you’re close to the picture, you’re more likely to notice a sliver of bare leg peaking out above the top of a brown stocking and the fact that the woman isn’t wearing a wedding ring. A whole narrative opens up before our eyes standing a few inches away from the canvas.

The other thing I love about the art collection at the Athenaeum is its sense of humor. Take “Going Going Gone,” the line of miniatures shown above by Alexander Brook, depicting a woman in various states of undress. The oil paintings tell a simple story in a tongue-in-cheek way. And they’re hung on a rich aubergine alcove in one of the nest-like reading rooms. What fun to sit there in an antique armchair reading some dusty, philosophical tome while the lady in the pictures above one’s head is busy getting out of her leggings!

 

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