Boston occupies a place that partially resembles America and partially resembles Europe, or at least a version of England stripped of the last few hundred years. I begin my visit by walking on Boston Common, name that is in itself redolent of a pre-enclosure act England. The fall is at its height and the leaves are bright red, yellow and orange against a bright blue November sky. Somewhat fat squirrels scamper up tree trunks. Surrounding buildings, like the Park Street Church are clad in a familiar red brick, but elements like the gold dome on the State House strike a more incongruous note. I’m surprised to see a casting of the Shaw Memorial that I’d seen in the Washington National Gallery of Art outside the State House. I then walk about the Granary and King’s Chapel Burying Grounds, noting the stylistic similarities of the various tombs with their recurring skull and angel motifs, notwithstanding the Egyptianate gates at the former graveyard. I walk onward to the Old State House and Faneuil Hall, redbrick buildings that are perhaps the most English structures here (even down to the lion and unicorn); I can see the former easily fitting into any number of English provincial cities. This is less true of the Customs House, an odd skyscraper apparently modelled on the Camanile in Venice. I walk on to the Old North Church, past Paul Revere’s House and the treelined avenue named after him. The graveyard has a series of dogtags forming a monument to troops lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. I then come onto Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, from where the sun is high in the sky and I can see over much of the city, before walking over the river to the Bunker Hill Monument, whose resemblance to the Washington Monument sits rather oddly next to a city that has a rather English aversion to the grandiose.
I then spend some time in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, concentrating on the European and Ancient collections. The European galleries range from Weyden, Crivelli, Titian and El Greco before progressing onwards to Zurbaran, Rembrandt, Turner, Blake, Goya, Velasquez, Ruisadael and a really rather distressing amount of Watteau and Constable. The Museum also has an unusually large number of Millets in its collection as well as the occasional Burne Jones. The modern galleries predictably dwell on the French; Manet, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Signac, Tissot, Cezanne and Gauguin, as well as Munch and some portraits by Van Gogh. The ancient section is equally impressive, including a surprisingly naturalistic bust of Prince Ankhaaf, a series of sculptures of Menkaure, Assyrian friezes, a Babylonian lion as well as busts of Augustus and Septimus Severus. I don’t really have a great deal of time for the American collection, save for some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s interiors and Tiffany stained glass.
The next day finds me travelling to Washington. My previous visit had been rather overcast so it’s nice to see the place lit up by the sun. The first thing I look at is the Corcoran gallery; for a building opposite from the Whitehuse this is perhaps not especially impressive. It too has more Gainsborough and Reynolds paintings than can possibly be considered advisable. The positive aspect are a good collections of Dutch works by Dou, Goyen, Steen & Borch, and a modern collection by Corot, Renoir, Degas and Monet. Sculptures by Manship and David French line the staircases and corridors. The name of many of the American artists are new to me, but I rather like works like Bierstadt’s Last of the Buffalo, Remington’s wild west sculptures and Metcalf’s May Night, as well as an unexpected painting of the House of Representatives by Samuel Morse. I have a chance to compare this to the original later, when I go round Congress, viewing the rotunda with its painting of the apotheosis of Washington and sculptures of Lincoln, Jefferson, Hamilton, Ford, Reagan and Eisnhower. The later hall of sculptures proves rather more bemusing with an inclusion of also-ran figures (like the inventor of air conditioning). Statues to figures like the last Hawaiian king also seem somewhat incongruous. Finally, I have a look at the library of Congress, with its elaborate painting ceilings, most of whicb seem rather reminiscent of Florence.