Design New England

Around New England: The Boston Raphael

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Raphael, Portrait of a Young Girl, 1505
(All images from Belinda Rathbone, The Boston Raphael)

By William Morgan

An 8-by-10-inch oil painting of a young woman at first enthralled and then scandalized Boston, involving several governments and various police forces, and eventually costing the director of the Museum of Fine Arts his job. The 1969 acquisition of Portrait of a Young Girl, a hitherto unknown portrait attributed to the Renaissance master Raphael, should have been a real coup for the MFA. Instead, its undocumented importation stirred up Italian demands for its repatriation, and gave ammunition to hostile trustees to force museum head Perry T. Rathbone into early retirement.


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Belinda Rathbone’s book The Boston Raphael: A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Museum in an Era of Change and a Daughter’s Search for Truth (David R. Godine, 2014) tells this fascinating story in detail. Despite the book’s subtitle, it is neither filial hagiography nor an apology. It is a serious investigation of a complicated and multi-layered story — one that needed to be told in a responsible and non-sensational manner.

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Perry Rathbone escorts Rose Kennedy at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1970.
The Boston Raphael recounts Perry Rathbone’s career, from Harvard and its famous museum course, to his directorship of the Saint Louis Art Museum, to the successful and exciting years at the MFA, and finally at Christie’s, the English auction house. But there is so much more in this dense tale than one man’s pursuit of stellar works of art. Beyond the story of one controversial painting, this book it is a thoughtful review of the evolution of major American art museums from repositories of high-brow culture to blockbuster shows and public entertainment. Readers will get an informed and broad understanding of one of New England’s grandest institutions, while also becoming acquainted with dozens of notable art world characters during the second half of the 20th century.

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Max Beckmann’s portrait, Perry T. Rathbone, 1948.
Belinda Rathbone is primarily a historian of photography (her best-known work being Walker Evans: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), the definitive life story of documentary photographer Walker Evans), but she is not a narrowly focused art historian. The Guynd: A Scottish Journal (The Quantuck Lane Press, 2005), her poignant memoir of her marriage to a Scottish laird and their life in an ancestral country house, is pure delight. Rathbone, who now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a dogged researcher and a beautiful writer. In The Boston Raphael she has done a remarkable job of navigating the shark-infested waters that surround museums, art dealers, and the oftentimes more salacious than helpful media to give us a gripping, well-crafted mystery.
Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England‘s January/February 2015 issue online!

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