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With the acquisition of John Axelrod’s collection, the Museum of Fine Arts’ holdings now represent almost every major African American artist of the past 150 years

Susan Saccoccia | 12/14/2011, 8:06 a.m.
“Cocktails,” Archibald Motley (American), about 1926, Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection - Frank B. Bemis Fund...
“Cocktails,” Archibald Motley (American), about 1926, Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection - Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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“Cocktails,” Archibald Motley (American), about 1926, Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection - Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.

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“Cocktails,” Archibald Motley (American), about 1926, Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection - Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.

With the acquisition of John Axelrod’s collection, the Museum of Fine Arts’ holdings now represent almost every major African American artist of the past 150 years

Distilling African American history into a single panoramic image, a 1930 study by muralist Aaron Douglas renders such icons as a church steeple, a shackled slave and a man raising a trumpet to his lips as silhouettes. Framed by palm fronds, the figures ascend in overlapping arcs toward a shaft of elevating light.

The spare Douglas study shares the sleek art deco lines and silver tone of the objects that surround it in the John Axelrod Gallery of the Art of the Americas Wing in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA).

The image and the nearby selections of home décor and fashion also share the same source: John Axelrod. In 2008, the longtime MFA supporter gave the museum his large collection of American decorative art from the ’20s and ’30s. And the Douglas study is one of 67 works by African American artists that Axelrod recently sold to the MFA for a fraction of their actual value.

Assembled over 15 years by Axelrod, the collection transforms the MFA into a leading repository of art by black Americans. With this acquisition, the MFA’s holdings now represent almost every major African American artist of the past 150 years.  

Spanning pre-Civil War stoneware to canvases painted in the 1980s, the Axelrod Collection includes works by such U.S. luminaries as Loïs Maillou Jones, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, as well as 18 paintings and sculptures by Brazilian artists of African descent.

“These important works allow us to tell the broader story of American art,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Department.  

A multimedia guide to the new acquisitions is in development and a catalog is planned for publication in 2014. “At some point, we hope to celebrate the whole collection with its own exhibition,” says Davis.

Meanwhile, the museum will present individual works from the collection. The Douglas study is one of seven alluring new acquisitions now on display.

With scene-stealing vitality, the works bear witness to African American history and life and offer an insider’s view of a community — often with a regional accent.

The John Axelrod Gallery is the setting for Archibald Motley Jr.’s “Cocktails” (ca. 1926). Motley’s portrayals of African American life in Chicago’s South Side call to mind the black-tie social satires of his German contemporary Max Beckmann. In this painting, he renders a jovial quintet of elegant ladies with mask-like faces. Surrounding it are objects that suit its urbane style, including a svelte gown and a gleaming silver cocktail set.  

Five paintings from the Axelrod Collection are on display in the adjacent Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell Gallery, an installation of mid-century American works on the theme of place.

Here, they join two works by African American artists previously acquired by the MFA, Allan Rohan Crite’s endearing South End street scene, “Tire Jumping in Front of My Window” (1936, 1947), and the enigmatic “Room No. V” (1948) by Eldzier Cortor, another artist who came of age in Chicago’s South Side.