Boston’s Missing: Four Wyeth Murals

Occasionally, one of my posts about Boston fits into more than one series. That happened recently when I went in search of four murals by N.C. Wyeth. Folks remember them hanging in the Financial District, but the paintings have since disappeared.

First National Bank of Boston, Financial District, Boston

The First National Bank of Boston

One reader reminded me that the First National Bank of Boston had owned, and displayed in the lobby of 100 Federal Street, four enormous murals by the prolific artist Newell Convers Wyeth. They had been commissioned for the bank’s original Renaissance Revival building.

When in 2004 the Bank of America purchased Fleet Boston Financial, which had acquired First National, they also obtained the murals. These paintings had had then hung in what is colloquially known as the Pregnant Building.

Historical Ships at Sea

The four paintings, commissioned for the opening of First National Banks’s new building in 1924, focus on ships in history. In chronological order they are:

  • Boston, The Phoenician Biremes, NC Wyeth, mural, Bank of America

    The Phoenician Biremes

    The Phoenician Biremes (1923) — a city rising from the sea, a trio of longboats in the foreground, their sails and gilded hulls reflected in eerily still water.

  • The Elizabethan Galleons (1923-24) — two galleons under full sail beat their way across the ocean under towering clouds
  • The Clippers (1924) — two clipper ships under full sail heel before a brisk wind as they race home
  • The Tramp Steamer (1923) — “the Pack Mule of the Sea” pulls away from a towering mountain range.

The four nautical works are unlike the banking murals at the Langham Hotel. Those memorialized moments in U.S, history that are static and take place in one room. The shipping murals are filled with vivid color and bright light, towering clouds and dramatic action. You can hear the crack of sails and smell the salt air. They take your breath away.

Their disappearance put them into both the Art Hiding in Plain Sight and Boston’s Missing series. Aha! A treasure hunt. Where had the paintings gone?

The N.C. Wyeth Treasure Hunt

The Elizabethan Galleons, NC Wyeth, mural, Bank of America, Boston

The Elizabethan Galleons

First, I checked the Brandywine River Museum’s Catalogue Raisonné for N.C. Wyeth to make sure the four works were still in the bank’s collection. They were. Next, I reached out to Vanessa Cook, who is the Bank of America’s Senior Vice President for External Communications, to ask their status. She was very helpful and got back to me with the information quickly.

We communicated online and Ms. Cook arranged a conversation with the two of us and Brian Siegel, Bank of America’s SVP of Global Arts & Heritage Executive. They provided me with a wealth of information.

Renovation and Storage

This is what I learned.

When Bank of America sold the building at 100 Federal Street, the new owners wanted to renovate. If you have been in the Financial District recently, you know that the lobby has been expanded into a glass-walled atrium. This new design had no room for four enormous paintings. Even had it done so, the sunlight (and coffee steam) would not have made for an ideal art environment. The new owners made the decision to remove the murals, not BoA.

The Exchange, Atrium, 100 Federal Street, Boston

The glass atrium at 100 Federal St

The bank crated the murals and put them into storage simply because of their size. At 12’ x 14’ each, they need a fair amount of wall space. Still, that put the four N.C. Wyeth paintings in the same category as Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” and Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” both lost in the Gardner Heist. Bostonians can no longer see them to appreciate either their artistry or history.

Sharing the Art Collection

The Clippers, NC Wyeth, mural, Boston, Bank of America

The Clippers

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Bank of America is averse to working with a non-profit institution to display them. Quite the contrary, in fact. Mr. Siegel explained that they have a very large art collection assembled over time as BoA acquired other banks. “We believe in the power of art,” Mr. Siegel said. “Our goal is to use the collection to create a greater cultural understanding. We want people to become aware of art and expose them to its traditions.”

Mr. Siegel explained they have a mission to make that collection available to communities free of charge. The Art in Our Communities program lends BoA’s “fully collated collection” to communities for free. This allows them to spread it out, rather than gathering it all in one place.

Exhibitions on Display

Every year, they put together eight to ten of these exhibits in support of non-profit institutions. Bank of America currently has eight exhibitions on display around the country, including “The Wyeths: Three Generations,” at the Asheville Art Museum in Asheville, NC.

Mr. Siegel has also spoken to institutions, including Salem’s Peabody-Essex Museum, about loaning the four Wyeth murals but, once again, their size has presented the challenge of finding sufficient room This surprised me. I would have expected the PEM to move heaven and earth to get “The Clippers” on loan.

Reaching Out

I suggested four other museums in New England that might have both the interest and the space and Mr. Siegel’s team is going to reach out to them. There is at least a chance one or more of them will emerge from their dark crates to charm and inspire viewers once again.

I hope to have good news to report at some point in the future.

 

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