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MFA experiments with ‘Sargent and Fashion’ exhibition in interactive lab

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MFA experiments with ‘Sargent and Fashion’ exhibition in interactive lab

The MFA's

The MFA's "Sargent and Fashion" interactive exhibition lab previews its 2021 exhibition.

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The MFA's "Sargent and Fashion" interactive exhibition lab previews its 2021 exhibition.

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The MFA's "Sargent and Fashion" interactive exhibition lab previews its 2021 exhibition.

Nia Beckett, lifestyle editor

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The Museum of Fine Arts welcomes museumgoers to take a behind-the-scenes look at the role of fashion in painter John Singer Sargent’s work through an exhibition lab. The experimental endeavor comes ahead of a new major exhibition “Sargent and Fashion,” set to open in 2021.

While the MFA already holds the world’s most complete Sargent collection, “Sargent and Fashion” will feature a grand selection of portraits that will be explored through a sartorial lens. These will be paired with clothes from the time period, including garments worn by subjects in his work. MFA staff collaborated with the Tate Britain museum in London to organize the exhibition.

“I think how fashion shapes your image is a very current topic,” said Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings and a “Sargent and Fashion” co-curator.

The lab, located in the Edward and Nancy Roberts Family Gallery, features an array of concepts the curators are considering for the full exhibition. It highlights the ways that artists capture clothing in their work, some of which may differ from the original garments.

Hirshler, an expert on late 19th- and early 20th-century American painting, has a long-standing and distinguished fascination with Sargent’s work. She co-authored several books related to him and wrote the critically acclaimed “Sargent’s Daughters” on his renowned painting “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” which the MFA currently displays.

“Sometimes he doesn’t show all of the details of the garment because he wants it to be timeless,” Hirshler said. “[I appreciate] the juxtaposition between being fashionable … and the timeliness of his portraits.”

Due to the innovative nature of the exhibition, the curators have sought feedback from museumgoers on elements such as content and design. Questions on the walls of the lab provoke visitors to consider the role of attire in paintings. Visitors can offer insights through feedback sheets and on iPad screens around the room.

Notably, Sargent’s “Mrs. Charles E. Inches (Louise Pomeroy)” portrait is displayed along with the red evening gown it depicts. Textile samples hang from the wall for visitors to touch and examine how Sargent paints them using different brush strokes.

Another wall provides context on Sargent’s portrayal of garments associated with cultures that differ from his own. Its text considers the concept of cultural appropriation and welcomes visitors’ thoughts on how curators should discuss the issue in text beside paintings in the future exhibition.

The exhibition lab will be open through June 23, and the full exhibition “Sargent and Fashion” will open in 2021.

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