THOMAS FRANSIOLI (1906–1997)
Copley Square, Boston, 1959–61
Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in.
Signed and dated (at lower right): Fransioli 1959–61
Copley Square (which has never been precisely square) marked the southern land side of Back Bay, a hundred-year-old triumph of city planning whose charm had has been doubly compounded by an antique patina. Copley Square was originally a jumble of streets marking the confluence of the old South End street grid with the Back Bay landfill. Before it was developed, the neighborhood was known as Elysian Fields.
The New Old South Church edifice that Fransioli painted was the earliest of the splendid new buildings at the Square, but, in fact, was the third church of the third-oldest congregation in Boston. Between 1669, when the congregation was founded, to 1875, its premises had gone from the original “Cedar Meeting House,” a descriptive title, to the late 19th-century high Victorian Northern Italian Gothic Revival extravaganza in Fransioli’s picture. Among its noted parishioners were Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), the African American poet, and patriot Sam Adams. The building is the work of Boston architects Charles Amos Cummings and Willard T. Sears and reflects the profound influence of the English critic, writer, and reformer, John Ruskin. The Boston Public Library, seen in Fransioli’s picture, was a relative newcomer to the Square, completed in 1895. Designed by Charles Follen Mckim of McKim, Meade, and White, the building is in the Renaissance Revival style favored at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where McKim trained. While the Lantern of the Old South Church found its inspiration in the Basilica of St. Marks, Venice, the library recalls the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. The library replaced an earlier residential mansion. By the time of Fransioli’s painting, the Museum of Fine Arts was long gone from the square, having moved to its present location in 1909. Its former site has been, since 1912, the Copley Plaza Hotel.
Though a quick look at this painting confirms that, as its title states, it is a view of Copley Square, that is at best a partial truth. The picture contains several discordant elements that remove it from any reading as a realist image. Most immediate are problems of scale. In the far distance, along Dartmouth Street are two human figures, that seem smaller than they should. That perception is compounded by the two silhouetted figures holding umbrellas, one in front of the church and a second on the other side of Dartmouth Street. Given Fransioli’s position all these people ought to have appeared larger and more distinct. The artist gives the same treatment to a sculpture in front of the Dartmouth Street side of the library. It is a sketchy impression, accurate neither in detail nor in precise position, of a seated figure representing “Art” that does in fact flank one side of the doors of the library. It was sculpted in 1911 by Bela Pratt, instructor of modeling at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Additionally, it is hard to image any time during the day when there would be no vehicular traffic on these major Boston thoroughfares. For his composition, Fransioli chose the moments after a heavy rainstorm. People still hold umbrellas, and the streets have substantial puddles which allow the artist to add reflections of his buildings. The source of light in the picture, however, presents another confounding of normal appearances. The Boylston Street façade of Old South Church is bleached in sunlight so strong that its distinctive nuances of coloration on brown-beige-ivory spectrum are largely lost. The pattern of puddle reflections, however, would have required a light source behind the church and the buildings across Dartmouth Street facing the square. Similarly, the library reflects in its puddles, though its façade is in deep shadow.