The context behind the collection

Sharfs’ donations widen MFA’s horizons

August 9, 2009

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Fred Sharf resisted at first when asked to highlight a few favorites from among the 2,700 objects he and his wife, Jean, have given to the Museum of Fine Arts. How do you pick out of so many? But he eventually agreed to discuss four.


By Attilio Piccirilli, Italian-American, 1866-1945 Bronze, lost wax cast, marble, and wood base, 25 1/2 x 13 x 7 inches Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, 1991

“First of all, Piccirilli is an important American sculptor. Second of all, the piece once belonged to Mayor LaGuardia. And the museum didn’t own and still doesn’t own anything [like this] from the ’20s. Other than this, I love it. It’s just a great shape. It’s a very elegant piece of sculpture. It’s a funny thing, I like context. So I know who Piccirilli is. And the association with Mayor LaGuardia. If it had been an ugly thing, would I have bought it for the context? No. But I think it’s a beautiful thing.’’

Possibly by William G. Henis, American, active 1860 to after 1886 Copper with traces of gilding, 36 1/2 x 29 x 3 inches Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, 2008

“The personification of Liberty is often associated with a loose, pointed cap, named after the ancient Phrygians, who wore it to distinguish free men from slaves. Citizens of ancient Rome later adopted the cap, and its symbolism was revived during the American Revolution as a common emblem of freedom. Following the War of 1812, the Goddess of Liberty became a popular symbol in the United States and was often shown holding the cap aloft on a pike. By midcentury she began to appear, as here, on weather vanes, wearing the cap and pointing into the wind with her outstretched arm.

“I know exactly when I bought that, in 1981. Jeannie’s father passed away, and among the things that we suddenly inherited was a life insurance policy payable to Jeannie for $80,000 or $90,000. We decided we would splurge and buy a piece of American folk art, which we liked. It’s a beautiful piece. It was in my living room on a stand. It hangs in the visitor center now. It’s an important piece of American sculpture, and Malcolm had in mind a location.’’

PORTRAIT OF GLORIA GUINNESS (appeared in Women’s Wear Daily, 1962)
By Kenneth Paul Block, American, 1925-2009 Charcoal on paper, 25 x 15 inches Gift of Kenneth Paul Block, made possible with the generous assistance of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, 2009

“More than likely, when Kenneth drew this, it was meant to be reproduced as a head-and-shoulders piece. The floor was immaterial to it. Kenneth became the main guy [at Women’s Wear Daily], and he would be sent on these assignments to interview a bunch of the fashionistas. She wasn’t going to give him a huge amount of time, so his assignment was to quickly get down the basic look of this woman.

“Why fashion drawings? In a way, the stuff from Kenneth moves in two worlds. Kenneth is both recording the sleeveless dress she’s wearing and quickly recording the appearance of a fashion icon of that moment.’’

By Tamamura Kozaburo, Japanese, born in 1856 Photograph, hand-tinted albumen print, 7 5/16 x 9 7/16 inches Gift of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, 2004

“If you went to Tokyo today and you looked at the Sumeda River, which runs by, you would see nothing but high-rise buildings. You wouldn’t see a peaceful walkway along the riverbank. You wouldn’t see a barge. You’d see an industrial setting - a whole series of iron bridges crossing the river. From a sequence point of view, I got interested in collecting the wood-block printed images of Japan from the beginning of the 20th century. If I had the artist’s view of what Tokyo looked like, maybe I ought to acquire the actual view of what it would look like. From that, I assembled a very large collection of photography.’’

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