The 2018 Super Bowl is this weekend and, as is customary, organizations that have nothing to do with sports — say, art museums — are weighing in on the event. Although my personal favorite — a game outcome prediction based on the robustness of the classical music scene in each team’s host city (on NPR, of course) — appears to be on hiatus this year, the annual museum bet is on!
Since the New England Patriots are playing the Philadelphia Eagles this year, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art are betting a free loan of a painting from their respective permanent collections. If the Patriots win, the Philadelphia Museum will loan Benjamin West’s “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky” (ca 1816) to the MFA. If the Eagles win, the MFA will send John Singleton Copley’s “Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis)” (ca 1763) to the City of Brotherly Love. While the two museums prepare to trash talk each other on Twitter all weekend, we decided to take a look at what’s at stake in this year’s Museum Bowl.
Measuring only slightly larger than a standard sheet of paper, Benjamin West’s “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky” commemorates the Founding Father’s famous 1752 kite experiment, which he used to prove that lightning is electricity. Both Pennsylvanians (although Franklin was born and raised in Boston), the two Benjamins were actually friends in real life, and Franklin was godfather to one of West’s sons. West painted this almost supernatural portrait of Franklin and his allegorical putti helpers more than 20 years after Franklin’s death, a study for a larger painting he was planning for the Pennsylvania Hospital, which Franklin founded in 1751. That larger painting was never executed.
What John Singleton Copley’s “Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis)” lacks in drama compared to “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky,” it makes up for in size. Measuring more than four feet tall and three feet wide, the painting is a traditional portrait of Mercy Otis Warren, a political writer during the American Revolution who penned poems and satirical plays attacking the Loyalists and encouraging the colonists of Massachusetts to rebel. Although painted after Warren was already fairly well-known, Copley’s portrait shows her in her mid-30s, when her principle activities were as a housewife and mother. She is portrayed tending to flowers, an activity symbolic of her motherly duties.
Depending on the outcome of Sunday’s game, expect one of these exceptional works to touch down in the winning city’s art museum soon.