The European Collection at the MFA: Boston, MA

April 2021 update: we’re excited that we were able to get our first Covid vaccine! We’re enjoyed exploring around our new home in New England this past year, but are excited to (hopefully) start exploring further afield again. We haven’t made any travel plans quite yet, and since children can’t yet be vaccinated, we’re trying to figure out our comfort levels regarding family travel. But hopefully, we’ll have more new adventures to share!

Continuing our series on the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, Massachusetts, we will move on from Egypt and explore the European Collection. As you explore this collection, you will find artwork ranging from medieval through the mid-1900’s and covering several genres, including paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts.

If you have ever visited the great cathedrals or museums in Europe you should come away with an appreciation of how talented the European artists were. After visiting the Vatican in Rome; the Accademia in Florence; the Louvre in France; and cathedrals in Ukraine, Austria and Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, I am always on the lookout for a good art museum. The MFA fits the bill!

The Logistics

Location: The Museum of Fine Arts is located right next to the Back Bay Fens at 465 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02115

Cost: Tickets currently cost $25/Free for Adult/Child(0-17), plus extra if you want to see special exhibitions.

Covid Restrictions: If there are still Covid related restrictions in place at the time of your visit, you will need to reserve admission tickets in advance.

Getting There by Subway: If you are traveling by public transportation, you can take the MBTA Green Line E train to the Museum of Fine Arts stop, or the Orange Line train to the Ruggles stop. There are also several bus options.

Getting There by Car: Alternatively, you can park in one of the Museum lots or garages (museum members get a nice discount), use the Spot Hero app to find a different garage, or hope that a meter is available. You can pay for most meters by using the Park Boston app.

European Paintings

My favorite part of European art is the paintings. No matter whether you love a good landscape, a picture of everyday life, a portrait, a gory battle scene, or scantily clad women bathing, there will be something for you.

Medieval Art

While the MFA doesn’t have an extensive medieval collection, they do have a few pieces. The Crucifixtion; the Redeemer with Angels; Saint Nicholas; Saint Gregory was painted with tempura on panel by Italian Duccio di Buonisegna. While the halos of Jesus and the saints aren’t as prominent in this particular painting, the gold colors often used in medieval art make the era of the artwork immediately recognizable.

Scenes of rulers

The MFA covers a wide range of paintings, and some of them are quite interesting to ponder. When I first saw Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Triumph of the Winter Queen; An Allegory of the Just, I thought it was a commentary on the rich trampling the poor.

As it turns out, it is actually a commentary on the life of the Winter Queen of Bohemia. As she is fleeing her kingdom, her carriage is running over the cause of a son’s death, while the horses are trampling on Death and Envy. Her living children surround her – one leading the lion another hovering above her, while her dead relatives – son, husband, and siblings – are peering in from the heavens. It is quite fascinating to look at the details and ponder the meanings hidden in the painting.

In Guercino’s Semiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon, he depicts an Assyrian queen refusing to finish combing her hair until her enemies were defeated. It’s interesting to ponder the choices rulers make in times of difficulty. As this painting once belonged to King Charles II, who was a fairly popular king, my guess is that he received inspiration from Semiramis’ choice to focus on her people.


It was often the wealthy who commissioned paintings, so it is no surprise that many of the portraits are of wealthy people in their best clothing. As you wander through the paintings, consider the fashion choices of various time periods. I am glad that the fashions shown below are not the fashions of today.

Above is 15-year old Maria Theresa, who ended up marrying King Louis XIV. It is thought that this particular painting was sent to one of her potential suitors to convince him of her beauty and desirability as a marriage partner. I’m glad that I don’t need to figure out how to fit through doorways when I wear a dress, or figure out how to curl my hair so that it is almost as wide as the dress.

The man above is of an artist: Peeter Symons. Aren’t you glad that you don’t need to wear a collar like that one?

In the Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs. Edmund Morton Pleydell, below, you will see a woman who lived in a large country house.

The wealthy also liked portraits made of their patron saints. In Jusepe de Ribera’s Saint Onophrius, you will see plenty of reminders of human mortality. If you have ever visited the grand palaces and estates in Europe, you will often note that they contain small chapels. This painting was most likely used in a setting of private worship.

Peasant Life

Even though many paintings were commissioned by the rich and often dealt with topics of wealthy living, there are plenty of paintings that depict the common side of life. Jean-Francois Millet’s Young Shepherdess is one of his last paintings and continues the theme of contemporary rural life that occupied the latter part of his artistic career.

Paintings of Mythology and Literature

And some of the paintings leave the realm of what is, and focus on mythology of the past. In the painting below, legendary Greek king of Ithaca, Odysseus, taunts a cyclops, Polyphemus. It’s considered a great example of realistic landscape while dealing with topics of violence and mythical beings. I certainly wouldn’t want that gigantic rock thrown at me as the waves push me towards the rocky shore!

Below is Sebastiano Ricci’s Phineas and the Sons of Boreas, which deals with a rescue scene from the Greek poem The Argonautica.

European Furnishings and Decorative Arts

As you can see from the picture above, European furnishings and decorative arts are often worked into the museum in a natural way. And other pieces are displayed on their own. I particularly loved this German cabinet:

Here is an Italian cabinet that I found fascinating:

You can also see how the very wealthy dined. Here is an example of a French dining table:

The ceiling artwork is also often quite impressive. I’m not sure if these paintings are specifically from Europe, but they remind me of a lot of European ceilings that I have seen:

And there are also a few cool pieces like these amber decorations and chess set:

European Sculpture

While my favorite sculpture from this museum is actually in the American section, there are some nice European pieces as well. Below is the Bosom of Abraham Trinity:

All-in-all, while European Art is not the largest section of the Museum of Fine Arts, they do a really good job of capturing the essence of artwork in Europe. If you have no plans to go to Europe, it is definitely worthwhile to see; and even if you have been to art museums in Europe many times, it is still a fun destination.

Keep reading our travel blog to find more museum ideas around the world!

Here are some travel ideas inside Boston:

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