The Missing Masterpiece

The Missing Masterpiece

THE LATE Alvan T. Fuller, businessman and twice Governor of Massachusetts, collected paintings. It is told that in his lifetime Fuller was a very generous man. Earlier this year some fifty of his best pictures hung in a memorial exhibit in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The museum visitor may have read this about Fuller in the exhibit’s catalog:

It is rarely given to one man in a lifetime . . . to pursue three careers and to make each of them so large and lasting a contribution to his community … In all three [Fuller) won distinction: in business, in politics and, not least, in collecting art … His presence in Congress for four years and his two terms as Governor of Massachusetts from 1925 to 1929 exemplified public stewardship of a high order, marked as they were by his forcefulness and independence . . .

But on to the collection. There was one Rembrandt, a Gainsborough, a Reynolds, a luminous Turner and several Romneys. In another room were five Renoirs, small and second-rate, a Pissarro, a Monet, a Degas. Best were some Sargent exercises: “copies” after Dutch masters. The one original Sargent was a murky oil; the one Augustus John, plainly bad. Also hanging were two stiff Canalettos and four large, coarsely executed Hubert Robert pastorals. And that was about it.

Did this collection reflect money without taste? Perhaps. Anyway it was disappointing—especially after the fine catalog and the tasteful modern posters pasted in every subway station. Somehow, though, the disappointment was to be expected, and here is why.

Sadly, flagrantly missing from among the collection was any indication of Alvan T. Fuller’s greatest masterpiece, his own true handiwork: the execution in 1927 of the two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Their faces—Sacco’s long-nosed, smoothskinned and young; Vanzetti’s haggard, hook-nosed, with the bushy mustache; both of them hollow from their prison hunger strikes—these faces were missing, were what killed the truth and quality of the Fuller exhibit. But of course it was to be guessed beforehand that this masterpiece would not be represented there.