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Illustration By: Brian Raszka

I was sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, chatting with a friend who works there, when it finally occurred to me to ask.

“Who’s that in the portrait?”

I’d walked past it countless times. It’s a painting of a young woman who looks a bit like Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, and judging by her clothing and haircut probably lived in the same era (circa World War I and into the 1920s). She stares from the canvas, the right side of her face lit, with a Japanese-looking print behind her and one hand resting languorously on a table. Her shawl exposes a milky white shoulder and her expression is impassive. If she were alive today, she might be one of the well-to-do women who are part of the see-or-be-seen set of the hotel’s Bristol Lounge, or who chair the charity galas held upstairs in the ballroom. No one would mistake it for a John Singer Sargent portrait, but there’s something arresting about it nonetheless. It never fails to catch my eye.

“I don’t know,” my friend said. “I’ve never really thought about it. I could try to find out.”

So she asked the hotel’s in-house designer and e-mailed me: “OK, so the painter is Frederick Andrew Bosley. And apparently a bunch of guests—celebs included—have tried to buy it from us.”

Bosley (1881-1942) was a class of 1906 graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a moderately successful painter of portraits and landscapes. A New Hampshire native, he lived and worked in the area, upping the likelihood that the woman in the painting was also a local. Bosley served as director of the department of painting and drawing and advanced painting at the Museum School for 18 years, and Skinner Auctioneers & Appraisers has sold his work for as little as $558 and as much as $5,925.

My friend at the Four Seasons e-mailed again to say that the painting has hung in the lobby since the hotel opened in 1985. It was purchased by Frank Nicholson, the world-famous interior designer known for his work on luxury hotels. The hotel’s present general manager, a crisp Brit named Bill Taylor, said, “Though we can’t name names, a major music maestro has tried to purchase that painting for the past 27 years. Of all the incredible artwork around the world that he’s seen, it’s one painting that he’s always wanted to own.”

None of which answers the fundamental question of who the subject of the painting was. A student or relation of Bosley’s? The daughter or wife of some rich Back Bay arriviste? Through former Four Seasons GM Robin Brown, I contacted Nicholson, who could recall only that he purchased the painting at either the Vose or Childs galleries, and little more.

“It’s one of a thousand paintings he’s put in hotels around the world,” Brown said, “and it was over 30 years ago.”

Still, it got me thinking about other depictions of women we walk past every day without ever stopping to consider who they were, or why they merited a measure of artistic immortality. First to mind was the statue of Harriet Tubman in the South End—but no one gets past grade school without learning her importance in fighting slavery. Then there’s the equally familiar Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall depicting three influential female authors—Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone—though I doubt most people have ever heard of Lucy Stone, the first Massachusetts women to graduate from college, or realize that Wheatley was the first published African writer in America. So I decided to explore other artworks depicting women within a few blocks’ radius of the Four Seasons. Perhaps their stories would be less shrouded in mystery.

Across the street, in the Public Garden, is the Triton Babies Fountain. The central sculpture is a bronze of a cherubic-looking child sitting astride another. When it’s operating, the water splashes around them and they look as delighted as kids playing in a sprinkler on a hot summer day (although they’re named for the son of Poseidon). The models, however, were actually little girls, the daughters of artist Anna Coleman Watts Ladd. 

While it’s notable that it was the first statue by a female artist to be located in the Public Garden, what’s more interesting is how it got there. Ladd lived and worked in Massachusetts, but the sculpture was exhibited in the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where it took the fancy of Mrs. Boylston Beal. The Beals lived at 108 Beacon St., and she purchased the sculpture and had it installed in the park across from her house. Beal and Ladd may even have known each other, as Beal also owned an estate called Clipston Manor, in a private oceanfront enclave called Smith’s Point in Manchester-by-the-Sea, where Ladd had a studio. In 1924, the statue was relocated to its present site, on the Charles Street side of the park. 

“It’s one of the most playful pieces in the Public Garden,” says Karin Goodfellow, director of the Boston Art Commission, and herself an artist. “You don’t see that many children depicted in our public art. I think kids like seeing it. It’s really engaging for the public.” 

On a more somber note, a few blocks away, flanking the State House, stands a pair of statues depicting women in 17th-century garb. One is Anne Hutchinson, the other Mary Dyer. Hutchinson’s statue was done in 1922 by Cyrus Dallin (probably the only major sculptor to have competed in archery in the 1904 Olympics), while Dyer’s was done by fellow Quaker Sylvia Shaw Judson in 1959. Both 17th-century women were proto-feminists and religious dissenters who ran afoul of the Puritan settlers and were banished from Boston.

“I think it’s great to look at Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer,” says Goodfellow. “There’s so much forgotten history in Boston, and people walk by these statues but don’t know the stories they’re meant to tell. Not only are they important and relevant, but they also say something about the times in which the artwork was created, what the people in those times thought was important to remember.”

Hutchinson, exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for heresy in 1638, fled to what later became Rhode Island, and then resettled in the present-day Bronx, where she and her household were massacred by a local tribe. She is now probably best remembered for lending her name to one of the most exasperating roadways in the Northeast: The Hutchinson Parkway. Her friend Dyer, however, was more defiant. Although repeatedly banished by Governor John Winthrop, she insisted on returning to visit imprisoned friends and to appeal her sentence. The result was that in 1660, she was hanged on the Common for refusing to recant her heretical views... probably in the same spot where you’ve seen college students playing Frisbee.

“We forget a lot of the complex history of Boston,” Goodfellow points out. “Some of the less flattering stuff, it’s a good reminder of that, and of the struggle that people went through to live here. People are a lot more familiar with the nearby monument to the 54th Regiment, and it’s notable that we don’t have a lot of female subjects of art. It’s vitally important to know that there were a lot of female actors in these dramas as well.” 

Speaking of which, down Park Street and around the corner from the State House on Tremont Street is the Granary Burying Ground, the final resting place for such seminal figures as Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Crispus Attucks. Barely a tour bus goes by that doesn’t also mention another name on a gravestone there. Mother Goose, tourists are repeatedly told, is interred near the memorial to Ben Franklin’s family. It’s become so ingrained in local lore that people routinely accept it as fact.

Except that it isn’t. While there are two women named Goose buried there—both the wives of a wealthy landowner named Isaac Goose—neither wife number one (Mary) nor wife number two (Elizabeth) could possibly be Mother Goose, although Elizabeth’s son-in-law did publish a book of her songs for the nursery (which probably gave rise to the popular fallacy). In fact, many of the stories attributed to Mother Goose predate the ladies buried in the Granary, and even the term “Mother Goose” was in use in France as early as a century before.

Of course, there are countless other examples of local monuments and art dedicated to female figures whose identities have been lost or forgotten over time (the Dorothea Dix Fountain near Faneuil Hall, for example). But Boston is a city that cherishes its history. Popular opinion—and who controls the purse strings and the priorities of a particular period—determines who ends up on a plinth. Who we enshrine in paint and stone says a lot about us as a culture.

So perhaps someday it’ll be Honey Boo Boo perched, anonymously, above a fountain. Perhaps short memories can be a blessing, after all.