Behind the scenes

Discover the History of the World at the MFAH

The Museum of Fine Art Houston's pieces span 6,000 years, six continents, and just about every historical period and artistic medium ever.

By Emma Schkloven Published in the Fall issue of Houstonia Magazine


One of the 10 largest museums in the United States, and the largest in the region, the MFAH houses works spanning 6,000 years, six continents, and just about every historical period and artistic medium known to humankind. “Our primary responsibility is to educate the community,” Museum Director Gary Tinterow said in 2012. “Not always just to hold up a mirror and show them what they already know, but to expose them to new ideas, new cultures, new works of art that sit them back on their heels, then make them think twice.”

1. Oldest: Mountain Goat figurine

Among the oldest objects in the museum’s collection, this piece of Persian metalwork dates back to 3000 BCE, during the Proto-Elamite period, the oldest known civilization in present-day Iran. Though there’s no way to know whether this particular incense burner was used as a bit of decoration in some goat enthusiast’s home or as part of a temple ritual, it’s worth noting that these kinds of “silver figures were reserved for elite use,” says Chelsea Dacus, assistant curator of the Glassell Collections. 

2. Rarest: Chinese Export Punch Bowl

Considered among the upper echelon in the hierarchy of ceramics, export Chinese porcelain was an in-demand trade beginning in the 18th century—so much so that when the fledgling United States began trading with Asian cultures, porcelain was part of the first cargo to arrive here. Still, it’s extremely rare to find motifs depicting specific American places or events in such artworks. The piece is credited as a gift from Ima Hogg, Houston’s original ceramics enthusiast, but the former governor’s daughter—who collected porcelain and other objects with an almost Citizen Kane-ish zeal back at her zenith of collecting in the mid-20th century—actually wasn’t the one to track this gilded punch bowl down. It was simply purchased by the museum in 2018. Still, Hogg would likely have enjoyed having the bowl, which features grisaille renderings of both the Center Square Waterworks, a 19th-century Philadelphia architectural emblem, and U.S. naval victories from the War of 1812. And she at least gets credit for the piece, since it is now a part of the massive Bayou Bend Collection & Gardens that was donated to the MFAH by Hogg herself.

3. Best Story: Pablo Picasso’s Two Women in Front of a Window

While this 1927 painting forms the bridge between the Spanish painter’s explorations in cubism and surrealism, a watershed moment in art history, the painting even arrived here in a style of its own. Most art is shipped, but when art enthusiast Caroline Wiess Law, the daughter of one of the founders of Humble Oil, bought this piece, the New York gallerist who sold it to her rented a Thunderbird convertible and personally drove it down.

4Weirdest: Terror 

Stemming from one of the most bizarre image series of the 19th century, this photographic plate was actually part of French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne’s 1862 monograph on the way facial muscles create various expressions. Duchenne induced different facial expressions by administering electric shocks to his subjects, an experiment that was permanently captured by photographer Adrien Tournachon. While Duchenne’s scientific paper described Terror’s expression as one that “shows a dreadful mixture of horror and fear,” his model suffered no pain during the experiment thanks to an underlying anesthetic condition. Yay?

Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston Collection. 1001 Bissonnet St. 713-639-7300.

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