Finally! We’ve been waiting years for the renovation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European galleries to be completed, enduring reduced exhibition space and leaked noise from the endless skylight repairs, so simply having the collections accessible again, in full, after this long period of near-austerity, would be reason enough for rapturous applause. In addition, the statistics alone could make the project noteworthy: thirty thousand square feet of skylights renovated and improved, forty-five reconfigured galleries, more than seven hundred works from 1300 to 1800 displayed in new relationships, and upgraded environmental systems throughout. If all that isn’t sufficient to provoke excitement, we can also take into account the presence of new acquisitions, promised gifts, and important loans among the paintings and sculptures on view, as well as newly conserved works, and we can add engaging sightlines created by altered doorways. But what is most impressive and warrants joyous celebration is that the Met got it right!
But what is most impressive and warrants joyous celebration is that the Met got it right!
Directed by Stephan Wolohojian, the Met’s curator of European Paintings, and opened to the public on November 20, the installation, which seamlessly acknowledges chronology and geography, with occasional thematic moments and a few surprises, is both visually satisfying and illuminating. Deservedly acclaimed works are recontextualized by their placement in the proximity of less frequently seen examples, not only newly acquired ones, but also many less-known candidates from the Met’s own collection, so that we see the familiar ones freshly. The canon has been judiciously expanded by greater attention to once-neglected areas—a gallery devoted to “The Art of Spanish America,” adjacent to those displaying the Met’s notable holdings of works by Diego Velázquez and his contemporaries, for example. (It’s a nice touch that “The Art of Spanish America” is, conveniently, adjacent to the American Wing.) Perceived gaps in the collection, such as the representation of works by women, have been filled by recent acquisitions, including a meticulously rendered bouquet of flowers by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Clara Peeters, and by significant loans of highly desirable but mainly unavailable paintings by such now-sought-after artists as the sixteenth-century Italian Sofonisba Anguissola and Peeters’s far better-known compatriot and contemporary Judith Leyster, neither of them present elsewhere in the museum. A similar gap is filled by a promised gift, a small but significant painting on copper by Antoine Le Nain, A Peasant Family (ca. 1640–48), with an uncanny group of children gathered uneasily around a seated musician, an addition that enhances our understanding of French seventeenth-century painting. It’s exciting to see a picture by one of the three Le Nain brothers, who worked as a sort of proto-collective and whose vernacular subject matter challenges our conception of the courtly Baroque.
The object labels and wall texts, which many of us feared might modishly emphasize sociology rather than aesthetics, are informative and interesting. The unsavory sources of some collectors’ wealth are acknowledged, as are historical attitudes towards women and people of color, when appropriate, but never to the point of overwhelming information about the works of art as works of art. There’s even a color-coded labeling system that alerts visitors in a hurry to what are termed “collection highlights,” which I suppose is a good idea for casual attendees. And everything looks wonderful in the excellent lighting, against sumptuous wall colors ranging from an ethereal blue to a Pompeii-inspired red to a glorious fusion of eggplant and dark chocolate that makes Venetian paintings, in particular, sing.
We enter, as we always have, at the top of the grand staircase leading up from the Great Hall, through the anteroom with Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s mural-size paintings of Roman military heroics, once the pride of a Venetian palazzo—we can still greet the artist’s self-portrait, at the extreme left of The Triumph of Marius (1729)—and move into a generous gallery in a wash of diffused light. A capsule introduction to the development of European devotional painting is offered by representative works from the formative years of the Italian Renaissance: gold-ground paintings and some triptychs including a modest, solemn, half-length Madonna and Child (possibly 1230s) by the obscure Tuscan painter Berlinghiero, Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1320, possibly), and Giovanni di Paolo’s altarpiece Madonna and Child with Saints (1454). But we are jolted out of our ruminations on how Italian artists were beginning to respond to the world around them when we encounter yet another three-panel canvas, this one not by a Renaissance master but by the German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann: The Beginning (1946–49), an acerbic, intensely colored, modern-day triptych, a recollection of the artist’s childhood and school days with an admixture of fantasy. The tightly packed, flattened figures remind us of Beckmann’s interest in German religious images from the early Renaissance, but more generally, the presence of the twentieth-century work vividly asserts the fact that art, whatever else it deals with, is always about other art on some level. A trio of small, aggressively distorted self-portrait heads by Francis Bacon (1979) hung nearby more or less makes the same point, but not quite as convincingly.
The Beckmann and the Bacons also alert us to what is to come. Every now and again, we come upon modern works among the Old Masters. The effect, at its best, is rather like seasoning, a squeeze of lemon, that sharpens our perceptions. As we move through the installation, we discover early works by Pablo Picasso and a Paul Cézanne canvas in the gallery titled “El Greco and European Modernism,” evidence of the enthusiasm modernist artists had for the Baroque master’s expressively posed figures and fractured space. The modern works heighten our awareness of the formal audacity of a crowded, dramatically lit Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1605–10) and of the great Vision of Saint John (1608–14), with its enormous kneeling saint, arms reaching up, and its crowd of agile nudes. We think about Cézanne’s subtly adjusted planes, the spatial complexities of Cubism, and the exaggerations of Expressionism. (It would have been informative to see the Met’s holdings of Jackson Pollock’s rapid drawings after El Greco with the paintings he studied, but I suspect they are absent because skylights and works on paper don’t mix.) More problematic is the presence, further on, of that ghastly Salvador Dalí Crucifixion (1954) in a gallery of Spanish religious painting that includes celebrated works by Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, among other luminaries. All I could think of to justify the infelicitous addition was an Italian friend’s comment about the plethora of flambéed dishes at a fashionable Roman restaurant: “It doesn’t hurt the food much and the tourists love it.”
Despite Giorgio Vasari’s insistence that everything was invented in Italy except oil paint, there was intense cross-fertilization.
Happily, the jarring note struck by the Dalí is an exception. There are exciting, instructive moments throughout. A room titled “Faces of the Renaissance” enlarges our understanding of Europe in the fifteenth century by including portraits by both Italian and Netherlandish artists, underscoring and graphically illustrating the complex connections between Italy and the North at the time. As modern scholarship has revealed, despite Giorgio Vasari’s insistence that everything was invented in Italy except oil paint, there was intense cross-fertilization. (Vasari was wrong about oil paint, too, the use of which traced back much further than he realized.) The installation makes us think about the Italian bankers and merchants resident in Flanders and the works of art they acquired there. The message is delivered succinctly by the well-known portraits of the Florentine banker Tommaso Portinari, for four decades the Medici’s agent in Bruges, and his very young wife Maria Maddalena Baroncelli—she of the gorgeous necklace—painted about 1470 by the Netherlandish master Hans Memling. Glorious as the portraits are, they stand for more than their own excellence. The Portinaris’ patronage of Netherlandish painters wasn’t just for their own delectation. About 1475, they commissioned and sent to Florence the spectacular Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, an enormous triptych, once installed in the hospital founded by a Portinari ancestor and now among the glories of the Uffizi. It’s a stunning image that profoundly impressed Florentine artists on its arrival. I suspect that’s why Van der Goes is represented, nearby, by his well-known circa 1475 portrait of a young man with high cheekbones, heavy lids, and a shadow of beard. A charming profile portrait by Piero del Pollaiuolo, circa 1480, of an elegant young woman, her hair entwined with extravagant jewelry, along with Fra Filippo Lippi’s Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement (ca. 1440), the pair oddly nose to nose through the window opening, attests to what was happening in Italy during the decades that Tommaso Portinari spent in Bruges. North and South are similarly associated, a few galleries on, by the pairing of sleek, incisive sixteenth-century portraits by the Florentine Bronzino and his Swiss German contemporary Hans Holbein.
The richness and depth of the Met’s holdings are made clear by the thematically organized galleries. In “Early Netherlandish Painting,” Jan van Eyck’s acclaimed pair of complex, densely populated panels, The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment (ca. 1436–38), coexist with the equally familiar portrait, circa 1460, of the severe, aristocratic, hawk-nosed Francesco d’Este, by Rogier van der Weyden, among other fine examples. Elsewhere, in “Trade and Transformation in Venice,” Vittore Carpaccio’s mysterious The Meditation on the Passion (ca. 1490) is paired with Andrea Mantegna’s The Adoration of the Shepherds (shortly after 1450), both notable for their intimate scale, stage-set landscapes, and wiry drawing. In “Behind Closed Doors” we are confronted by all five of the Met’s works by Johannes Vermeer, from the iconic, intimate scenes of domestic duties and leisure Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) and Young Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662–63), both with their shafts of cool light, to the dramatic Allegory of the Catholic Faith (ca. 1670–72), with its heavy curtains, complicated symbolism, and magical transparent sphere. If that remarkable array weren’t sufficient to absorb our attention, the opposite wall boasts a choice selection of paintings by Vermeer’s contemporaries.
Everything seems fresh in the enhanced lighting, against the often lush wall colors.
Moving through the galleries, we meet all the paintings we expect to find, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s tawny vision of late summer labor The Harvesters (1565), along with the important Titians, Veroneses, Rubenses, and Rembrandts that the Met’s collection is known for. We can find our favorite Chardins, the still life with the terribly dead rabbit and the inquisitive cat, and the one with the absorbed young man blowing soap bubbles, keeping company with Antoine Watteau’s seated musician, the somber hues and casual subject matter of the former contrasting with the delicate pastels and playful, theatrical mood of the latter. We can savor the rigorous classicism of Nicolas Poussin’s The Abduction of the Sabine Women (probably 1633–34) and, further on, Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates (1787). We can pay homage to Velázquez’s glowing portrait of his Afro-Hispanic assistant Juan de Pareja (1650), recently the centerpiece of a fascinating exhibition about Pareja as a painter in his own right. But there is also the unexpected. Francisco de Goya’s much loved, enchanting portraits of small boys, one in red with a magpie and a cat, the other in white silk and green velvet with an enviable hobby horse, are joined by his tribute to the elegant Condesa de Altamira, in an embroidered gown of crackling pale pink silk. This tour de force of the rendering of expensive fabric is part of the Lehman Collection and normally lives in the collection’s self-contained wing, so it is exceptional that we see the Condesa in the company of the other Goyas in the gallery. And to broaden the conversation, the gallery also includes the horrifying Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (1796) by the Swiss British Henry Fuseli, its mysterious lighting and dead baby a reminder that Fuseli, like Goya in his Disasters of War and images of “the sleep of reason,” explored disquieting subject matter in response to the political upheavals of his lifetime. A cool, meticulously rendered still life by Luis Meléndez of fruit, bread, and unpretentious objects, set against a distant landscape, counterbalances the unsettling Fuseli and provides more insight into Spanish eighteenth-century painting. Everything seems fresh in the enhanced lighting, against the often lush wall colors. Conservation work and cleaning have also been done on some works, making them look their best.
Elsewhere, we can immerse ourselves in the type of work that wealthy Europeans on a Grand Tour would have acquired. We can refresh our acquaintance with Dutch genre painting and British portraiture. We can learn about “Hierarchy, Gender, and the French Academy” in a gallery with an emphasis on accomplished female painters, many of them recognized in their lifetimes, some the focus of new attention. In other galleries, happily, works by women, such as the eighteenth-century Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman’s scenes from the Iliad, are treated simply as representative works of art, integrated with examples by a variety of their peers, related by theme, chronology, or the like. Portraits of political figures remind us of the history of a given period. And. And. And.
A few “focus galleries,” in spaces without skylights, are devoted to themes that unite works from different periods and places of origin. One is given over to oil sketches—the rapid, intimate works in which painters tested ideas and provided patrons with suggestions of how finished works would look. Another focus gallery features small, portable devotional works in a variety of media. The tender Duccio di Buoninsegna Madonna and Child (ca. 1290–1300), with the sorrowing Virgin turned convincingly in space and the Child reaching up to grasp her veil, is the focal point. Yet another, which explores “The Artist’s Studio,” eases us into our own time by assembling works by artists of the recent past and the present. William Orpen’s Self-Portrait (ca. 1910) gives us his full-length reflection, in bowler hat and smart overcoat, holding a paintbrush, with letters tucked behind the mirror frame and studio detritus below. Henri Matisse’s intensely colored Three O’Clock Sitting (1924) presents a young female painter and her model; a reflection, a view out the window, textiles on the wall, and one of Matisse’s sculptures turn a banal scene into a complex investigation of space and reference to the human figure. Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Studio) (2014) is as brilliantly hued, but more complex still, with its loaded painting table, a work in progress, a reflection of a nude model, a seated figure being posed, a crouching dog, and various people contributing to the making of a work of art in a modern-day studio.
We leave “The Artist’s Studio” and reenter the introductory gallery with the gold-ground early Renaissance paintings and the Max Beckmann, somewhat overwhelmed by the dazzling tour we’ve just been on. Repeat visits are essential.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 6, on page 46
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