After the French!

Germans, Spaniards, and Russians invade expanded galleries at the Metropolitan Museum

Still, when the New York tobacco heiress Catharine Lorillard Wolfe had her portrait painted in Paris, she chose not a radical like Manet, nor even an accomplished flatterer like Sargent, but the French Salon painter Cabanel, then at the pinnacle of his renown. Hanging nearby, his painting of her pays tribute to this early and important museum donor (whose collection is mentioned in the Wharton quote above). But it also suggests the constraints under which our major museums, dependent upon private contributions, still operate.

The marvelous Ingres portraits of French haute bourgeoisie that open these galleries, for example, would be infinitely enriched by the presence of an Ingres masterpiece, his painting of the Princesse de Broglie, which the Met in fact owns. But the princess, unforgettable in her cerulean silks, is held hostage by the Robert Lehman collection, one floor below. And despite its dazzling trove of canvases by Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and the like, the Annenberg Collection slumbers a bit in its unchanging inviolability.

Earlier this month, the Met's long- time director, Philippe de Montebello, announced his imminent retirement after 30 years of service. Gary Tinterow, the curator who organized this new hanging with Rebecca Rabinow, has been repeatedly mentioned on the short lists for Montebello's successor. And though highly premature, it's tempting to speculate on what the Met might look like under Tinterow's direction. Certainly, one might expect further efforts to integrate the domains of fine and applied arts. (The Wisteria Dining Room, a spectacular Parisian Art Nouveau salon that was packed away in storage for some 40 years, is one of the highlights of the new galleries.) More cross-disciplinary thinking, including a rapprochement between 19th- and 20th-century and contemporary art, would also be in order.

The Met's newly renovated 19th- and early 20th-century rooms
Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met's newly renovated 19th- and early 20th-century rooms

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The New Galleries for 19th- and Early 20th-Century European Paintings and Sculpture
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue

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Though the early-20th-century installation here offers fewer surprises than its 19th-century counterpart, the new galleries do begin to bridge that gap. Picasso's iconic portrait of Gertrude Stein brings viewers to the very brink of Cubism. But could one imagine something like contemporary photographer Thomas Struth's project for the Prado Museum—a series of photographs investigating the act of looking at art, temporarily displayed within the Prado's historic collection—unfolding at the Metropolitan? Surely a re-examination of the Met's very foundations as an institution is in order, before it embarks upon this new chapter of its distinguished history.

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