In The Age of Innocence, set amid the Old New York of Edith Wharton’s youth in the 1870s, when the hero, Newland Archer, wants to be alone with his wife’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (whom he adores), he chooses as the location for their clandestine rendezvous the recently opened Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Avoiding the popular ‘Wolfe collection,’ whose anecdotic canvases filled one of the main galleries, they had wandered down a passage to the room where the ‘Cesnola antiquities’ moldered in unvisited loneliness. ‘It’s odd,’ Mme. Olenska said. ‘I never came here before.’ ‘Ah, well.—Someday, I suppose, it will be a great museum.'”
By 1920, when Wharton’s novel was published, the Met had begun to fulfill that prediction. British art critic Roger Fry, one of the Met’s early directors, and his successors gradually pruned the museum’s hoard of academic painting, a legacy of the prominent 19th-century New Yorkers who were its first benefactors. And they strengthened its holdings in the French avant-garde works at the center of a newly forming modernist canon.
No one visits the Met today in order to be alone. And, in fact, crowds have been thronging its refurbished and expanded galleries for 19th- and early-20th-century painting and sculpture since they reopened last month. Illustrator Edward Sorel’s clever advertisement for the new installation presents familiar figures from the paintings congregating before the museum’s Beaux-Arts facade: Gauguin’s Polynesian Madonna carting a museum shopping bag; Monet’s little son, Jean, astride his hobby horse; a Degas ballerina caught in mid-twirl atop the grand staircase.
They have always seemed, to Met devotees, something like family. (I vividly recall my own early adolescent fascination with the supine figure of Rebecca, abducted by Saracen slaves in Delacroix’s canvas, a faint glitter of gold swirling about her neck and shoulders; and the moment, decades ago, when Manet’s portrait of Victorine Meurent holding a parrot emerged from restoration with the opalescent sheen of her pale pink dressing gown suddenly gleaming.)
Architecturally, the expanded galleries mime the 19th-century look of their predecessors, with prune-colored walls, cornices, and wainscoting. So what’s new? The French, for one thing, have now been joined by a host of Europeans—British and Italians, of course, but also Germans, Scandinavians, Spaniards, and Russians, each with their own society portraitists, plein air painters, Realists, Impressionists, and the like. The message is more complicated than one of mere inclusion. Decades before Gauguin’s Tahitian idyll, it seems, 19th-century European painting was the product of manifold international influences, both real and imagined: Manet, with his soberly elegant portraits, channeling Velázquez; Monet looking to Hokusai for inspiration; Delacroix in his Paris studio conjuring the birth of a Native American infant by the banks of the Mississippi.
So the North Africa on display in a new gallery for Orientalist art is mostly a European creation. The Salon painter Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Arab beauty in a transparent top and harem pants, shadowed by a figure veiled in black, represents an imaginary Orient’s simultaneous lure and threat, while the space of his grand Cairo mosque recedes in Renaissance perspective to infinity.
Scores of 19th-century artists left their studios behind, embarking on bohemian versions of the Grand Tour. Four intimately scaled new galleries offer the fruits of their wanderings—quick outdoor sketches of the Bay of Naples or the Temples at Luxor—testifying to the long relation between art and tourism, which continues to this day. The innumerable studies of clouds and ephemeral effects of weather also on display in these rooms appeal to our contemporary taste for the provisional and incomplete.
A room devoted to that Realist provocateur Courbet (billed as the first art star for his canny manipulations of the media and the market) should look a lot better once some major canvases, including his marvelously sensuous and scandal-mongering nude, Woman With a Parrot, return from Paris. They’re on loan for a major Courbet retrospective at the Grand Palais, which arrives at the Met next month.
Meanwhile, the curators have rummaged around and come up with some surprises, such as Henri Lerolle’s The Organ Recital(1885), a serene and luminous mural-sized canvas depicting the artist’s friends (including the composer Claude Debussy) as if gathered for a church concert, which was hidden away for 90 years in storage. And a haunting portrait by the Russian painter Ilia Efimovich Repin of his friend, the young dissident author Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1884), hints at the depths of social misery and utopian longing that fueled the 19th-century’s revolutionary movements.
Politics are hardly the order of the day here, though a pair of canvases by the American expatriate Mary Cassatt, portraying her invalid sister and spinsterish aunt, suggest in their compact way alternative destinies for women amid the fresh-faced young girls, dancers, odalisques, and ladies of the night that populate works by Renoir, Degas, Lautrec, and others.
Cassatt’s inclusion here, along with that of other American expatriates such as Whistler and Sargent, is in part a matter of convenience: The museum’s galleries for American art are currently under renovation. But portraits by Whistler, Sargent, and Eakins (who stayed home in Philadelphia while the others worked in Europe) resonate with Manet’s stunningly modern canvases, all of them in dialogue with their Spanish antecedents.
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.
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.