When a monument wakes up, you notice. It’s been more than 40 years since the Metropolitan Museum of Art rethought what many considered its ‘raison d’être’, its galleries of European paintings.
The last reinstallation was in 1972 and encompassed a chronological span from Giotto to Picasso.
Now become a change. The blockbuster spaces have been given back to the collection, and all 45 European painting galleries cosmetically overhauled: new floors, fresh paint, walls put up or brought down, etc. A few months ago 450 paintings were on view; now there are more than 700.
We are not talking revolution. Visitors familiar with the holdings will see a lot of what they already know, but encounter old faces in new places, which can produce revelations. There are novelties: items either new, out of sight for decades or just never shown.
Most important, the geography of the galleries has been recalibrated. The old arrangement was eccentric. No more. Now painting from northern Europe, excluding France, is laid out by date in the regained galleries. Italian painting is consolidated in a two-pronged format, with early work from Florence and Siena running in parallel streams that flow into Titian’s Venice.
But what makes the reinstallation most stimulating is a subtle feature, what you might call a curator’s secret weapon: the power of placement. The chairman of the European paintings department, has brilliantly orchestrated the collection as a play of dramatic vistas, visual lineups of images — seen around corners or over distances — that pull you forward in time and immerse you in textured layers of European culture.
A simple example: stand just outside the entrance to the new northern European galleries and look straight ahead. You see, centered in the first room, van Eyck’s oil-painted diptych of “The Crucifixion” and “Last Judgment,” dated around 1435-40. Then look right, to the Italian Renaissance rooms, and you’ll find another foundational picture, the “Madonna and Child” of Duccio di Buoninsegna, painted in tempera and gold roughly a century before the van Eyck.
Both pieces are compact, probably made for home altars. Both illustrate the same spiritual history: Duccio’s sad-eyed young mother contemplating her baby will eventually be van Eyck’s grief-shrouded woman crumpled beneath a cross.
Created at different times, in different places, in different styles and mediums, these two images are the roots, here visually intertwined, for almost everything that lies beyond.
In art, the truth often lies in what’s been lost. The portraits once formed the wings of a small diptych with an image of the Virgin and Child at its center. It was to that unearthly vision that the couple originally gave their devoted attention.
We move on through changing concepts of spirituality. In 16th-century Germany, Albrecht Durer, who spent time in Venice and liked what he saw, combines southern softness and northern intensity in his figure of a veil-swaddled, ember-eyed St. Anne, as does his pupil Hans Baldung Grien in a painting of St. John taking dictation from on high. Baldung sets the ecstatic scene in a pretty landscape, but his aesthetic is basically one of enclosure and artifice.
In Joachim Patinir’s triptych “The Penitence of Saint Jerome,” from around 1518, a panorama of mountain lakes stretching to the lambent horizon dwarfs the religious dramas transpiring within it. Half a century later, in “The Hasversters” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, saints have been replaced by farmers, the sacred by the secular, and the gold of halos by the gold of ripe wheat.
A few steps more and you’re in a salon full of sky. That’s what 17th-century Dutch landscapes by the likes of Albert Cuyp, Jacob van Ruisdael and Paulus Potter is mostly made of. These are such curious images, earthy but numinous, which can also be said of paintings by Rembrandt when he’s in a soulful mood.
An old Met friend, Rembrandt preside over two big galleries. They hold no surprises, but a connecting space does: a display of Dutch decorative arts tucked away in a kind of alcove that was once a reading area for special exhibitions. Forget basic black. We’re in a realm of scintillation.
The Dutch story draws to a hushed close with the sight of all five of the museum’s Vermeer’s. One, “A Maid Asleep”, is technically on loan from within the museum itself. It belongs to the Altman Collection. Make a visit while all the Vermeer’s, early and late, are together.
A painting in the recuing Goya gallery. The Altamira family was good to Goya, and he was good to them. In the portrait he gave the countess the world’s most beautiful gown, of the palest pink silk with embroidered roses at the hem. The chairman has further enhanced her charisma by flanking the gallery entrance with two full-length Murillo male portraits, dark against her light.
As if in tribute to her, the adjoining room, which brings us to France, is devoted almost entirely to art by women, namely the handful of female painters who in the late 18th and early 19th centuries gained admission to the French Academy. They had a tough fight, but they fought it with aplomb. When, in a 1785 self-portrait, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard includes two of her students, you feel the surge of solidarity.
A theme-based display in the Italian galleries is also worth tracking down. Superbly calibrated sightlines will take you there: from Duccio, to a gleaming Pietro Lorenzetti, to a space devoted almost entirely to altarpieces and liturgical instruments. Here the Met makes an effort l to suggest the performative nature of church art.
The scintillating ensemble is as far as the Met goes in suggesting the true nature of Renaissance church art.
You can still get a personal sense of this dynamic when you encounter single paintings in the Met’s grand sweep: Jusepe de Ribera’s “Saints Peter and Paul,” for example, with its sensuous ‘pas de deux’ of outstretched hands; or Andrea del Sarto’s image of the Holy Family, freshly cleaned and as fragrant-looking as a bowl of fruit; or Poussin’s “Agony in the Garden,” smoldering like a banked fire; or Berlinghiero’s regal 13th-century Madonna.
She’s monumental, and like all monuments, if they’re vivacious, she stops you in your tracks. And no matter how lost you are, or confused about history, or uncertain about where to go next, she tells you the most valuable thing art can tell you, loud and clear: You are here.