New Light on the Old Masters

Fig. 1. Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna (active c. 1278-d. 1318), c. 1290-1300. Tempera and gold on wood, 11 by 8 ¼ inches (including engaged frame). Museum purchase, Rogers Fund and numerous generous gifts. 


With the return to the Department of European Paintings of thirteen galleries along its southern flank that were previ­ously used for special exhibitions, the Old Masters now occupy forty-five contiguous rooms, with nearly a third more space than before. Of the mu­seum's twenty-five hundred Old Master paintings, seven hundred can now be comfortably shown to the public. The galleries have restored moldings and wooden floors, while new frames, appropriate to the period of the painting in question, adorn Carpaccio's Meditation on the Passion and Murillo's Don Andres de Andrade y la Cal, among other works. Thanks to some choice loans, even seasoned visitors to the gal­leries will be pleasantly surprised to come upon Orazio Gentilles­chi's brilliant Danae and Botti­celli's Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Medallion. In the past, the tactical intervention of a sculpture, wall hanging, or piece of furniture occurred very sparingly. But now most of the galleries have such additions and an entire side room has been devoted to the decora­tive arts of seventeenth-century Holland.

One of the biggest changes is announced the moment you reach the second floor and, passing Tiepolo's mural cycle from the Ca' Dolfin, enter the first gallery. Previously used to display an assortment of French and Italian works from the late eighteenth century, it is now consecrated to the Italian baroque, specifically to the Bolognese and Roman schools. To anyone attuned to the history of taste and collecting in the United States, this represents an astounding transvaluation. When the Metropolitan's collection was being assembled at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, few Americans if any were collecting the Italian baroque. Their attention was focused, rather, on the Quat­trocento and the High Renaissance, on Velázquez and the Dutch school-not least because of its association with their own Protestant roots.

Thanks to John Ruskin's disparagement of the Italian baroque and to its unwelcome association with Roman Catholicism, this school was treated for generations with the most cavalier contempt. Who has not heard of how, as recently as the 1950s, $300 at auction could buy you a ten-foot Guido Reni that today would easily command $30 mil­lion? And although the baroque was respected once again by the early 1980s, the Met's collection was scarcely better than it had been a century before. Over the past generation, however, it has been the great labor of the Metropolitan's curators to rem­edy that deficiency by expanding the collection of Italian baroque paintings from both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this period, the mu­seum has acquired eminent works by Caravaggio, Guercino, Ludovico Carracci, and Corrado Gia­quinto, among many others. But the museum has also seen notable acquisitions of works by Duccio, Lotto, Rubens, Boilly, and many others.

The cumulative effect of these acquisitions is a vastly enhanced sense of the collection as a whole. And with that heightened respect comes the realization that now, more than ever, the Metropolitan's Old Masters are worthy to stand comparison with the very finest collec­tions in Europe.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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