New Light on the Old Masters

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2013.

In its ceremony and its symbolism, the staircase that leads up to the Metro­politan Museum’s galleries of Old Mas­ter paintings is one of the grandest theatrical experiences that New York has to offer. There are elevators, of course, and an escalator has been discreetly tucked away on the left. But to use them is to miss the point of those stairs, which are literally and metaphorically central to the museum and to its entire mission. Ascending the forty-six granite steps, we feel elevated and improved, as though we had earned the right, the privilege of entry into the European Paintings Galleries, which have just reopened after being overhauled for the first time in more than half a century.

Now the spirit of the age seems to demand of museums that they democratize and level the experience of museum attendance, that they dismantle that hierarchical stagecraft, those daunting Corinthian symmetries that were so essential to museum design a century ago, when the Met began to rise along Fifth Avenue. Such tendencies are surely visible elsewhere in the museum, but as regards the Old Masters, the Met is having none of it. In their latest incarna­tion, these remain, as they have always been, feverishly elitist. The wall texts, though brief and to the point, never talk down to the visitor or attempt to recommend a work through some spurious claim of contemporary relevance. The paintings themselves are mostly hung according to such old-school Courtauldian categories as style, period, and nationality. One can easily transpose to these galleries, in their renovated form, Matthew Arnold’s famous quest, with regard to literature, for “the best which has been thought and said.”

It is no accident that the Old Masters sit en­throned in the very center of the building, where they have always sat, representing the unshakeable core of the Western artistic canon. Whether they still command today the sovereign prestige they enjoyed a century ago, or whether that status has been transferred to modernism or contemporary art, clearly makes no difference to the curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At first glance the galleries do not look substan­tially different from their earlier arrangement, based on a modernization carried out in 1972. The skylights preserve something of their earlier postwar function­alism, and this sense is also borne out in the lucid, uncluttered hanging of the paintings. But within that context of sameness, the place seems more focused and welcoming than it has in a very long time.

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.