For the first time in more than 40 years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has rethought and reinstalled its European paintings. The new galleries have just opened, and they are bigger and better. Prepare to be impressed. Most of the Met’s old favorites are still hanging. But they’ve been augmented. Before, the galleries displayed about 450 paintings. Today you can see close to 700. And they’ve been remixed. Now many of the paintings are in different rooms, next to different neighbors, with lots more space and better lighting. The old, beloved works have been recombined with new pieces and others the Met has borrowed or brought out of storage. The overall effect is to make you see everything with new eyes.
One of the most magical rooms is a small one, devoted to 15th-century Florentine domestic arts. Ceramic tableware, wedding chests and painted panels evoke the bedchamber of a wealthy merchant and his wife. Carved and gilded columns flank the doorways. On the walls hang small, wooden panels painted with scenes from novels and Greek and Roman myths.
In one, a group of blond, frizzy-haired teenagers lounge over a game of chess. In another, a girl hangs out her window, flirting with four youths. A charmingly quirky panel done by Fra Filippo Lippi circa 1440 shows a man in a red felt hat poking his head through the window of his lady’s chamber. She, decked out in an elaborate, pearl-trimmed headdress and sumptuous dress, stares at him serenely, seemingly unperturbed by his forwardness.
Madonnas and noblemen
The adjoining room offers a thrilling array of larger paintings and sculpture from the same period, including several enchanting Madonnas, vivid portraits of noblemen and a lovely marble head of John the Baptist by Mino da Fiesole, which looks more like Peter Pan than a Christian saint. Both the religious icons and the secular ones in this room seem so alive I half expected them to start chattering amongst themselves.
On loan from a private collection is a huge tondo of the Madonna and Child with John the Baptist. Everyone in it looks like succulent dessert. It’s labeled “Botticelli and Workshop, 1444-1445.” Maybe it was the bright, gold frame, plump as a bunt cake, that encircled this work, or the painting’s size, which dwarfed the more modest pieces by lesser names, but I could suddenly understand Botticelli’s works as Medici bling—something to hang at the top of the stairs to wow the guests.
Turning away, I spotted Lorenzo de Credi’s portrait of a young woman in black, standing in front of a juniper tree, sadly fingering her gold wedding band. A sense of mystery hovered around her. Who was she? And why so somber? The small panel and the story it suggested offered a restrained antidote to Botticelli’s high calorie diet.
Geography and itinerant artists
Some of the greatest pleasures of the Met’s new European galleries are the fresh juxtapositions created by Keith Christiansen, chairman of the department, and his team of curators. The new galleries offer a clearer sense of geography, but also suggest that national borders don’t tell the whole tale. That’s because artists were always traveling and, wherever they went, they soaked up ideas.
As early as 1428, Flemish master Jan van Eyck traveled from Bruges to Lisbon to paint the future queen. The German-born Hans Memling (c. 1430-1494) moved from Frankfurt to Flanders and became part of the Flemish scene. Spaniard Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) spent several years in Italy, sponsored by King Philip IV, where he bought works by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese and painted a portrait of the Pope. Later, his countryman Francisco Goya (1746-1828) also spent time in Rome and, eventually, left Madrid for exile in Bordeaux. All this was long before the flood of late 19th and early 20th century foreigners—including Van Gogh, Cassatt, Munch, Modigliani, Soutine, Gris, Miró, Rivera and Picasso—descended on Paris. It seems artists have always been, and probably always will be, an itinerant lot.
Mengs and Goya side-by-side
In one of the Met’s new Spanish rooms, a stunning self-portrait by Anton Rafael Mengs (1728-1779) hangs alongside the Goyas. It’s a bold, honest work, so immediate it has the power to stop you in your tracks. Mengs was a painter from Bohemia and a neoclassicist, which makes you wonder what he’s doing next to the great Spanish Romantic. But in 1774 Mengs traveled to Spain, where he was appointed First Painter to King Charles III. It was Mengs who gave Goya his first break, painting cartoons at the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid. Beyond the history, you may discern a certain kinship between the two men, at least in their best work… a take-no-prisoners approach. One wonders if the young Goya saw the Mengs self-portrait, and what he made of it.
Anyone who’s been to the Prado in Madrid knows we don’t have Goya’s greatest paintings in New York. Those would include “The Third of May, 1808,” depicting the bloody execution of Spanish soldiers by Napoleon’s troops, and some of the Black Murals, chiseled from the walls of the artist’s house years after his death.
We do, however, have some good stuff. One of my favorites is Goya’s portrait of his friend, the architect Tiburcio Pérez y Cuervo, who smiles dreamily out of the shadows, his white shirtsleeves rolled up, as if ready to work. The mysterious “Majas on a Balcony” and “Bullfight in a Divided Ring,” with its moody skies, yellow dust and beautifully drawn foreground figures, will always be a pleasure to contemplate. But a number of the artist’s portraits of rich patrons and their progeny, including the ever-popular little boy in red (“Manuel Orsorio Manrique de Zuñiga”) are stiff and soulless and risk misleading Americans as to what all the fuss about Goya is all about.
But the Met has got to work with what it’s got. The collection does not reflect the ideal history of European art. It reflects the history and tastes of New York collectors. Supplemented, of course, by the Met’s own purchases.
The complex bonds of Velázquez
One of the most brilliant of these is the portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez, bought by the museum in 1971. Now hanging in the new galleries for 17th century Spanish art, it gets the wall space it deserves, while burning ever brighter in the context of the contemporary works around it. This astonishing painting is one of the few pieces we have by the Spanish court artist that wasn’t commissioned by a patron. Instead, Velázquez depicted his Afro-Spanish slave and studio assistant, whom he would eventually free four years later. Once freed, Juan de Pareja became an artist in his own right and his painting “The Calling of Saint Mathew” now hangs in the Prado.
What a fraught and complex bond these two men must have had. But take a long look at the portrait and you’ll feel Velázquez painted it for love, not money. In this canvas, the artist makes his slave look more powerful than any of the Spanish kings and noblemen who paid him so many gold ducats. This is the paradox we can never resolve. It’s the DNA of this work of art.
Now the painting hangs next to the superb and newly restored “Portrait of a Man,” also by Velázquez. A sweet and soulful “Virgin and Child” by Murillo graces the opposite wall. But even next to such gems, Juan de Pareja dominates the room with magnetic force.
Other works by Velázquez in the same gallery offer glimpses into the life of a court artist. It must have been a tedious, if lucrative one. There is the portrait of the powerful Count-Duke of Olivares, rearing up on his white steed, dressed in full armor, yet managing to look bored and detached. History tells us the Count-Duke was a supporter of Velázquez, but also the ruthless force behind the throne, who steered Spain into the disastrous Thirty Years War. What we see is an ugly, barrel-chested man, posing with the 17th-century equivalent of his Cadillac.
Nearby hangs a large, and broody King Philip IV, painted by the artist in 1624, less than a year after he arrived at court. It’s classic Velázquez—gorgeous design and bravura brushwork. When it comes to technique, nobody has ever beat him. But it’s hard not to notice that, while he’s got beautiful hands, the 19-year-old king has a passive and slightly stupid look.
Such was the life of the successful portrait artist in 17th-century Spain and probably, for that matter, throughout most of history. Weeks or months spent painting boring, but powerful people. Every once in a while, the chance to paint somebody you could actually relax with and appreciate. Today we can revel in such wonderful works. Hanging beside their more pedestrian siblings, they remind us that as rare as it may be to find great craftsmanship, it’s rarer by far to find truly inspired art.
The refurbished galleries
The Met now has 45 refurbished galleries, covering European painting from 1250 to 1800. (The 19th century has its own space, as it has for many years.) In addition to the Italian and Spanish rooms, there are fabulous galleries devoted to French, German, Netherlandish and British work. It will take even the most devoted museum lovers many months, or even years, to fully digest all these new perspectives. There is no time like the present to start.
Pick a room, any room…632 for instance, where five Vermeers are currently hanging together for the first time ever. Or wander through the Rembrandt rooms, where his best portraits are still speaking, quietly but urgently after 400 years. In truth, it doesn’t matter where you start, as long as there is something that catches your eye. I have been visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art my entire life. But every time I step through the doors, it feels like the first visit. Anyone who loves the Met comes back to see their favorite art again and again, hoping for new perspectives. This new installation makes them easy to find.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art – 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street) New York, NY. 212-535-7710