Exhibitions Museums USA

European paintings get (back) the space they deserve

The Met’s Old Masters galleries reopen in rooms lost in the 1970s when the era of the blockbuster began

Lodovico Carracci’s The Lamentation, now has more room to breathe

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s galleries for European paintings made between 1250 and 1800 open to the public on 23 May, visitors will experience a collection transformed and refreshed, the result of two years of expansion and rethinking.

The renovation of the galleries is long overdue, last undertaken in full in the early 1950s. When the Met’s then director Thomas Hoving inaugurated the age of the blockbuster in the early 1970s, one third of the space, then given over to Impressionism and contemporary art, was turned into galleries for temporary exhibitions. Hobbled by the contraction, for the next 30 years the Old Master galleries suffered from a lack of a unified concept: “We moved galleries around, but there was little thought about the way they would flow together,” says Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the European paintings department.

As the collection grew, curators attempted to squeeze more and more onto increasingly cramped walls with varying degrees of success. The former head of the department, John Pope-Hennessey, added free-standing glass-encased partitions to display smaller pictures, but the glass reflected so badly that their contents were difficult to see and easier to overlook. Fabric-covered walls in shades of brick-red, crimson damask and dull green gave way to painted backgrounds of shades of red-purple, dark green and deep blue.

The impetus for the new, expanded galleries was the 2007 re-installation of the Met’s collection of ancient Greek and Roman art, which reclaimed space that had been taken from the collection in 1949 by the Fountain restaurant. “We felt that if [the] Greek and Roman [collection] could get [its] old space back, we hoped for an arrangement to get some of our old space back. But when we approached our director, Tom Campbell, he said: ‘Why don’t you just take it all?’” For Campbell, the increasing cost of blockbusters made them economically unfeasible, and the museum no longer needed such expanses of space for temporary shows. Notably, there was no outside funding for the project—the only newly named space is the Neo-classical paintings room dedicated to Jayne Wrightsman, without whose donations and acquisition funds the collection would be much impoverished.

After “The Renaissance Portrait” exhibition closed in March 2012, the final show in the special exhibition galleries, much physical restoration was needed as the walls and floors were in a very poor state and everything had to be rebuilt. “A third more space meant the whole configuration would change,” Christiansen says. “We wanted to make our greatest paintings as easy to find as possible, so we opted for a very traditional timeline. But we arranged the schools in various art-historical paths. For instance, Van Eyck and early Netherlandish painting leads to Rubens and Van Dyck.”

Special galleries are devoted to 15th- and 16th-century altarpieces from Italy, Flanders and Spain, and there are three new galleries of 17th-century Italian paintings where there used to be one. “That’s the area where our collection has grown the most. Like most American museums we have spent the past 30 years playing catch up,” he says.

For the walls, Christiansen and his colleagues decided on a unifying palette of shades of grey. “The saturated colours of the previous walls tended to seep out the colours of the paintings, but now they stand out in a way they hadn’t before. Even when nothing was done to them they often look as if they had been cleaned,” he says. Relatively few pictures have been cleaned. “The two most important transformative restorations have been our great Carpaccio Meditation on the Passion and Andrea del Sarto’s ‘Borgherini’ Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist. Both had a synthetic varnish that had clouded and blanched. They now look better than they have in a generation.”

One would think that more space would bring long-unseen pictures out of storage. “All of us thought we would take a lot more out of storage than we have and in some cases we’ve put things back in, like a Signorelli workshop Assumption of the Virgin that really isn’t that great. But I’m sure in future years you’ll see things creep out and rehung,” Christiansen says. Giovanni Francesco Romanelli’s Sacrifice of Polyxena, around 1658-59, is newly hung after nearly 30 years off display.

Visitors will meet new acquisitions, such as Charles Le Brun’s The Sacrifice of Polyxena, 1647, bought at Christie’s in Paris last month, and a rare double-sided altarpiece wing by Hans Schäufelein of the Dormition of the Virgin backed with Christ Carrying the Cross, around 1510, bought in 2011. An additional 22 paintings from private collections will be on display for the next six to 12 months, many by artists otherwise unrepresented in the permanent collection. These include Carel Fabritius’s Hagar and the Angel, 1643-45, Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë, 1621-22, from the collection of the art dealer Richard Feigen, and a promised gift from an anonymous donor: Louis Le Nain’s Peasant Family, around 1640s.

But the most gratifying “loans” are those from within the museum, which are normally kept far apart by terms of their bequests. Two Simone Martinis from the Robert Lehman collection, a Madonna and Child, around 1325, and Saint Ansanus, around 1326, have rejoined the Met’s companion Saint Andrew, while Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1472, from the Jack and Belle Linsky bequest, is back with its flanking panels of Saint Dominic and Saint George, which have been in the Met since 1905.

One of the most welcome additions is the incorporation of sculpture and decorative arts. Christiansen eschews “mindless room decoration” in favour of a specific dialogue between media. “We recently acquired a beautiful 17th-century Amsterdam cabinet by the carver Herman Doomer and we are displaying it with our 1640 portrait of Doomer by Rembrandt. In our gallery of small paintings, the great Boucher Toilette of Venus painted for Madame du Pompadour in 1751 will have beside it Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s marble bust of Pompadour [around 1748-51].”

A particularly nice juxtaposition is Wrightsman’s most recent gift of Baron Gerard’s portrait Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord, Prince de Bénévent, 1808, and the ormolu trimmed inkstand attributed to Philippe Claude Montigny, which appears on Talleyrand’s desk in the painting. Christiansen says: “We want people to come through the galleries and say: ‘What a wonderful collection,’ instead of, ‘Boy! They sure have a lot of things.’”

Click here to see a slide show of the works mentioned in this preview


The Met’s curators have a third more wall space for the new hang. Photo: Paul Jeromack
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17 May 13
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