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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Surprises at the Met

Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Emanuel Leutze
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City's Central Park has something of an inferiority complex. It's not obvious at first glance. In fact, it would appear that just the opposite is true. But there are subtle clues. In preparation for another item on Art Museum Guards, I spent some time talking to a long-time, soon-to-retire guard about his daily routine and employment situation. He pointed out that the Met has but one outstanding crowd drawing card on i's walls, Emanuel Leutze's gigantic, 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (top), is actually a copy by the artist of the original hanging in the U.S. Capitol. It boasts the biggest picture frame ever made (roughly 12 ft. high and 21 ft. wide). The guard wondered aloud how they ever got it into the building. I suggested they may have built the building around it.
The Met's impressive entry hall. A glass pyramid it's not.
Michelangelo's Cupid
The Louvre has the Mona Lisa. Unlike its chief competitor in Paris, the Met has not one painting by Leonard (lots of his drawings, though), and only one small sculpture by Michelangelo (right, an early Cupid dating from 1490). Legend has it this is the one he tried to pass off as a Roman antiquity in order to get a better price for it. (He was about fifteen at the time.) The museum is, however, in possession of an outstanding (and rare) portrait of the Renaissance master by Daniele da Volterra (below).

Michelangelo Buonarroti,
1544, Daniele da Volterra

The Met's feelings of inferiority stem from the fact that statistically, they keep coming in second to the Louvre--783,000 square feet to 560,000 for the Met. The Louvre boasts aa total collection of 1.5-million pieces while the Met's permanent collection amounts to (they say) some 2-million items. Both figures are suspect. My friend, the Met guard, estimated the Met's total collection to be less than half a million, of which about ten percent is on display. The Louvre places its items on display at about 35,000. When it comes to total visitors, the two museums are neck and neck, each with just over 7-million in ticket sales annually.
The Met's refreshing solarium, home to a food court
and tons upon tons of carefully carved marble.
Having now visited both museums, my own verdict would be that the Met's collection is broader than that of the Louvre but at the same time fairly shallow. The Louvre eschews breadth in favor of depth. There is little, if anything, in the Louvre less than a hundred years old. However, rather than dwell endlessly on the differences, what I liked best about the Met was the little (and sometimes not-so-little) surprises I encountered around each corner. I found works I didn't even know existed, such as Leutze's icy depiction of the Delaware River (top). I was unaware that he did a copy at the behest of the Met. I never dreamed Michelangelo's disreputable Cupid still existed.
Living Room from the Francis W. Little House,
1912-1914, Wayzata, Minnesota, Frank Lloyd Wright
Nice garden ornament.
Being a Frank Lloyd Wright fan, I was stunned to see an entire room from the Frances W. Little summer home in Wayzata, Minnesota (above), dating from around 1912-14, transported to a cozy nook on the museum's ground floor with a view of Central Park. Speaking of Central Park, as I was downing a snack of a couple donuts (don't tell my wife) in the food court, I glanced out the window, and there, jutting up into the clear, blue sky, was an Egyptian obelisk, hauled all the way from Alexandria, Egypt. London has an identical one. How they managed to float the 70-foot tall, 220-ton rock clear across the Atlantic and then prop the thing back up in Central park way back in 1870 still amazes and mystifies me.

Burghers of Calais, 1884-85, Auguste Rodin
Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne
Portrait of George Washington.
Other items I encountered were not sur-prises as to their existence but in the fact that the Met owned and proudly displayed them . I shouldn't have been surprised to find Rodin's Burghers of Calais (above) appearing next to starvation in the food court (maybe they couldn't afford the prices), the Museum was, as the massive banners outside proclaimed, featuring the works of Rodin. I looked, but I couldn't find The Kiss. Even though I was aware that Gilbert Stuart had painted at least two versions of what has come to be known as the Landsdowne Portrait of George Washington, I was surprised to see a third version on the wall of the Met, and this one better proportioned than that which Dolly Madison saved before the British burned the Executive Mansion to the ground.

Struggle of the Two Natures in Man, 1888, George Grey Barnard
Portrait of the Boy
Eutyches, A.D. 100–150
I was especially delighted and surprised to see several of my old favorites in painting and sculpture, such as George Grey Barnard's Struggle of the Two Natures in Man, from 1888, (above), and Portrait of the Boy Eutyches, A.D. 100–150 (left) taken from a 2nd-century Egyptian sarcophagus. And while we're on the subject of sar-cophagi, one antiquity owned by the Met did not surprise me. In fact, I went looking for it. The marble Roman sarcophagus with gar-lands, dating from A.D. 200–225, (below) I mentioned it quite prominently in my book, Art THINK (available at far right). It bears the Ac-cession Number 70.1. It was their first ac-quisition (actually a gift from a wealthy donor) back in 1870 when the Met operated out of a storefront at 681 Fifth Avenue.

Marble sarcophagus with Garlands, ca. A.D. 200–225, Accession Number 70.1
One of the paintings I long ago used to emphasize in teaching art history was The Death of Socrates (below) by the iconic French neo-classical painter, Jacques-Louis David. I guessed, given the nationality of the artist, that his famous painting would be on display in the Louvre. But no, there it was, in all its 4-ft. by 6-ft glory, hanging in the Met. How could the French let such an important masterpiece escape the homeland? The Louvre, however, does have most of the rest of David's work on its walls. Some consider The Death of Socrates his best painting.

The Death of Socrates, 1787, Jacques-Louis David
Landscapes seldom gain much fame or notoriety. Except for winter scenes, they hold little enchantment for me. However, my list of pleasant surprises, contains two. The first, I've long talked about and taught about, The Heart of the Andes, 1859, by Frederik Edwin Church (below). Although huge in size and sumptuous in color, content, and composition, it may be best known today for the manner in which Church attempted to profit from his work without selling it.

The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church
He simply opened his studio to the public, propped it up on a very large easel, draped a drop cloth over it, then charged twenty-five cents admission. When he had a sizable crowed, he dramatically unveiled the work to ooose and ahhhs and a round of applause. The event attracted an unprecedented turnout for a single-painting exhibition in the United States. More than 12,000 people paid an admission fee of twenty-five cents to view the painting. Even on the final day of the showing, patrons waited in line for hours to enter the gallery exhibition. Later, movie exhibitors adopted the same tactic. The Met charges only what the visitor deems appropriate (usually around $25) to see Church's extravaganza and all else your legs will stand for. I was good for about five hours.

John Vanderlyn's 180-degree Panorama of the Gardens of Versailles, dating from 1818.  

This painting was originally intended for display in a Rotunda built by Vanderlyn in 1818 at the northeast corner of City Hall Park in New York. Its showing there was not as successful as Vanderlyn had wished. In search of some profit, Vanderlyn toured intermittently with the panorama until his death. In it, the artist depicted himself pointing out Czar Alexander I and King Frederick William II of Prussia to the right of the Basin de Latone. The painting is life-size, by the way.

No, it's not a painting. It's the Met's
grand stairway, wide enough to drive
two cars side by side to the top.


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