Sunday, June 17, 2018

Seeing the Collection in a New Light

I learned that I really wasn’t a New Yorker any more when I arrived at the Morgan Library and Museum on a Monday afternoon.  It was closed, of course, as has been the traditional closing day for most museums.  The Metropolitan Museum also used to be closed on Mondays but no longer. 

They say, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” and so it is at the Met. The European paintings galleries have a rare combination of louvered natural light supplemented by artificial light. But skylights become dull over time and, worse, they leak and louvers fail.  Also innovations such as protection from ultraviolet light can be added.  In any case, the skylights at the museum that were installed in 1939 needed to be replaced and, therefore, the  art had to be removed from the galleries. Many paintings have to go into storage, but to keep the presence of the Old Master collection, the European Paintings Department has selected  some of their favorite things and installed them in a new way.

Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department, noted that after the 4-year project is complete, “we will be able to see the works of art in a new light!”  Reinstallation of a collection can offer the same possibilites.  I learned that at my gallery when a client never noticed an object he had seen several times but, when we reinstalled it as a focal point, he bought it.  In a museum or art gallery installation is one of the most important jobs of the curator.

When I walked into these newly reinstalled galleries I was bowled over by the intensity of each room.  Obviously, the curators wanted to show as many master pieces as possible, so they filled each gallery to capacity.  It was, however, clearly not haphazard but extremely carefully thought out with smaller paintings often on pedestals facing each other or totally isolated from other images which might interfere with the viewer experience.

As I walked through these new galleries I wondered what to focus on because writing everything that went through my head would have taken a book.  I finally decided to mention a few of of the more recent acquisitions, in the order of their purchase or gift over the last decade.

One of my very favorites, purchased in 2010, is by a Roman  artist I was not well acquainted with, Orazio Borgiani (1578-1616).  He painted this head of an old woman about 1610.  I found this painting so moving in the way the light plays over the woman’s face.  You see both her pain and the wisdom acquired in  her long life.


I am particularly fond of Jacopo Bassano (1510-1592); possibly because I wrote about him for my master’s thesis on the use of light in European painting. He was born Jacopo da Ponte but derived the name Bassano from the town where he worked. The Met’s Bassano is a fully developed late work of 1590. It shows the Baptism of Christ not in the usual sun lit scene but in darkness, using the light to make the event even more dramatic.  This is a 2012 partial and promised gift of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Fisch, meaning they have given a percentage of the painting to the museum and plan to (and must) donate the remainder in the future.


The Bassano is a large altar piece, but the Charles Lebrun (1619-1690) is truly humongous, over 9 feet  by almost 11 feet!  It represents Everhard Jabach and his family, and was commissioned for their new mansion in Paris around 1660.  A very wealthy merchant and banker of German origin Jabach was a collector of Dutch and  Netherlandish art and this was not lost on Lebrun who gave the painting a Dutch flavor.   Jabach chose politically wisely in commissioning Lebrun as he was painter to Louis XIV. The purchase funds were given in 2014 by Mrs. Charles Wrightsman in tribute to Keith Christiansen for his long and outstanding service to the museum.


In 2015 the Met used many gifts and donations to buy a wonderful Lamentation painted around 1560 by the Spanish artist, Luis de Morales (circa 1510-1586). His almost morbid devotional images made Morales a favorite of contemporary religious reformers.  One recent scholar wrote that "No Spanish painter was ever to surpass Morales in expressing the passionate, personal faith of  the mystical writers. "The  illustrious history of the painting includes the fact that it was owned by Pope Pius VII and remained in his family after his death in 1823 until 2014.


My final image is of Christ Carrying the Cross done between 1520 and 1525 by the Flemish artist Jan Gossaert, known as Jan Mabuse (ca. 1478-1532). Painted on a very small oak panel, it was obviously a personal devotional picture which could easily be picked up in the patron’s hands to contemplate at his leisure.  Again, it was both a part gift and part purchase with various funds added to the gift from the Honorable J. William Middendort II in 2016.


The Met was not always the great museum it is today.  In the field of Old Master painting our relatively young country had a lot of catching up to do with the great collections of Europe like the Louvre and the Uffizi.  Though I now live elsewhere, I feel a native-born New Yorker’s pride in seeing the Met continuing what its former director, Tom Hoving termed, “The Chase and the Capture.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the inspiration of this posting. I shall head for the museum this very afternoon to see this arrangement of Old Master paintings.

    ReplyDelete