The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s galleries for its world-renowned collection of European Old Master paintings from the 13th through the early 19th century will reopen on May 23 after an extensive renovation and reinstallation. This is the first major renovation of the galleries since 1951 and the first overall reinstallation of the collection since 1972. Increased in size by almost one-third, the space now accommodates the display of more than 700 paintings in 45 galleries, including one rotating special exhibition gallery. The galleries are organized both chronologically and geographically to provide an overview of painting in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Great Britain. Many of the galleries have new floors and moldings and the suites of galleries unfold with a new logic and grandeur. Sculpture, medals, ceramics, and other decorative arts have been judiciously incorporated where their presence adds a layer of meaning to the display of paintings. Key works have been conserved or embellished with period frames. Important loans complement the permanent collection and celebrate the reinstallation.
“As we mark the completion of the new European Paintings Galleries, we celebrate this collection’s remarkable legacy and significance to the Met,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum. “By substantially increasing the space devoted to these works of art and integrating new scholarship in the galleries and online, Keith Christiansen and his team of curators now present the first comprehensive rethinking of these holdings in over four decades. The result is an extraordinary experience for our more than six million annual visitors from around the world.”
The Metropolitan Museum’s collection of early Netherlandish, Italian, and French paintings is wide-ranging and includes landmark pictures, while that of the Dutch school is among the finest and most comprehensive in the world. As for individual artists, the representations of Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer, Poussin, Velázquez, Goya, and David are the strongest in the Western Hemisphere, and there are individual masterpieces known to every student of art history, such as Bruegel’s The Harvesters and David’s The Death of Socrates.
The reinstallation also captures historical crosscurrents between countries and contacts between artists by placing works in adjoining rooms, thereby presenting the Museum’s collection in a more coherent and natural progression than ever before. The new configuration of the galleries now makes it possible to follow the history of painting in the lowlands from Jan van Eyck through Bruegel and the development of landscape in the 17th century through to Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Rubens and Van Dyck. There are galleries for portraiture, landscape, genre painting, and still life, together with a gallery for the display of the decorative arts in Holland that includes newly acquired and restored embossed leather panels. The history of Italian painting, from Giotto and Duccio to Tiepolo, is told in galleries organized by chronology and region—Florence, Siena, Venice, Rome—with galleries dedicated to themes such as domestic art and portraiture. The gallery of domestic art includes a display of 15th-century ceramics (maiolica) while another explores the relation of painting to sculpture. A key aspect of the reinstallation is the presentation of sculpture where the exchange between the two mediums is illuminating and pertinent.
History of the European Paintings Galleries
For more than 100 years, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European Paintings collection has been displayed prominently in sky-lit galleries at the top of the staircase leading from the Great Hall. Located in the original 1880 building, these galleries were modernized and refitted between 1951 and 1954 to accommodate the expanding collection, which then encompassed works from the 13th through the 20th century. Further growth required a major reinstallation of the galleries in 1972 in 42 contiguous galleries, which still could only provide enough space for the display of 60 percent of its collection of 2,500 works. To remedy this, the 19th-century European paintings were moved to a newly constructed wing at the south end of the Museum in 1980 and the 20th–century paintings were moved to the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing when it opened in 1987. During the 1980 renovation, nine galleries of the European Paintings Galleries—among the most beautifully proportioned and well–lit—were rededicated to become galleries for special exhibitions; these have now been returned to the Department of European Paintings, making it possible for the curators to rethink the presentation of the Museum’s Old Master pictures.
In the four decades since 1972, the collection has been transformed by gifts and bequests from collectors as well as curatorial acquisitions reflecting the Museum’s ongoing reevaluation of the legacy of the past. Old Master paintings that have entered the Museum during this period include some of the Metropolitan’s most famous and beloved masterpieces, beginning with the incomparable portrait of Juan de Pareja by Velázquez in 1971, Jacques Louis-David’s portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife in 1977, Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman in 1979, Guercino’s Blinding of Samson in 1984, Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid in 1986, Peter Paul Rubens’ portrait of himself with his wife Helena Fourment and their young son in 1988, Caravaggio’s Denial of Saint Peter in 1997, and Duccio’s Madonna and Child in 2004.
The New Galleries
The collection is now divided broadly in two halves. The southern suite of galleries, in unbroken sequence, presents the Northern schools: Netherlandish, German, Dutch, Flemish, and British painting. The presentation begins with works by Jan van Eyck, continues with paintings by Memling, Dürer, Cranach, Bruegel, Jacob van Ruisdael, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyck, and Rubens, and ends with the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence. This new suite features galleries devoted to portraiture of the 15th and 16th centuries in the Netherlands, still life painting, and genre painting, plus a gallery presenting outstanding examples of the decorative arts in 17th–century Holland. Joachim Patinir’s triptych, with its vast, panoramic landscape extending across its three panels, and Bruegel’s The Harvesters—both landmarks in the history of landscape painting—are now shown in a small gallery that leads directly into the Museum’s rich holdings of 17th-century Dutch landscape painting. The Museum’s five Vermeer paintings, which represent the entire span of the artist’s career, are shown together for the first time in a single gallery.
At the heart of the galleries, the history of Italian painting is divided between the Renaissance, from Giotto and Duccio to Raphael and Titian, and the 17th and 18th centuries, from the Carracci and Caravaggio to Canaletto and Tiepolo. This presentation is also rich in thematic galleries, presenting the great figures of 15th-century Florence; a gallery dedicated to the domestic interior with panels from marriage chests (cassoni) and a selection of maiolica; and another addressing the relationship of painting and sculpture. The thematic galleries with works in varied media have been made possible by the close collaboration between the Department of European Paintings and the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Duccio and the Sienese painters segue into a long gallery dedicated to the Gothic altarpiece and devotional practice in Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.
The gallery dedicated to landscape painting in Rome, where the outstanding figure was not an Italian but the French painter Claude Lorrain, leads into French painting of the 17th and 18th centuries, with one gallery given over to cabinet painting and another to the Metropolitan’s outstanding collection of Neoclassical painting—the finest outside France.
Goya, the protagonist of the Enlightenment in Spain and a painter who spent the last years of his life in Bordeaux, France, is shown in a gallery strategically located between the great figures of 17th-century Spanish painting—Ribera, Velázquez, and Murillo—and his contemporaries in France. In these galleries, one of the Metropolitan Museum’s most beloved Goya portraits, the boy Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–1792), is poignantly reunited with the Goya portrait of his mother and sister Condesa de Altamira and Her Daughter, María Agustina, on loan from the Museum’s Lehman Collection.
To celebrate the opening of the new galleries, a number of special loans from private collectors will be on view for the next six months to a year, filling gaps in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection. Among the many highlights on loan are Orazio Gentileschi’s spectacular Danaë, Ribera’s Portrait of the Count of Monterrey, Manfredi’s Midas Washing at the Source of the Pactolus, Poussin’s The Agony in the Garden, Giovanni da Milano’s Resurrection, Pseudo-Dalmasio’s The Descent from the Cross, Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man, Bernard van Orley’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, Jan Gossart’s Christ Carrying the Cross, Paulus Potter’s Cattle in a Field with Travelers in a Wagon, Carl Fabritius’s hauntingly beautiful Hagar and the Angel, Peter Paul Rubens’s Commander, and Goya’s extremely rare Still Life of Dead Rabbits.
Thanks to the generosity and support of the Department of European Paintings’ Visiting Committee, ten of the Met’s Old Master paintings have been refitted with period frames. The new frames are of exceptional quality. Three striking examples are Carpaccio’s Meditation on the Passion, newly cleaned and restored and displayed in a Venetian frame of ca. 1500, Murillo’s large canvas Don Andrés de Andrade y la Cal, now in a beautiful black–and–gold painted contemporary frame, and Frans Hals’ Portrait of a Man, formerly in an elaborate gilded 19th century frame and now in a simple, elegant fruitwood frame that is certainly closer to the manner in which would have been framed in 17th century Holland.
European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Walking Guide, published to coincide with the opening of the New European Paintings Galleries, 1250-1800, is edited by Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman, and Katharine Baetjer, Curator, both in the Department of European Paintings, and will be sold in the Museum’s book shops ($9.99). The fully illustrated guidebook serves as a personal guide through the new galleries, providing itineraries for the collection of Old Master paintings and for the Galleries for 19th-and Early 20th–Century European Paintings and Sculpture.
Also published in conjunction with the opening of the new galleries is German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350-1600, by Maryan W. Ainsworth and Joshua P. Waterman, a rigorous review of past and current scholarship and a monumental study of German, Austrian, and Swiss works in the Museum’s collection by such towering figures as Dürer, Cranach, Holbein, and Schäufelein. The publication is distributed by Yale University Press and is on sale in the Museum’s book shops ($75.00).
The publication is made possible by the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund and the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund.
All of the wall labels have been rewritten to reflect the latest research. Online catalogue entries are available for all website highlights, as well as for many other paintings. Online catalogue information, as well as reconstructions of altarpieces and occasional technical information are all directly accessible in the galleries, which are equipped with Wi-Fi. Website information is immediately accessible through Google Goggles.
The renovation and reinstallation of the galleries were overseen by Keith Christiansen, working with the Department of European Painting’s team of curators— Maryan Ainsworth, Katharine Baetjer, Andrea Bayer, Walter Liedtke, Xavier Salomon—as well as the curatorial staff of the departments of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Medieval Art, and Greek and Roman Art, under the leadership of Luke Syson, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge; Peter Barnet, Michel David-Weill Curator in Charge; and Carlos Picón, Curator in Charge, respectively. The Department of Paintings Conservation, under the direction of Michael Gallagher, Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge, has played a key role.
Gallery design is by Michael Langley, Exhibition Design Manager; lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers; and graphics are by Sophia Geronimus, Graphic Design Manager, Mort Lebigre, Graphic Designer, and Norie Morimoto, Graphic Designer, all of the Museum’s Design Department.
A new audio tour of the New European Paintings Galleries, 1250-1800, will be offered as part of the Museum’s Audio Guide Program. It will be available for rental ($7, $6 for Members, $5 for children under 12).