In 1924, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its American Wing, the Met’s president, Robert W. de Forest, cautiously toasted the state of what he called “American domestic art.” “Perhaps, at the moment, it has more acclaim than future generations would think it ought to have had,” he said. “It has filled the antiquity shops, it has crowded the auction rooms, it is vogue.”
But the “American domestic art” De Forest celebrated did not include the museum’s sweeping landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church or its seaside canvases by Winslow Homer. Nor was he giving a nod to the institution’s majestic portraits by John Singer Sargent. De Forest wasn’t talking about paintings at all but rather about the furniture and period rooms that were all that filled the American Wing back then.
Long considered poor stepchildren to European art, American paintings did not even have their own department at the Met until the mid-1930s, and it took nearly 50 more years for the institution to dedicate space for American painting galleries.
But since they opened in 1980, these galleries have been among the museum’s most popular attractions, visited by around a million people a year. And except for an occasional fresh lick of paint, they have remained largely untouched.
Thirty years is a long time in museum life. Collections grow, tastes change, and so do the way curators and the public view art. After being closed for four years these galleries, on the second floor of the Met’s American Wing, will reopen on Monday after a complete renovation. It is the third and final phase of a US$100 million project that includes new galleries dedicated to the neo-classical arts of the US and an overhaul of the period rooms and the Charles Engelhard Court, a light-filled pavilion punctuated by the Greek revival limestone facade of Martin E. Thompson’s Branch Bank of the United States. The neo-classical galleries opened in 2007, and the period rooms and court reopened in 2009.
“The painting galleries were so dreary,” Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing, said the other morning as workers were putting the finishing touches on the new installation. “They were shapeless, cavernous spaces that were not at all in scale or sympathetic to the art.” They were also on two floors, with the most popular 19th-century paintings displayed in a hard-to-find mezzanine.
Everything is now on one floor, and Heckscher, his curatorial team and the New York architects Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates gutted and reconfigured the space, adding 307m2 and creating 26 galleries dedicated primarily to paintings and sculpture. The design is modern but not sterile, with either cove or vaulted ceilings and some skylighted spaces. Inspired by 19th-century Beaux-Arts proportions, the walls have simplified classical cornices and dados, creating a sense of the grand, domestic proportions that were the original backdrop for many of these canvases decades ago.
The new galleries are organized both chronologically and thematically in a way that, as Heckscher explained it, “tells the story of American art and in the process American history.”
For example, galleries are devoted to the American Revolution, the Civil War era, colonial portraiture and the Hudson River School. The rooms have been configured to make it easy to visit specific areas of American art without getting caught up in a confusing labyrinth. And all the old favorites are back on view, including Sargent’s much-loved Madame X and John Singleton Copley’s Daniel Crommelin Verplanck, along with Homer’s Prisoners From the Front and Thomas Eakins’ The Champion Single Sculls. At the entrance to the galleries — the nexus of the entire suite — hangs a monumental gilded eagle carved by William Rush between 1809 and 1811.