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.
“This is an object whose meaning and importance has changed drastically since it was made,” Heckscher said. It was commissioned by St John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia to go over the pulpit. In 1847 it was removed from the church and installed at Independence Hall, where it stayed until 1916, hanging near the Liberty Bell above Rush’s statue of George Washington. After that it returned to the church, which disbanded in 2001. It arrived at the Met in 2002.
The vistas from this central space, which Heckscher jokingly calls the “50-yard line,” draw the eye in several directions: to portraits of Washington as a general and as a president, and to separate galleries for silver.
The eagle is not simply a visual anchor. It is also one of many examples Heckscher pointed out to illustrate the evolution of tastes, fashions and perceptions in American art. This particular sculpture, he explained, “has gone from being a religious icon to a patriotic emblem to a work of art.”
Another gallery is devoted to colonial furniture, where mid-18th-century chests, desks and clocks are displayed on platforms as if they were carefully carved sculptures, instead of shown in a domestic setting like furniture in the period rooms. Adjacent to that gallery is the floor’s one domestic interior, from Van Rensselaer Hall in Albany, created from 1765 to 1769. The room displays grisaille wallpaper depicting classical Roman landscapes, which was as close as an American colonist could get to collecting framed European oil paintings because of expense and geography.
As tastes have evolved, new emphasis has been given to parts of the collection considered insignificant years ago but since rediscovered.
Some contemporary artists are looking at the Hudson River School for inspiration. One in particular, Stephen Hannock, has created a painting after View From Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole’s sweeping landscape from 1836, that is in the museum’s permanent collection.
Now canvases like Oxbow, along with dramatic landscapes by painters like Asher Brown Durand, John Frederick Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford, have been given more space and importance.
“It’s extraordinary how our eyes have changed,” Heckscher said. “Every generation sees things differently. Before the end of the 19th century the interest in Hudson River School paintings had peaked. They were being given away. Now the awareness for the environment has brought the Hudson River School back into our consciousness again, and they are considered some of the most important examples of American art.”
There are also important works on view that are long-term loans from other institutions. The financially troubled American Folk Art Museum in New York, for instance, has lent the Met Girl in Red Dress With Cat and Dog, its prized painting by Ammi Phillips. It will hang beside the Met’s own great Phillips work, Mrs Mayer and Daughter. Loans have also come from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, including a group of oil studies for Church’s Heart of the Andes.
The collection goes further than it ever has. In the reinstallation the last gallery no longer ends with American impressionism — those frothy canvases by figures like William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam. Now that gallery is devoted to the Ashcan School, with works by artists like William Glackens, John Sloan and Everett Shinn, who portrayed the hardships of urban life from 1900 through the 1920s. While these artists were acknowledged in past installations, this is the first time they have been given a space of their own — yet another, fuller chapter in the ever-changing way we see American art.