Audio and Video

Gothic Visions: Illustrating a Fifteenth-Century Italian Altarpiece

Watch as a fifteenth-century Italian altarpiece is reconstructed using polyptych panels from the Met's collection as well as fragments from other museums. See the transcript in Met Media.

Biblical Storytelling: Illustrating a Fifteenth-Century Netherlandish Altarpiece

Learn how fifteenth-century Netherlandish altarpieces would have been used in their original devotional context. See the transcript in Met Media.

Heaven and Hellfire: Illustrating a Fifteenth-Century Spanish Altarpiece

Learn about the use of gilding and composition in fifteenth-century Spanish altarpieces. See the transcript in Met Media.

Overview of the Galleries

Keith Christiansen provides an overview of the reinstallation and a brief history of the Museum's display of European paintings.

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Keith Christiansen: Hello, I'm Keith Christiansen, Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Department of European Paintings covers an enormous period. Our earliest painting actually dates to about 1235. Our latest paintings date in the early twentieth century, the late works of Monet. The galleries are divided into two separate locations—the nineteenth century being at the south end of the building and the Old Master collection, from circa 1250 to 1800, in the galleries at the top of the stairs leading from the Great Hall. It's the latter section that I want to talk about today, because it's there that we have concentrated our efforts in reconfiguring the galleries and re-presenting the collection.

Most important, for this reinstallation, which we have planned beginning about three years ago, has been the decision on the part of the Director that twelve galleries previously used for temporary exhibitions would be returned to the permanent collection.

This has expanded our space by one-third and has made it possible for us to completely reconceive the way in which visitors will experience the great collection of European paintings. The last time this was done was in 1972.

I've now been at the Museum for thirty-five years, and during that time, pictures have moved from one gallery to another. What's different this time is that we have sat down with a floor plan and conceived what we think would be the ideal visit for people coming to the Museum. We have also tried to think of ways of intersecting the various parts of the culture—French, Italian, German, Netherlandish, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, Italian painting. And at these intersections, to throw some new light onto the ways in which European painting stretches across national borders.

It's a very large discussion for the simple reason that when the earliest pictures date from, in the thirteenth century, Europe was not a compilation of nation states. It was instead a mosaic of duchies, papal states, the empire, all sorts of various regions. So any visitor to the Museum experiences a very large chunk of history, and a chunk that is the basis of modern Europe and the modern Western world as we know it.

I would first like to note the transformative changes in the collection over the last forty years. Forty years ago, a visitor coming to the Metropolitan Museum would have found a handful of paintings done in Italy in the seventeenth century. Today the visitor, walking through the first great gallery filled with canvases by Giambattista Tiepolo, will find themselves in an extraordinary gallery filled with Italian Baroque paintings, followed by a smaller gallery with cabinet-size Baroque paintings, followed by yet another gallery with four works by Caravaggio and paintings done by his immediate followers and Neapolitan painters. This is an extraordinary transformation that has been made possible, as always at the Metropolitan, by a combination of acquisitions and gifts, and support from the Trustees for acquisitions.

This past year alone, we have added five major pictures to the collection. One, among the earliest works by the very young twenty-year-old Jusepe de Ribera, painted in Rome shortly after he arrived. Most recently, a painting by Charles Le Brun, one of the major painters of France in the seventeenth century, the person responsible for the decoration of Versailles. A marvelous landscape by Wright of Derby, a British painter who was very underrepresented here at the Metropolitan, a picture of Virgil's tomb that has significantly transformed the collection of our presentation of British landscape painting. An extraordinary Neoclassical picture by Baron Gérard, pupil of Jacques Louis David, of the great diplomat Talleyrand, a gift of Jayne Wrightsman, which has now put our collection of Neoclassical painting into a class by itself outside of Paris. And finally, a very beautiful picture by Santi di Tito that is partial gift, partial purchase, representing a segment of Florentine painting that heretofore was not represented at this museum. This is just this last year.

The collection of the Metropolitan is constantly being revised, rethought—in the way that we think about the past and the ways in which we tell the stories of the past. And this is certainly true today. And as visitors walk through the galleries, I think that they will be surprised.

Now let me mention a couple of the key points of redistribution of the collection. If you walk into the earliest gallery—the gallery of Florentine painting of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, with its high point being our painting by Giotto—you will then be followed up by fifteenth-century Florentine painting, a small gallery devoted to the domestic arts in Florence, with cassone panels, some portraits, and two marvelous cases of Italian maiolica, and of course the great birth tray commissioned on the birth of Lorenzo the Magnificent. And this gallery is then followed by a gallery that takes up the subject of the interrelationship of painting and sculpture in devotional painting and in portraiture, and includes medals.

This combination of sculpture and medals and ceramics within the collection is meant not simply as an add-on but to emphasize ways in which the arts converge at various important points in European art.

In the gallery filled with seventeenth-century French paintings, in our great collection of Poussin, which is the greatest collection of Poussin in America, you will find in the center of the gallery an antiquity that formerly belonged to the Giustiniani collection. This antiquity is not displayed together with the other great Giustiniani pieces in the Greek and Roman galleries, and that is because the actual antique fragments are very few. The bulk of the sculpture, of Bacchus sitting on a leopard, was created by François Duquesnoy, the great friend of Poussin. It's a case in sculpture of the revisiting and the revival, the rebirth of Classical sculpture. Duquesnoy, Poussin were great friends. They both studied the antiquities in the Giustiniani collection and this is a case where visitors will be able to understand better The Rape of the Sabines, one of our signal works by Poussin, and the way that Poussin has strived to give new life to Classical stories and mythology.

On the other side, in the Dutch collection, visitors will have the opportunity of seeing all five of the Metropolitan's Vermeers for the first time shown in one gallery. The reason they have not been shown together before is because one of these, the very earliest one, is part of the Altman Collection, and it has been our tradition to show the Altman Collection of Dutch paintings intact.

In this particular case, however, we have decided that the unique opportunity of showing all five of the Metropolitan's pictures overrides the value of including the Vermeer together with the rest of the Altman Collection.

Now, this is a unique group. It is unique not only because of the five pictures, but because the Metropolitan, the Metropolitan's collection, includes one of his earliest pictures, one of his latest pictures, a religious allegory—extraordinarily rare, two classic views of interiors with a figure, and then one of the two idealized heads, what were called tronies. That means that, in the Metropolitan's collection, you can encounter Vermeer from beginning to end, undertaking virtually all the kinds of pictures that he did.

The Rijksmuseum cannot do this, the Mauritshaus cannot do this, the Louvre cannot do this, no other museum outside the Metropolitan can. And I think it will become one of the high points of any visitor's experience to this collection.

I think visitors will be astonished at the depth and breadth of the landscape collection. And now for the first time they will be able to walk directly from the gallery with our triptych by Patinir, one of the landmarks of landscape painting in Western art, to the great Bruegel Harvesters, into seventeenth-century Dutch landscape. A new story told with the same objects, with the same pictures that visitors will have seen, and I think that this will enhance their understanding of European painting in a completely new way.

I'd like to say a few words about the formation of the collection, because it's an extraordinary testament to New Yorkers, and New Yorkers' commitment to this Museum and to the culture of the West.

I mentioned the Vermeer from the Altman Collection—1913, the gift was made. It's the collection that put the Museum on the map, that raised us from an aspiring museum to one that actually had an international presence. But virtually every one of our Vermeers—all five—is a gift. Not one of them was purchased by this Museum with acquisition funds. And it's an extraordinary testimony, I think, to the philanthropy of New Yorkers and to the commitment of New York collectors to this institution.

Similarly, the Neoclassical collection—with David's great Death of Socrates, the single greatest and most important Neoclassical painting outside the Louvre—was a purchase, but in that gallery, of the nine pictures, six have been acquired over the last twenty years by the Wrightsmans. This is an extraordinary legacy of one of the great benefactors of this Museum. And I think it's something that all New Yorkers can take pride in as well as gratitude.

Throughout the collection, there are the great families that have left immense gifts to the city, whether it's the Bache collection, the Havemeyers, or any number of other collectors, sometimes of individual objects, sometimes of whole collections. This is unique, and I know that whenever I am abroad, visiting state museums, I am so keenly aware that what we have at the Metropolitan differs from European state collections in that it is not a royal collection that has become a state collection such as the Prado or the Louvre. It is not a collection as in Munich that was collected by the Wittelsbach and created for the city of Munich. It is instead citizens of this city who have wanted to leave in the city a great mark of their cultural interests.

In conjunction with the reinstallation, we have created a walking guide. We have conceived this walking guide in terms of four itineraries. It's almost impossible for anybody visiting this collection to be able to visit every one of our galleries.

I like to think of them as the "beer route," the "Chianti route," the "Burgundy route," and the "Rioja route." This, I think, gives you a very clear idea of exactly where we're going and the kinds of tastes that you'll be getting. The "beer route" begins with Van Eyck and it actually finishes with British eighteenth-century painting. And on that route you will be taken through the whole trajectory of Netherlandish painting, German Renaissance painting, seventeenth-century Dutch painting, seventeenth-century Flemish painting. And the Rubens gallery you will find situated midway between Venetian sixteenth-century painting, that is to say Titian and Veronese, and British painting—Rubens and Van Dyck as the conduit for Venetian pictorialism in the art of Reynolds and Gainsborough.

The "Chianti route" starts with Giotto and will take you into the Renaissance, and then it returns and you have another opportunity to do another tasting of Chianti, beginning with the seventeenth century in Caravaggio and running through the eighteenth century in Tiepolo. The collection of Tiepolo at the Metropolitan is, I think, as many of you know, the finest collection of Tiepolo outside of Venice and is a testament once again to the extraordinary taste for this artist by New Yorkers.

And while you are on the seventeenth-century Italian tour, you will reach a gallery of landscape painting in Rome in the seventeenth century. Rome, of course, was the international capital of the arts in the seventeenth century, serving the same function as Paris in the early twentieth century. So in that gallery there is an international mix of artists, including Claude Lorrain. This is our moment of transition, of intersection, into the French seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century galleries to Neoclassicism, at the end of which you will encounter Goya—Goya serving as a transition between Spanish painting and French painting, another one of these extraordinary intersections. And then from Goya, you can actually work backwards in time through Velázquez, Murillo, Zurbaran, to the Metropolitan's supreme collection of El Greco, once again one of the great collections of this Museum and unquestionably the greatest collection of El Greco outside of Spain.

You of course have made a transition from "Burgundy" to the "Rioja" routes, and I am sure you will enjoy tasting the difference between the two cultures.

I think nothing has given greater pleasure to all of us than this opportunity to rethink the collection, to rethink the way visitors will experience it, and to hang the pictures in a way so that they look new.

The number of works that we are talking about—over seven hundred.

It is my hope, and actually my conviction, that visitors to the collection will see things in a new way, not only because of their juxtapositions or the new distribution of their sequence, but also because special care has been taken to single out individual masterpieces that could benefit from conservation work and from reframing. And thanks to our Visiting Committee of the Department of European Paintings, we have been able to put new period frames on a number of our most significant pictures. I think this will vastly change the appearance of these works of art.

And I should mention that, as visitors go around, they will notice a number of pictures that don't seem to belong to the permanent collection. We have solicited loans from major collectors throughout New York City and the region, and approximately twenty-two major loans have been made for this event and will be on loan for periods ranging from six months to one year.

So this has been an all-out effort. I also want to remind you that, in conjunction with the reinstallation, we have created an online catalogue. This is an ongoing process, and will continue to be an updated process. We have about five hundred works of art currently online. All of the cataloguing that we have done online is accessible in the galleries, which are Wi-Fi accessible via Google Goggles, which means that you can stand before any picture and have immediate access to catalogue information. I think this will transform the way students will look at the works of art in the Museum.

Frequently there are altarpiece reconstructions for complex allegories, there are diagrams so that students and interested visitors can identify the figures in those pictures, you will find full provenance, you will find full bibliography. It is simply an invaluable tool for the visiting of the Museum by scholars, students, and deeply committed repeat visitors. So, in virtually every way conceivable, I think the visit to the Metropolitan will become an essential experience in growth and understanding of one of the great defining periods of European history.

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France
February 13, 2016
Free with Museum Membership
Renaissance Illusions
February 13, 2016
Free with Museum admission
Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France
February 14, 2016
Free with Museum Membership

Last updated: Saturday, February 13