American Masters Get New Life at the Met

The new American Wing is part of a $100 million three-part renovation of the American Wing that began 10 years ago

By Ula Ilnytzky
|  Sunday, Jan 15, 2012  |  Updated 1:45 PM EDT
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American Masters Get New Life at the Met

AP

In this Jan. 12, 2012 photo, Morrison Heckscher, center, the chairman of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, raises his piece from the ceremonial ribbon cutting, in New York. The wing is scheduled to reopen Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, after its $100-million renovation. In background is the restored "Washington Crossing the Delaware," by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

Get ready to fall in love all over again — with John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, Frederic Remington and other masters of American art.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is opening its understated but elegant new American Wing for paintings, sculpture and decorative arts on Monday after a four-year renovation. The collection, covering works from the 18th to the early 20th century, shines as never before.

For the first time, the works are displayed on one floor, chronologically and thematically, in a modern interpretation of the classic European Beaux-Arts picture gallery. There are 26 rooms featuring coved ceilings, cornices and natural light from skylights in 18 of the galleries.

The new galleries mark the completion of a $100 million three-part renovation of the American Wing that began 10 years ago.

New galleries dedicated to American neo-Classical arts opened in 2007 and the period rooms and light-filled Charles Englehard Court atrium with its monumental sculptures and Tiffany glass windows reopened in 2009.

"They are so elegant, stately and serene that they almost make one speak in a whisper," Morrison Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing, said of the galleries, designed by New York architects Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates.

The "wow" moment comes as soon as visitors walk in. Standing under a huge gilded eagle in flight carved by William Rush, they can follow its gaze 150 feet down several galleries, and land their eyes on what is perhaps the most iconic of all American paintings: "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

The huge painting, measuring about 12 by 20 feet, hangs in a double-sized gallery with two other monumental works: Church's 1859 "The Heart of the Andes" and Albert Bierstadt's 1863 "The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak."

The three paintings hark back to New York at the time of the Civil War. In 1864, the Leutze painting was the centerpiece of the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, a charity art exhibition in Manhattan held to raise funds for wounded Union soldiers. It was displayed in a room with the two paintings from the Hudson River School movement of large, sweeping landscapes.

Now they're back together for the first time in that arrangement since 1864, said Heckscher.

The Met had displayed them in separate galleries, and "Washington Crossing the Delaware," which the Met acquired in 1897, was in a side gallery. Now it has been restored and placed in a magnificent new trophy frame based on a recently discovered Matthew Brady photograph taken at the fair.

The three hang in the grand gallery, which also contains some of the finest and best known Hudson River School landscapes by Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, George Inness and others.

The redesign added 3,300 square feet of gallery space, but Heckscher emphasized that "the key here is not the number of pictures on view but the quality."

"The design allows for hanging any of these paintings in a congenial setting where the proportions, the light, the scale, everything allows the works to be shown to advantage," he said.

While the old galleries worked well for large-scale modern art, Heckscher said, they were less suited for most of the museum's smaller paintings, and did not offer the vistas through doorways into other galleries.

Their chronological arrangement begins with Colonial portraiture and ends with artists of the Ashcan School known for their depiction of urban life at the turn of the 20th century.

A highlight, and a recent surprise find, is a bronze 1911 statuette of a standing Abraham Lincoln by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Thayer Tolles, the Met's curator of American paintings and sculpture, said she got a call "out of the blue" in August from the family that had owned it since 1943.

The statuette once belonged to Clara Hay, widow of John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary when he was president, and wasn't previously known to scholars, Tolles said.

It is a reduced version of Gaudens' monument to Lincoln in Chicago's Lincoln Park, depicting a pensive Lincoln standing with one foot forward in front of an eagle-emblazoned chair.

Another celebrated work in the wing is John Singer Sargent's iconic "Madame X," a full-length portrait of a notorious Parisian socialite in a black gown with jeweled straps that the Met acquired directly from the artist.

Decorative arts also get a new treatment in the updated galleries as stand-alone art objects.

Prior installations focused upon decorative arts in the context of domestic settings in period rooms where they were shown together. While the museum still does that, the new galleries show early American silver, furniture and textiles "as works of art every bit as much as the paintings," Heckscher said.

During the renovation, the museum also checked on the condition of all the paintings and replaced dozens of frames.

"The frames are a huge part of the story," said Heckscher. "Though the architecture is restrained and low-key, the frames come on very strong and they are what draws one to the pictures."

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