(October 11, 2008) Emsworth’s two previous visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art found the galleries of American art closed for renovations. On arriving for a visit last week, therefore, this art museum junkie prudently inquired first at the information desk. Yes, an elderly female cheerfully assured me, as she consulted a list, the American collection was now open.
I was misinformed. The entrances and stairs to the American galleries were still roped off. The rooms where usually hang the seascapes of Winslow Homer, the portraits of John Singer Sargent, and the American impressionists were closed. So were the galleries of American genre paintings, the Ash Can school, and the Hudson River landscapes. [Update: I see now (January 2009) that the renovations to the American art galleries aren't scheduled to be completed until early 2011.] [Further update from July 2011: they still aren't done. We're apparently looking at late 2012.]
And so was the grand, old-fashioned picture gallery that has Emanuel Leutze’s enormous Washington Crossing the Delaware and as many other nineteenth-century paintings as they can cram from floor to ceiling. (Where could they have put the Leutze during renovations, I wondered? How did they possibly get it out? It’s over 20 feet wide!)
My disappointment was great, for I had my mind set on American art. But then I remembered the stacks. I couldn’t tell you how to find them there in the Met, except that they’re somewhere in the northwest corner, not far from the big Egyptian temple. They’re actually called the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art.
In the stacks, for quite a few years, the Met has kept, ostensibly for “study” purposes but more likely out of a sense of guilt for squirreling away so much interesting art away from the public, a good number of the American paintings in its collection that aren’t currently being exhibited in the American galleries. (Right: Childe Hassam’s lush Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, which I saw in the stacks.) The stacks consists of rows and rows of tall glass cases with locked doors, behind which they’ve hung paintings as closely together as possible on pegboards.
The viewing conditions are terrible. The stacks are only about five feet apart, and the glare on the glass from the ceiling lights is dreadful. In no sense are the pictures displayed to advantage, and they aren’t in any particular order. Still, the stacks are better than nothing, especially while the American galleries are closed.
I’d spent enough time in the stacks in years past to know that they usually contain (a) inferior examples from well-known American painters, (b) paintings in poor condition, and (c) paintings from schools that are out of vogue. But last week, the stacks included quite a few of the Met’s best-known American paintings, works that ordinarily would be on display. (Above, and fighting the glare: “Zeke’s House – Zeke’s Shop,” by American impressionist Daniel Garber)
Practically all the Homers were there, from his Civil War pictures to his late marine paintings. So were the Sargents — familiar large portraits and medium-sized landscapes — but not Sargent’s notorious Madame X, which was being exhibited in a place of honor several blocks away at the other end of the Met among the 19th-century European paintings. (Another Sargent and several paintings by Thomas Eakins, James McNeill Whistler, and William Chase Merritt were in the same gallery with Madame X among the Europeans.) So were eight Mary Cassatts and nearly a dozen impressionist paintings by Childe Hassam (to the right: Hassam’s Celia Thaxter’s Garden).
I found a number of my old favorites in the glass cases. There was the triptych by Thomas Waterman Wood, A Bit of War History, a masterpiece of 19th-century genre painting, which shows a black man first as an escaped slave, then as a soldier in the Union army, then, after the war, as a disabled veteran. There was Thomas Anschutz’s A Rose, a stylized portrait of a pensive, seated woman in a red dress. There was Worthington Whittredge’s The Camp Meeting, an unusual scene of a 19th-century revival meeting held on the shores of a river (the picture is dated 1874); an evangelist on a platform among the trees is speaking to a large crowd. Himself a veteran of many camp meeting scenes, Emsworth felt right at home in Whittredge’s picture.
Not to mention the American impressionists! We wouldn’t have guessed the Met had so many Hassams, although most of them were probably up when the Met hosted the Childe Hassam retrospective several years ago. Down at the bottom of one of stacks, side by side, were two exceptionally fine Willard Metcalf paintings of wonderfully familiar (to Emsworth) scenes from upstate New York. (The Thawing Pool is to the right; The North Country is at the top of this post.) High up in another stack was Edmund C. Tarbell’s Across the Room, an 1889 painting that amuses me because of the way Tarbell imitated Edgar Degas in putting everything in one corner of a canvas and painting large expanses of floor. (Degas’s Dancers Practicing at the Bar, just below, is also at the Met.) Then there came a small surprise: an Ernest Lawson painting titled Harlem River that looked nearly identical to one of the finest Lawsons in the Phillips Collection. (See Emsworth’s comments on this and other Lawsons from the Phillips in this post.) Two other Lawsons in the stacks were not, I thought, his best.
I had never seen so many people in the stacks. I think probably most of them had wandered in by accident while searching for Homer’s The Gulf Stream or perhaps Frederick Church’s The Heart of the Andes. (I ran across the Church painting a little later elsewhere in the Met, in the middle of the Lehman Collection, as part of a modest, unadvertised exhibit of some of the Met’s large Hudson River School paintings.) I noticed a few empty spaces in the stacks, and as I continued to putter through through them, people from the curatorial staff arrived to unlock the glass doors and take a few paintings away. That looked promising; perhaps the re-opening of the American galleries was imminent.
UPDATE: In its description of the modest exhibit of large Hudson River School paintings, the Met’s website says that the museum’s “major reordering and upgrading of the American Wing paintings galleries” is scheduled for completion in early 2011. Two years away! Bah!