The Book of Ours
The Met's bulletin of recent acqusitions shows us what we all will soon be viewing
The curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have gone shopping. Just as most of us are were devising our holiday wish list last December, the directors of the museum’s departments of Arms and Armor, American Decorative Arts, Greek and Roman Art, the Costume Institute, and others had already opened their gifts and were sharing them with the public—at least in print.
The some 110 goods that are featured in the recently published and released Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin for Fall 2012 include a few shotguns, a dress fashioned of plywood (just try getting a red wine stain out of that!), a 29-inch-square assemblage of #17 dressmaker straight pins (none of which, were likely used to hem that wooden frock), and more than one enthroned Buddha. No gift receipts included—these are items that will never be returned or exchanged, unless some foreign government claims that something was looted.
One of the benefits of being a Met member is to receive quarterly mailings of their bulletin, which often highlight a particular artwork or exhibition—a celebration of 100 years of arms and armor, an array of eighteenth-century European pastel portraits, a detailed look at art of the Aegean Bronze Age. But it is the annual bulletin highlighting a selection of recent acquisitions is always the most anticipated—akin to the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue of goods. Although provenance, maker, and descriptions are included, the only detail missing is the price.
This year’s acquisitions bulletin differs from any other in that the Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, includes a foreword note to the reader that pays particular thanks to Mrs. Charles Wrightsman (aka, Jayne Wrightsman—she still prefers the quaint custom of using her late husband’s name), the 93-year-old patron of the arts who continues to clean out her closets and checking account and hand over items to the museum. In effect, the catalogue is dedicated to her. “Mrs. Wrightsman’s recent largess has put the Met in the unique position of having the greatest collection of Neoclassical paintings outside the Louvre,” writes Campbell. He is referring to this year’s gifts of Antoine Wateau’s Study of a Woman’s Head and Hands (circa 1717), Charles Antoine Coypel’s pastel Double Portrait of Francois de Jullienne and His Wife (1743), Louis-Leopold Boilly’s entrancingly detailed The Public Viewing David’s “Coronation” at the Louvre (1810), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingre’s Portrait of General Louis-Etienne Dulong de Rosnay (1818), and Baron Francois Gerard’s enormous portrait of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord (1808).
In referencing her “uncompromising eye and the intellect with which [Mrs. Wrightsman] approaches her collecting,” Campbell mentions, too, her having acquired for the museum Antico’s Spinario (Boy Pulling a Thorn from His Foot) (circa 1501), the bronze sculpture that appears on the bulletin cover. Of all the new works to enter the collection, this is, perhaps, the most arresting of objects, as the boy’s long curling hair is gilded and his eyes are silvered. As Luke Syson, curator of European sculpture and decorative arts, writes of the diminutive sculpture (7 ¾” high), “The Spinario embodies two acts of concentration (in both senses of the word): the youth’s and the artist’s. This is the best surviving example of Antico’s Spinario…which takes as its starting point a long-celebrated figure created in the third century b.c. The composition is the same as that of the Hellenistic bronze, but this is a much more than a reproduction.”
Such descriptions make each of these annual acquisitions bulletins into a kind of engaging primer on the history of art. Arranged chronologically by the date they were made, but not by category or culture, the goods shown are a miscellanea of mediums. To read any of the descriptions is to come away with a new array of facts that would surely make any of us a winner at a game of Jeopardy. We learn, for instance, that there are such phenomena as “mermen,” at least according to the ancient Etruscans, who included depictions of two swimming ones on a terracotta amphora that the museum purchased. A head of Zeus Ammon that dates from A.D. 120–60, and reputedly “found at the mouth of the Nile River in Egypt” in 1931, according to the provenance related in the bulletin, is introduced to the reader as the deity who protected the Roman army in North Africa. Of a recorder made of boxwood, we become acquainted with the Bassano family, a Renaissance Jewish–Italian family of instrument makers. According to details related by Jayson Kerr Dobney, an associate curator of musical instruments, several of the Bassano brothers played in the house band for Henry VIII and a daughter of one of the brothers is theorized to be the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. And another fact to emerge about life in Renaissance Europe from reading the description of a French sword that was given to the museum by the late New York Times’s Arthur Ochs Sulzberger is that while nobleman frequently carried ornate swords, or rapiers, as a common urban defense, it was in the early seventeenth century that men preferred to walk their towns’ streets with smallswords, a more diminutive, but equally lethal, weapon. “This early smallsword,” according to the writeup, “is a rare and beautiful example of the form, design, and ornamentation that distinguishes the best French swords of the early Louis XIV period.”
A common dynamic of every writeup, whether it’s about a sedate scene of a red school house by George Henry Durrie, or, yes, a pair of red-bottomed pumps from Christian Louboutin (a gift, by the way from the namesake shoe designer himself) is that the curator relates the “why” of the acquisition. (As for those pumps, Harold Koda, curator of the Costume Institute, writes, “These designs suggest that the artifice employed to attain an idealized fashionable beauty is not without its challenges.”) While it is rare that a gift horse is ever looked at in his mouth, any item purchased for the museum needs to be justified. Thus, a circa-1875 quilt was purchased because of the “unique” stories its panels tell, including one that shows a woman holding a banner proclaiming “Woman’s Rights.” The Falcon’s Bath, a fifteenth-century Netherlandsish tapestry has entered the collection because unlike others of its ilk, “This recently discovered example depicting courtly figures training a falcon is in remarkable conditions…and its colors are still bright.”
Items are often described as necessary additions to the museum’s collection because they serve as a “bridge” to styles or for their “rarity,” or, in the case of two French photographs from 1856, for a mistake that was made. Malcom Daniel, senior curator of photographs, writes of the two prints that show a standing female nude and an ample-buttocked nude male, that one reason they are so important is due to a “serendipitous accident.” Apparently, the anonymous photographer forgot to wipe clean his glass negatives before printing another image. What resulted were images “that suggests a view through gossamer or an image printed on finely pleated silk…the effect as a veil that, like time or memory, removed the pictures from their mundane academic or utilitarian and elevated tem to the realm of art.”
There is an art, too, to the art of collecting and we should all be grateful that there is a body of curators doing that for us, the public.