Looking At American Art
After neglecting American artistic creation for many decades, the Metropolitan Museum of art [finally] decided to make amends by staging a three-day seminar on American art [bestowing] upon me the honor of delivering the Keynote Address.
—James Thomas Flexner (1972)1
I draw the reader’s attention to the date, 1972. This speech was written over twenty years before the publication of Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Flexner’s brilliant 500-page autobiography, Maverick’s Progress (1996),2 in which he recalled the furious efforts of some Metropolitan Museum of Art directors and scholars to remove him from the board of advisors, because he was campaigning for a new wing for early American art and more respect for nineteenth-century American landscape painting. When I interviewed the aging author in his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1996, we discussed the cause he had heroically pressed since the 1940s. By the time he died in 2006, at the age of 95, he was aware that a new American Wing was under construction.
The Metropolitan’s American Wing has just undergone ten years of renovations. The third and final phase was opened to the public on January 18, 2012. Designed by Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates, the new space of twenty-six galleries encompasses 30,000 square feet for the display of painting, sculpture and decorative arts. The new galleries are a contemporary interpretation of nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts design, with coved ceilings and natural light flowing through new skylights. The entire decade-long project was under the general direction of Morison Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing. The Charles Engelhard Court—originally opened in May 1908, redesigned in 1980 by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, and remodified by the architects in 2009—contains much of the permanent sculpture collection and a new restaurant. Twenty-one of the twenty-six galleries are devoted to American painting and arranged chronologically by period.
At the time of Flexner’s 1972 speech, the American Collection—in the words of The New York Times—“was housed in a dreary warehouse setting. Pictures were stacked up on the walls, sculptures plunked down wherever and narrative logic disrupted because the collection was split between two floors.”3 I recall as a student passing Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), squashed into the darkness of a narrow gallery, where it hung unnoticed for decades. One of the successes of the new installation is the restoration, after three years of work, of this enormous (12 feet high-by-21 feet across) painting. It is now installed in a vaulted chamber especially designed for the painting. Since 1918, it had been enclosed in an unbecoming plain, narrow gilt frame. The Met’s historians suspected that the original frame must have been more in keeping with its size and subject, but no record of the design of the frame could be found. In 2006, Kevin Avery, then a curator at the Met, came across an old leather-bound volume of photographs taken by famed photographer Matthew Brady of works displayed at the Metropolitan Fair of 1864. Two photos of Leutze’s iconic painting revealed a dramatic carved frame, replete with patriotic regalia, including a crest several feet across crowned by a spread-winged eagle. It took three years to recreate the original frame, which weighs almost 2,000 pounds.
The painting occupies a prominent spot, visible from the entrance to the renovated Wing, straight through the main corridor, in the far gallery. Flanking the central axis are aligned galleries devoted to the Founding of the Young Republic, with many historical portraits of the first President. The Leutze tribute was painted in Germany, which accounts for the accomplished figurative work, beyond the skills of many, mostly untrained, American painters. There are several portraits of Washington in war and peace, notably the remarkable George Washington (c. 1780) by Charles Willson Peale. Peale, who came from a large family of artists and fought as a captain alongside Washington, captured the great man’s mystery.Washington was a tall man, especially for those times, when the average height was 6′ 1″. His expression demands our attention.Washington is dressed in full military uniform, a rather plain one, except for a simple blue sash, compared to the florid royal portraits from Europe. There is no pomp and ceremony here. Washington leans against the muzzle of one of the guns used to defeat the British and their Hessian cohorts at the Battle of Trenton. This was the outcome of the event depicted by Leutze, of Washington crossing the Delaware on the freezing Christmas night of 1776. Leutze’s inspired portrait depicts Washington standing in the prow of a long boat surrounded by chunks of ice in the river, his profile as courageous and stern as a Roman god’s.
Peale’s full-length portrait has Washington’s right hand cocked in a fist against his right hip, his long booted legs crossed nonchalantly, as he leans against the cannon. His dark eyes pierce those of the viewer; a faint grim smile tugs at the corner of his lip. This is a man brimming with confidence, ready to fight and win, although at the time of the victory, the Revolutionary War still had years to go. Another outstanding portrait, which perpetuates the noble Roman look, is the famous portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1795). The Leutze installation is a welcome part of the growing re-evaluation of history painting. It also represents a growing consensus that we, as a nation, have too long ignored the Founding Fathers and the principles that are the heart of this great republic.
The galleries of Colonial portraiture offer several fine examples, particularly by the best artist of the pre-Revolutionary era, John Singleton Copley. Copley and his contemporaries—Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull and even Peale—spent time briefly abroad, where they were welcomed at the British Royal Academy, despite the bitterness of the Revolutionary War. Copley’s American compositions, primarily portraits, are as formally refined as those by the European masters. His Midshipman Augustus Bruce (1782) is a masterpiece worthy of Gainborough. Bruce, the twelve-year-old son of a British admiral, strikes an aristocratic pose. Benjamin West had introduced the neoclassical style into history painting, which heavily influenced fellow American John Trumbull and French neoclassical master Jacques Louis David, Napoleon’s official First Painter and president of the newly organized French Academy. Trumbull’s The Sortie Made by Garrison of Gibraltar (1789) echoes the classical style of West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770), painted twenty years earlier. When Trumbull painted this scene, West was already installed as president of the British Royal Academy of Art.
For decades, Washington Crossing the Delaware was dismissed as a cliché, a dated exercise in patriotic rhetoric. It’s good to see it given a place of prominence, in tribute both to Leutze’s skill and to the genre of history painting. Running parallel to the great room that holds Leutze’s masterpiece are two galleries that contain the Hudson River School, not without good cause sometimes referred to as America’s golden age of painting (1825–75). The Met has a fine collection of these magnificent landscapes, which had been championed by Flexner. However, the re-installation is somewhat disappointing. Most of the galleries are painted the same bland cream color. Scattered through the galleries are small marble busts of the Founding Fathers, mounted on uniform pedestals—same size, height and color—that are seemingly impervious to the quality and importance of the individual sculptures.
The Met collection includes compelling masterpieces such as Thomas Cole’s View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836). But installations tell a story as well as providing an aesthetic experience. Artists like Cole created landscapes that presented the new nation as a visionary, spiritual resource; they were expressions of cultural and national identity. By the twentieth century, particularly after World War I, the entire school, along with American Exceptionalism, had been relegated to the dustbin of history. Only twenty years ago, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art curated a retrospective exhibition of Cole’s works, which the curators labeled “racist” and “imperialist,” suggesting that the artist was in the pay of “Whigs” and “bankers.” This kind of crude revisionism ignores Cole’s concerns about the “copper-hearted barbarians” who were already exploiting the wilderness. Despite such backsliding, the Hudson River School has re-established a place in art history and in the hearts of museumgoers.
The Hudson River School was not just another group of landscape painters. They were inspired by a deep faith in nature and God. One of the co-founders of the movement, Asher B. Durand, believed: “Nature in its purity was fraught with high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation.”4 This purpose-driven art was quickly established in a series of plein-air oil sketches by Thomas Cole, a young émigré from England, during a sketching trip in 1825 along the Hudson River. It immediately attracted a disparate group of would-be, untrained artists, drawn by the spiritual passion of Cole’s vision. Paintings of the Edenic purity of the American wilderness quickly attracted an equally passionate response from collectors who could afford them. These are not ordinary landscapes, but visual sermons. These artists were not interested in “servile” imitation of nature, no matter how accurate and accomplished the scene. Their purpose was to achieve a synthesis between naturalism and idealism. Durand’s In the Woods (1855) draws you visually into a dense wooded grove. The heavy laden branches of the birch trees above close over the trail like the nave of a cathedral, through which light gently pierces nature’s design like a stained-glass window. Durand painted many variations on this theme: nature itself is a place for a spiritual experience. He wrote that “the true province of Landscape Art is the representation of the work of God.”5
There is first-rate work here, including Sanford R. Gifford’s Kauterskill Clove (1862), Kensett’s Lake George (1869), Frederick E. Church’s Heart of the Andes (1859) and Martin Johnson Heade’s ominous Approaching Thunderstorm (1859). Kensett’s and Gifford’s Luminist landscape paintings of the 1870s are mesmerizing in their Transcendentalist aerial refinement. But there are missed opportunities. According to Durand, a beginner should “go first to nature to learn to paint landscape,” not to an art school. Skill and education were useful, but not sufficient. The guiding principle of these artists was drawn from Ruskin’s admonition “to see, to truly see” beyond the rich detail of nature into its spiritual heart. The guiding principle for the Met’s reinstallation is a mix of conventional design and straightforward chronology. The lack of wall texts spelling out important themes is also a problem.
The neoclassical presentation accorded George Washington provides a learning opportunity. The connection between the Luminists and the Hudson River School is important, too. Sectioning off the spiritual works of the mid-nineteenth century from the secularism that developed after the Civil War might open the eyes of visitors to appreciate the distinction between the Hudson River School’s American style of evangelical spirituality and the later, more international art-for-art’s-sake sophistication.
Unfortunately, the Met missed many opportunities to acquire more works by Cole, Durand, Church, Kensett and Gifford. Ironically, Church and Kensett were founders and trustees of the American Wing. Gifford would have to wait until 2004 to receive a retrospective at the Met, “Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford.” Of the works in the Met’s own collection, several important paintings are not currently on display, including Cole’s View on the Catskill−Early Autumn (1837) and Kensett’s Hudson River Scene (1857).
After the Civil War, the Hudson River School spirit was extended into the Western territories by Albert Bierstadt, in his magnificent Merced River, Yosemite Valley (1866) and works by Thomas Moran and Frederic Remington. The Winslow Homer gallery contains accomplished paintings such as Northeaster (1895–1901), a step into a new modern age, with its powerful brushwork, dynamic composition and passionate interpretation of the foaming sea pounding Prouts Neck, Maine. There are also several fine paintings and portraits by Thomas Eakins, including The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmidt in a Single Scull), 1871, painted shortly after the artist returned home to Philadelphia, abandoning his studies at the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérome in Paris.
There are a dozen more galleries of significant American paintings, including one devoted to the last great figurative painter of the nineteenth century, John Singer Sargent. The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Echo, Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Tennant (1899) reveals Sargent’s characteristic elegant, breathy, luminous style, especially when painting women of high society. Madame X (1884), the “notorious” painting that forced Sargent to abandon Paris for the English Cotswolds, at the peak of his early career, reveals the conflict developing between traditional art and early modernism. When he submitted Madame X to the Salon, the Academy and high society rose up against him in protest, to the point that he considered seeking a career in music. Of course, the scandal had little to do with art quality, but rather with the questionable reputation of the woman herself. In England, Sargent also painted loosely brushed scenes comparable to those of the major French Impressionists, many of whom were his friends.
Many sculptures are scattered throughout the twenty-six galleries, but the larger, major works are displayed in the Charles Englehard Court, which was re-arranged a few years ago. Daniel Chester French’s Memory (1919) is one of the finest free-standing marble sculptures in the American Wing. A classical nude woman reclines against a draped plinth, holding a small mirror in her outstretched arm. At first glance, it appears she is gazing at her own reflection, but the mirror is subtly angled so that any reflection would be of an object behind her and to her left. The contemplative, melancholic expression on her face suggests a reverie, induced by some memory. Also in the main Court are two of French’s bas-relief masterpieces, which for decades had remained all but hidden on the small mezzanine above, The Angel of Death and the Sculptor (1892) and Mourning Victory (1915). The Angel of Death and the Sculptor was a eulogy to Martin Milmore, a Boston sculptor and friend of French. French portrays him in the prime of life, chisel and mallet in hand, his knee resting against the ledge of a granite relief of Sphinx (1872), a Civil War memorial carved by young Milmore. The massive angel, her cloak partially shielding her face, stands eight feet high. Her wings lend a lovely yet dreaded somberness as she reaches out a gentle arm to stay the hand of the young sculptor. In her right hand, she carries a corsage of poppies, symbolizing eternal sleep. It is one of the most beautiful, sorrowful memorials on American soil.
Regrettably, the sightlines in the reconfigured Court diminish the best work. In front of and partially blocking the French bas-relief is a very large bronze, a trio of bears by Paul Manship. Group of Beasts (1963) has charm, but seems more appropriate for a children’s amusement park. Many other works appear to be distributed haphazardly about the architecturally handsome Court, with little regard to grouping, spacing or theme. In contrast, the renovated Roman Court is one of the Met’s best spaces. Every artifact, statue and memorial relates visually to another; the spaces and pedestals, which are varied in height and color, are carefully arranged. Yet there are some very important and delightful works in the Englehard Court, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Diana (1893), cast in 1928, which once stood atop the old Madison Square Garden on 26th Street and Madison Avenue.
The Greek Revival façade of the Branch Bank of the United States (1824), which covers the entire far wall of the Court, was saved when the building was demolished in 1915. In front of the façade are grouped several statues of women in a large circle. They are all about the same size, and mounted on the same style of pedestal. They do not relate visually or thematically to one another. However, there are some fine pieces in the group. California (1858), by Hiram Powers, is an elegant classical work inspired by the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. The figure holds a divining rod, sometimes used by gold seekers to locate the precious metal underground. By the late nineteenth century, bronze had replaced marble as the medium of choice. Frederick William MacMonnies drew on Greco-Roman mythology for his capering Bacchante and Infant Faun (1894).
Another highlight of the Court is Saint-Gaudens’s Amor Caritas (1898), a winged angel in gilt bronze and colored marble. The piece was cast in 1918, specifically for installation in the Metropolitan. The Englehard Court also features an extraordinary assemblage of opalescent glass windows, dating from the 1880s through the 1920s, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge. Tiffany’s opalescent glass window Autumn Landscape (1924) is installed near the Gaudens bas-relief. Alongside the Court’s glass wall, abutting Central Park, is a restaurant, which seems out of place, although it obviously satisfies a need for visitors. There are several earlier publications devoted to the American collection of painting, sculpture, furnishings and decorative arts, which can be purchased separately in the museum’s bookstore. Despite some omissions, and flaws already mentioned, the new wing contains so many beautiful works that it is well worth a tour.6
I have not meant to be overly critical of the renovated American Wing, but the American collection is more than just about art. It is about us. Exhibitions often have specific agendas: to celebrate, to rediscover or rehabilitate individual artists or art movements, or to call reputations into question. A permanent installation in a museum should be less topical, less controversial. The long view of art history leaves plenty of room for visitors to make up their own minds. But curators can be guides and storytellers. The Met’s fine collection of American art can bring our country’s history alive, even as it celebrates the skill and vision of our artists. It is hoped that the stewards of the collection will refine the presentation.
The New American Wing Galleries for Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts are on permanent view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, New York New York 10028. On the web at metmuseum.org
1. James Thomas Flexner, Random Harvest (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), p. 72.
2. James Thomas Flexner, Maverick’s Progress: An Autobiography (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996).
3. Holland Cotter, “The Met Reimagines the American Story,” The New York Times (January 15, 2012). nytimes.com
4. James Thomas Flexner, Random Harvest (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), p. 89.
5. Asher B. Durand, “Letters on Landscape Painting,” Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape, ed., Linda Ferber (Brooklyn Museum and D. Giles Limited, London, 2007).
6. I have omitted from this brief survey the many artifacts of decorative arts, furnishings and the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art, due to the lack of space.