Magazine | March 19, 2012, Issue

Rediscovering America

Madame X,1883–84 (John Singer Sargent/Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916)

How do you spell “triumph”? Try “The new American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts,” which opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in January. From every point of view, the new ensemble of 26 galleries, which completes the Met’s ambitious decade-long renovation of its American Wing, is a winner.

Take the architecture: Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, which has overseen the Met’s overall expansion and redesign for decades, turned in a splendid suite of new and repristinated galleries, featuring abundant natural lighting (light matters!) and cunning cross-gallery sight lines that help the viewer knit together different aspects of the collection. The galleries themselves — comprising some 30,000 square feet of exhibition space on the second floor of the American Wing — are models of understated elegance: “a contemporary interpretation of 19th-century Beaux-Arts galleries,” as the Met puts it, in which gracious unobtrusiveness colludes with a cool, almost imperceptible lusciousness (taut, not blowsy) to welcome the gallery-goer. The architects, drawing on their deep reservoir of experience in building museum galleries, have thought of everything, from circulation patterns to flooring materials, and they had the budget and enlisted the craftsmen to realize their ideas with glorious though retiring panache. These rooms are for looking at art, and everything conspires to abet that end. It’s only when you take a breath and look about that you notice how much thought has gone into keeping your attention focused on what the walls and vitrines have to show you.

If the architecture and interior design of the new American Wing are reticent victories, the art and installation are reminiscent of the Reverend Sydney Smith’s idea of heaven: eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Morrison H. Heckscher, chairman of the American Wing, and his staff of curators have assembled a visual rhapsody that is as revelatory as it is aesthetically and historically engaging. The arrangement is broadly chronological, taking the viewer from the Colonial period (John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere, John Smibert, et al.) up through the Teens of the 20th century and the advent of the Ashcan Painters (William Glackens, Robert Henri, John Sloan, et al.). Many visitors, I suspect, will come away with the same conviction that I did: that 18th- and 19th-century American art is a far more vigorous affair than one had thought.

The usual narrative places the center of artistic energy during that period in continental Europe, not in England and certainly not in America. Writers such as Paul Johnson — as well as the evidence of our own eyes — have lately done much to rehabilitate the achievement of 18th- and 19th-century English artists in comparison with the achievements of their French and Italian counterparts. Stock in such artists as Gainsborough and Constable has risen sharply while shares in Continental Painters Ltd. have tended to stagnate where they have not dropped precipitously. I’d wager that the new American Wing Galleries at the Met will have a kindred effect on our appreciation of the native American achievement.

The exhibition begins with a bang, showing Colonial-period craftsmen and artists like Copley with unapologetic confidence that would have seemed misplaced if not arrogant a decade ago, but that now, in the context provided by serried ranks of other American artists congregated in these halls, seems entirely appropriate. Copley will be a familiar figure to most readers; never, I think, has his work been shown to greater advantage. His famous portrait of the boy Daniel Crommelin Verplanck (1771), for example, has been the subject of art-critical attention that was as patronizing as it was admiring. “Naïve,” “lacking in polish,” and similar hedges have abounded in describing the work. Here, in these new galleries, the chief epithets that spring to mind are “charm” and “power.” (In this same category belongs Ammi Phillips’s splendid, if slightly eldritch, Mrs. Mayer and Daughter from around 1840.)

#page#A similar alchemy is at work in the great works of the Hudson River School. The work of Frederic Edwin Church and John Frederick Kensett (both early trustees of the Met) has, along with that of Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, long ago emerged from a trough of neglect sponsored by doctrinaire modernism, but there is a potent visual synergy created by seeing them as it were in conversation with one another in the three galleries devoted to them and their confrères. Church’s magnificent Heart of the Andes (1859), for example, meticulously cleaned and restored, communicates an indelible impression of wild, untamable grandeur.

Another artist who enjoyed an upgrade in the Kimball racing form was John Singer Sargent, a stylist of immense skill and ingratiating slyness but whose sugar content seemed often excessive. Somehow, the Sargents on view here seem tarter, bolder, toothsome not fulsome, and the great Madame X from 1884 is one of the real showstoppers. The portrait of Mme. Pierre Gautreau, an American-born haute-bohemian who lived in Paris, caused Sargent endless difficulties. The portrait was not commissioned, but was attempted with the sitter’s — or, rather, with the stander’s — complicity. Its reception at the Salon caused a scandal. “It is positively dangerous to sit to Sargent,” declaimed one observer. “It is taking your face in your hands.” Among Sargent’s offenses was painting one of the straps of Mme. Gautreau’s dress slipping off her shoulder. (He later repainted the strap, removing the suggestion of deshabillé.) The more serious offense was the suggestion of  animal boldness to the work that seems to have outraged everyone, Mme. Gautreau included. Sargent kept the painting for more than 30 years and then sold it to the Met. “I suppose,” he said mournfully, “it is the best thing I have done.” I think he was probably right.

As one would expect, the Met’s collection of American art is spectacular. Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream and his paintings of Prouts Neck in Maine, portraits by Sargent and Whistler, Thomas Eakins and William Merritt Chase, sculptures by Frederic Remington: These rooms are full of iconic American art. Not every object is a masterpiece, but all are at least representative. To my mind, the two greatest artists in the American pantheon are Eakins and George Inness. On view are nine excellent paintings by Eakins — not, perhaps, the acme of his work (The Gross Clinic and some late portraits in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), but splendid nonetheless. The Met’s Innesses, on the other hand, seemed to me — it’s my one cavil — to lack the enigmatic, almost mystical, majesty characteristic of his greatest work, which was mostly done at the end of his life in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

The art world, and that part of it inhabited by art museums, is not in a healthy state these days. I don’t mean that “the arts” are not thriving financially. On the contrary, they’re big business, a fact that has attracted ambitious purveyors of cappuccino and opening parties for the swells in cities, towns, and hamlets across the country. But the vital center of the arts, which turns on the engine of aesthetic delectation, has taken a back seat to show biz, community uplift, and “diversity.” There aren’t many institutions that have managed to cleave fast to their founding principles. The Met is one, and its new American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts provide another reminder of how rare its achievement is. Go see them. It will provide a heartening couple of hours full of aesthetic enjoyment. It will also, I suspect, bolster your admiration for the vitality of classic American art.

– Mr. Kimball is the publisher of Encounter Books, and the publisher and editor of The New Criterion.

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