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.)