PRINT February 1968

Re-Hanging the Met’s 19th-Century Galleries

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM, APPARENTLY in honor of the purchase of its latest million dollar (and therefore crowd-pulling) painting, Monet’s La Terrasse à Sainte Adresse, has rehung its French 19th-century galleries. The Monet is a very beautiful painting, though hardly as important as Thomas Hoving seems to think it is. Renoir’s Point des Arts of 1868 (La Terrasse was painted in 1866) though only three-quarters as large as the Monet, is of equal quality and was for some years on loan to the Museum by Mrs. Richard Ryan. Still, the Monet is nice to have, can teach us, artists and public, a great deal, and provide us all with a great deal of joy. It does no good to tote up the price and figure out how many Corot figures and landscapes, (to mention one still-underpriced painter), the money would have brought to the Met; the increase in attendance and the sense of triumph felt by the Met and its angels at this successful acquisition may yet bring us some more of the underpriced masterpieces that Sherman Lee is always finding for the Cleveland Museum.

The Met has rehung its Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings in an impeccable mixture of styles: some have been skyed in the manner of Albert Barnes, grouped asymmetrically and punctuated; some have been spaced beautifully on long white walls so that we may enjoy intensely the experience of each individual masterwork; some have been skyed in the manner of the 19th century, again with taste and in order to make possible the exhibition of as many of the Met’s treasures as possible. The Manet room has been hung with the utmost taste and respect with which we nowadays treat the grandest predecessor of the Impressionists. He is not so absolutely unquestionable, in my taste, as in the Met’s; frequently the shapes of his figures seem flat and cut out against an equally flat background. In Femme au Perroquet, for example, some of the dark modeling of the shoulder appears arbitrary in relation to the edge, and flaws the volume of the figure. Some of the paint represents the material and its volume, but the modeling on the sleeve covering the left forearm neither represents the material nor develops the volume. Certainly Manet was a marvelous painter, worthy of great respect and the Met has a particularly strong collection of his work, but to me he is a problematic painter as well as a great one. The Couture, Soap Bubbles, tucked into the far corner of the Manet room, demands respect not only as a work by Manet’s teacher (and the teacher of Anselm Feurbach, Puvis de Chavannes and William Morris Hunt, among others) but also as the work of an irascible original who removed himself from the world of the salon and painted genre paintings and hundreds of oil sketches as an eccentric outside the mainstream, finally unrecognized by his fellow artists and tauntingly called “only a teacher of Americans.” (He was also the author of a valuable and heartwarming book translated as Conversations on Art Methods which influenced a whole generation of American artists.) Any comparison of the painting in the Met’s Couture with that of Chardin on the one hand and the various versions of Balthus’s Three Sisters on the other should help to establish him as an important member of a tradition other than that involved in Manet’s vanguardism. Similarly a comparison between the Couture figure sketch in the Brooklyn Museum with the Met’s unexhibited Puvis, Ariadne, should show Couture as a pivotal figure in a tradition leading toward post-Impressionism. This stylistic skein-tracing, however, is surely as questionable as the stylistic and historical determinism in the new arrangement of the Met’s 19th-century French galleries.

Impressionism and post Impressionism were unquestionable vanguard movements. Manet was a decisive forerunner. The Barbizon pleinair paintings ditto. Courbet as a naturalist, Delacroix the paradigmatic romantic are equally unquestionable. The Met’s galleries trace an avant-garde thread through the 19th century, but true avant-garde movements in sociological and philosophical terms did not exist before Impressionism. (I would suggest a reading of Harrison and Cynthis White’s Canvases and Careers, subtitled “Institutional Change in the French Painting World,” John Wiley, 1965.)

The next two rooms after the Ma-net room are artistic chaos and represent an absolute lack of comprehension of the relative merits of the differing styles of painting roughly during the second half of the 19th century. It is hard to say what the little alcove room with its tiers of skyed paintings is meant to represent. Certainly many of the most accepted 19th century salon successes find their resting place in this crowded, dark and unpleasantly broken up room, a Limbo framed by an exhibition (beautifully mounted) of antique clocks whose symbolism we may read as relegating them all into an oblivion appropriate to their past timeliness. It is delightful to see in this room a typical painting by Andreas Achenbach, the artist who originated the Dusseldorf landscape style in which, among many other American lesser lights, Worthington Whittredge and Albert Bierstadt painted. The four Gérômes which remain in the Museum collection (the Museum sold two) are all exhibited in various places, although one of them is without identification. The Pygmalion and Galatea, a monstrosity of pompier allegory is given the favored position. Prayer in the Mosque, which shows all of the academic virtues for which Eakins revered his teacher, Gérôme, is fairly well hung. The unidentified painting Bashi-Bazouks Casting Shot, still academic but possessing a traditional spatial arabesque, is hard to see in its dark corner. Tiger and Cubs, the most interesting of all the Gérômes, a curious, frightening image which could almost have been painted by Stubbs, is in the middle of a wall dominated by the oriental school of French 19th-century painting. I question the hanging of all these orientalists together—Decamps, a little master of early Romanticism, has more in common with Gericault than with the later painters of similar subjects, an influence mentioned in the excellent catalog of the French collection prepared by Charles Sterling of the Louvre and Margareta Salinger of the Met. A heterogeneous assemblage of salon paintings by Munkaczy, Cabanel, Vibert, Dagnan-Bouveret, Bougereau, Boldini and others completes the room.

For some reason unfathomable to me, three paintings by Puvis de Chavannes also find their resting place in this Limbo. The Shepherd’s Song, an interesting, but for me problematic painting, gets the favored place. The other two, Cider and The River, are skyed over the two doorways. This pair of preparatory paintings should be hung, as the Met has hung them before, where they may be seen without neck-craning. Cider is a fine painting. Upon repeated acquaintance, however, I am convinced that The River is a major masterpiece of 19th-century art, which cannot be called either modernist or academic. Besides the obvious classical compositional devices, there is Puvis’s invention of a new kind of composition in which the figures proceed through the space in the picture starting as negative shapes against a positive background and ending with a fully modeled volume in the lower left hand corner. The Metropolitan Museum owns six major paintings by Puvis de Chavannes, including the fifteen foot long, half scale version of the Allegory of the Sorbonne. It is one of the finest collections of his easel paintings in the world. Does it not deserve an installation as respectful as the Manet? In my lifetime the Allegory has never been exhibited.

Passing under Puvis’s The River, we arrive at a room full of what the Met takes for typical salon paintings, failed paintings by Lhermitte, Bonnat, de Neuville (above which is skyed Corot’s Sodom), Merle and characteristic examples of Makart and Moreau, among others. The Gabriel Max is one of his incessant necrophilic and sadistic series of paintings of girls killed or about to be killed by wild beasts. S. G. W. Benjamin, writing in Contemporary Art in Europe in 1877, describes this painting in detail and apropos of it calls Max “one of the greatest poets of the age, for his paintings are indeed tragic poems dealing with human destiny.” Benjamin is an important exponent of Victorian taste, and this painting, along with most of the others in this room, belongs in the history of taste rather than the history of art. Only the Regnault Salome can even be mentioned in the same breath with good. 19th-century painting. What makes this room a scandalous travesty is the placement in it of four great paintings, Courbet’s Les Demoiselles de Village, Corot’s Hagar in the Wilderness and The Destruction of Sodom, and Diaz’s Diana. All of these paintings surely belong with honor in the history of art. Dominating the entire room is Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair, a Brobdignagian, technically brilliant Gericault, now shown together with a small painting of hers and a bronze by her eldest brother, Jules. Puvis’s Allegory of the Sorbonne would fit beautifully on that wall.

There is no question but that a cross-section of 19th-century European academic painting, French, Italian, German, English, to name the major schools, could be presented which would not only be a reminder of the taste of the dead past but might also change and reformulate the taste of today. It will take clear thinking, unhesitating courage and most of all good eyes to do this. Perhaps the Met itself will do it someday.

Gabriel Laderman