THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART in NEW YORK
“You’ll probably need 3-5 hours just to see the permanent collection” at the Met, according to Go City, the largest multi-attraction pass company in the world. This is horrible advice. To make matters worse, Go City highlights “some of the best and most famous” areas at the Met Museum for you to walk through and suggests you start with Greek and Roman Art. Wrong!
We decided to set the record straight. How long does it take to appreciate the encyclopedic collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York? The correct answer is 3 to 5 days and, while the museum’s Greek and Roman galleries were expanded to 60,000 square feet (6,000 square meters) 15 years ago to display the majority of the antiquities collection, you should travel to Europe to enjoy the highest-quality objects from this period.
At The Metropolitan Museum of Art (colloquially “the Met”) we advise you to begin with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.
In the Impressionist galleries at the Met you will find paintings by Boudin, Jongkind, Daubigny and Rico y Ortega — painters who, in the 1860s, exerted a powerful influence on many of the young artists who would emerge in the following decade to lead a revolutionary movement in art. Curators at the Met include realist still-life paintings and a portrait (above) by Henri Fantin-Latour in these rooms, even though Fantin-Latour was not an Impressionist.
It is laudable, and helpful for art lovers, when art institutions exhibit seminal works by the likes of Edouard Manet and Fantin-Latour alongside the practitioners of the style we recognize today as the Classic phase of Impressionism. Even though their bodies of work lie on the periphery of Impressionism, their interest in the effects of light and choice of subject matter achieved in spirit nearly identical goals as Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Pissarro, Cassatt (below), Degas and Morisot.
Edgar Degas & the generation of artists that followed Courbet & Manet
Degas demanded a lot from himself as a painter, and he was disciplined — more than one-half of his output involved women and the opera. The ease with which he experimented with color and movement, combined with his regimented skills at observation, bring to mind the romanticism of Delacroix and the classicism of Ingres.
Gustave Courbet was perhaps the grandfather of Impressionism when he declared that his intention as a painter had been “to represent the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my own era according to my own ideas.” As the leaders of the French avant-garde 20 years after Courbet, the core members of the Impressionist movement including Edgar Degas set out to paint light (and life) as it actually appeared, rather than as artists were taught to interpret it solely from the confines of a school or a studio.
If Edouard Manet was the father of Impressionism, it was because Manet broke with convention in subject and style by focusing on contemporary life.
The example set by Manet allowed younger artists such as Degas and Monet to strike out in an independent direction, to break precedents — and, like Courbet, to commit themselves to the pursuit of contemporary realism. For Degas, this meant to venture beyond the precise gestures of the ballerina in order to capture the subconscious movements of the laundress, the cafe singer and the milliner in the modern urban life of Paris during the 1870s and 1880s, and to represent with genuineness the moods of these ordinary people.
The Met possesses the Best Collection of Claude Monet in New York
In 1867, painting a pure landscape or seascape was considered by the official Ecole des Beaux-Arts to be beneath the dignity of a serious artist. That did not stop the 27-year-old Claude Monet from writing to his friend Bazille that he was working on about 20 such canvases while on the Normandy coast during the summer. “Among the seascapes, I am doing the regattas of Le Havre with many figures on the beach and the outer harbor covered with small sails,” he wrote. The variety of blue and green shadows in Monet’s paintings from 1865 onward indicate the artist’s fascination with atmospheric conditions affecting light and color — a marked contrast from the formulaic and idealized approach to nature followed by painters trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France.
Vincent van Gogh preferred Monet’s painting of Sunflowers to His Own
In van Gogh’s 1888 letter to his brother Vincent wrote, “Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a picture by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase, very fine, but — he likes mine better. I do not agree.” This 1881 painting of sunflowers (above) by Monet was included in the 7th Impressionist exhibition (held in 1882), and in 1886 it was one of the first Impressionist paintings to be exhibited in the USA. Today, there are more paintings by Monet in the United States than in any other country, and the Met owns at least 40 canvases from all periods of Monet’s long career, 30 of which are normally on display.
The Road from Post-Impressionism to Modernism at the Met
Paul Gauguin had a huge influence on the development of modern art in the beginning of the 20th century. While his sculpture and paintings were included in four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, Gauguin ultimately rejected Impressionism and Pointillism for lacking symbolic depth.
Gauguin’s oeuvre encompasses a number of influential styles. He was a leader of the Pont-Aven School, known for its bold use of color and Symbolist subject matter, and Gauguin’s art is also associated with Cloisonnism, Synthetism, and the indigenous influences and symbols from the islands of Martinique in the Caribbean and Tahiti in the Pacific. The nine weeks Gauguin and van Gogh spent together painting in Arles are famous (and infamous) in the history of art; however, Gauguin’s theory of “painting from the imagination” was ill-suited for van Gogh, who drew inspiration chiefly from nature. Gauguin inspired Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and the great artists known as the Nabis group, including Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Felix Vallotton and Maurice Denis; whereas, the legacy of Vincent van Gogh profoundly affected German and Austrian modernism, and inspired Expressionism around the world.
Exhibition — “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met”
After you take in the wonderfully broad interpretation of Post-Impressionism at the Met and the early development of Western modern art, perhaps you will venture into the lovely American Wing, the impressive Egyptian galleries, or the exceptional Michael Rockefeller Wing’s collection of arts from Africa, Oceania & the Americas. The Period Rooms from Europe and the Costume Institute are also noteworthy. The Met possesses unusually strong holdings of Netherlandish painting, and you can enjoy Rembrandts and Vermeers (among many other fine paintings) currently exhibited in the Robert Lehman Wing.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 — 1669)
Johannes Vermeer (1632 — 1675)
The Met is closed on Wednesdays and offers special exhibitions included with the price of admission. Through January 8, 2023, more than 100 objects (including the iconic portraits shown below) are on view tracing the emergence of a distinctly English style through the artistic patronage of the Tudor courts in the 1500s. After “The Tudors” closes in New York, this show will open at The Cleveland Museum of Art on February 26, 2023 (through May 14), before traveling to San Francisco, where it will be presented at the FAMSF from June 24 — September 24, 2023.
Victorian Masterpieces from the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico will be Displayed in New York through February 2024
ART LOVERS TIP: Admission to the Met is currently $30 for adults, $22 for seniors 65 years of age and older, and $17 for students. However, New York State residents with valid identification can bring in guests without reservations on a “pay what you wish” basis, meaning the amount you pay for admission is up to you if you enter with someone who lives in New York State! Students from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York also pay what they wish. Children under 12 enter for free.
THE FRICK COLLECTION in NEW YORK
New York offers something special for each visitor. If the first-class presentation of art on a large scale at the Met is not your cup of tea, then consider the Frick Collection. The first-rate collection of old master paintings at the Frick is without equal in the United States. Henry Clay Frick’s residence at 1 East 70th Street opened to the public as a small museum in 1935. Although this historic home is temporarily closed due to renovation and expansion, Frick’s collection of paintings from the Renaissance to the early 20th century is currently on display at 945 Madison Avenue at East 75th Street, Thursday through Sunday from 10:00 until 5:45 in the afternoon.
The Finest Netherlandish Paintings in New York
Painters in Spain & France
All of the decorative objects, furniture and canvases at the Frick Collection are of the highest quality, and slightly more than half of the paintings were chosen by Henry Frick himself before his death in 1919. It would be impossible for us to focus our attention on one work of art from this preeminent small museum; however, we do have two favorites: Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert and Johannes Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid.
With five Vermeers in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and three more at The Frick, you have the opportunity to appreciate so many of these rare paintings within a 10-block radius. Moreover, Mistress and Maid is one of the most interesting Vermeers, and the fact that it was the last painting that Henry Frick added to his collection demonstrates his growth and sophistication as a collector. You should also seek out the art of Piero della Francesca — of the seven paintings by this artist in the United States, you will find four at The Frick — as well as Fragonard’s series entitled The Progress of Love. While these Fragonards are usually installed in a Rococo drawing room inside the Frick mansion (with the attendant panels hanging over doors and next to windows), you now have the exceptional opportunity to view the 14 paintings that comprise The Progress of Love individually and up-close at the Frick Madison.
THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART in NEW YORK
We at ArtLoversTravel have a love/hate relationship with New York’s Museum of Modern Art (colloquially, “MoMA”). We have included MoMA among the top three museums to visit in NYC because it is the world’s most influential institution devoted to modern art, and comparable museums envy the breadth of MoMA’s collection. In addition, the Museum of Modern Art is extremely popular, consistently ranking among the 15 most visited art museums in the world (with over 1,150,000 visitors in 2021, despite the pandemic). To draw a comparison, the Met received nearly 2,000,000 patrons during the same year, and the third most popular venue for art in New York was the Whitney Museum of American Art with about 500,000 visitors annually.
The Cons & the Pros
One disadvantage of owning the most impressive collection of modern and contemporary art is the fact that only about 10% of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection is on display at any one time. We have ambivalent feelings about MoMA’s constant acquisition of so many masterpieces when 90% of that art will end up housed in temperature-controlled storage for a seemingly endless number of years. MoMA normally shows about 24 Picassos, for example, even though MoMA owns 1,221 works of art by Pablo Picasso.
We also have mixed feelings about how this museum curates its holdings and, in general, the gallery space at MoMA, which at times has the ambiance of a crowded mall. Of the six departments at this museum, we find that the two departments with the best curators — “Architecture and Design” and “Drawings and Prints” — are given the least amount of space. The other four departments are Film, Photography, Painting & Sculpture, and Media & Performance. In fairness, many museums confront similar problems. The Louvre shows 8% of its collection, the Guggenheim 3%. Of course, there are success stories, which MoMA would be wise to contemplate. Vienna’s Albertina Museum (one of our favorites) possesses millions of works on paper with the space to show “less than 1% — maybe even 0.1% — of our collection” of drawings, according to Christian Benedik. The Albertina’s original owners, however, mandated that a facsimile of every graphic work of art be readily available for viewing by the public. Historically, MoMA’s solution has been to expand its space at 11 West 53rd Street for the presentation of modern art, while reserving its location in Queens (MoMA PS1) for the sole purpose of exhibiting contemporary art. In order to show more of its art, perhaps it is time for MoMA to open satellite galleries in the USA, especially in culturally underserved communities, and abroad.
MoMA at Its Best
Whether you are a novice or an art aficionado, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is the perfect place to appreciate the development of modern Western art by admiring one masterpiece after another — and we do mean “one.” If you want to see the art of Edgar Degas “in depth,” go first to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At MoMA we saw only one painting by Degas on public display and yet, through MoMA’s seamless chronological presentation, it was visually quite easy to see how Degas’ experimentation with color intensely influenced the palette of Paul Gauguin, and then how Derain, Matisse, Bonnard and Picasso used Gauguin’s paintings as a touchstone to judge their own successes or shortcomings with color.
If You Wish to Better Understand Matisse & Picasso, Come to New York
Henri Matisse is known for his mastery of the expressive language of color, and Pablo Picasso is credited as the first to deconstruct form and perspective (through the Cubist movement, collage, and constructed sculpture). Yes, these two greats were in opposing camps, but not enough scholarly attention has been devoted to how they learned from and spurred each other. After his Blue Period (1901 — 1904) and Rose Period (1904 — 1906), Picasso found inspiration in Matisse’s Fauvist experimentation, the hostility Matisse’s paintings received at the Salon d’Automne (1905) and the fiasco that resulted when “The Joy of Life” (“Le bonheur de vivre,” now in the Barnes Foundation) by Matisse was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants (1906). Critics of Matisse were concerned about the end of French painting. Paul Signac (who had purchased early works by Matisse) wrote, “Matisse, whose attempts I have liked until now, seems to me to have gone to the dogs. Upon a canvas of two-and-a-half meters, he has surrounded some strange characters with a line as thick as your thumb. Then he has covered the whole thing with flat, well-defined tints, which — however pure — seem disgusting.”
Truth be told, the non-realistic figures, complex spontaneous brushstrokes and bold colors of Fauvism were inspired by African art, and it was Matisse who showed Picasso a wooden Kongo-Vili figurine around 1906-07 which led Picasso to experience a “revelation” while viewing African art inside the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro.
Having seen Le bonheur de vivre “Pablo Picasso, who, in an effort to outdo Matisse in shock value, immediately began work on his watershed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (above), according to a curator at the Barnes Foundation. Be that as it may, thanks to Matisse’s inspiration it was at this time that Picasso began his African Period (1907 — 1909). Finally, from 1909 to 1912 both men realized their most radical contributions to modern art: Picasso invented Analytic Cubism, while Matisse was creating his Color-Field Revolution.
It is noteworthy that in the 1920s both Matisse and Picasso softened their most extreme approaches to art (portraiture, in particular) — a time when Matisse’s orienatlist odalisques can be compared to Picasso’s neoclassicism, as well as Derain’s return to traditionalism during the so-called “return to order” in the art world following World War I.
In retrospect, theirs was a fruitful rivalry. The older Matisse had motivated Picasso in 1906 to explore non-Western art and advance more radical approaches. In turn, a few years later Cubism, the first abstract movement in art, proved to be something that interested Matisse, though ultimately he rejected it. As you proceed through the Museum of Modern Art, you may fairly conclude that Matisse was inspired by Picasso to incorporate certain aspects of the deconstruction of form into his expressive style of painting that emphasized flattened forms and decorative patterns, as one can immediately recognize in “Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘La Desserte'” (above) and “The Moroccans” (below).
A Protest by Women in New York
In 1983, an expansion project at MoMA more than doubled its gallery space. In June 1984, there was a protest in front of the museum by 400 women artists to bring attention to the lack of female representation in “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” its opening exhibition following the museum’s expansion which featured only 14 women among the 165 contributing artists. Today, the holdings at MoMA represent more than 13,000 artists — 20% female, 80% male and 3 non-binary.
Here, we have presented some of our impressions of the Museum of Modern Art in New York — its strengths and failings. We urge you to visit MoMA, and we hope you will share your experience with us and our readers.
If you want to learn more about the art of Edward Hopper in New York and see additional paintings on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, please visit our article entitled “Christmas in New York City at The Whitney & The Met.”