The Met to Open Nearly Two Dozen. Newly Installed European Paintings Galleries on December 12, Following Two Years of Skylights Construction
A New Look at Old Masters is a prelude to the final reinstallation of the European paintings galleries (1250–1800), expected to take place in 2022
On December 12, nearly two dozen galleries dedicated to old master paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art will re-open under a new roof and new skylights, after being closed for more than two years. (The opening of these galleries marks the midpoint of a four-year construction project that will ultimately include all 45 galleries for European Paintings, 1250–1800.) This will be the first opportunity for visitors to experience the 21 updated galleries and see more than 500 works from the collection—from Giotto to Goya—in light that will vary depending on the season and time of day, augmented by artificial light to maximize the viewing experience on overcast days or evening visits. Novel juxtapositions offering fresh dialogues among the works, including a large presentation of sculpture, will further enhance the installation.
A New Look at Old Masters is part of The Met’s two-phase European Paintings Skylights Project, initiated in April 2018. In the first phase, 27 galleries on the second floor (north of the grand staircase) were closed for renovation. The second phase, expected to be completed in spring 2022, involves replacing the roof and skylights over the remaining, adjacent suite of galleries (south of the staircase). A New Look at Old Masters is a prelude to the final, extensive reinstallation of the European paintings galleries, 1250–1800 (Galleries 600–644), that will take place after the project is completed. “As stewards of this historic architectural landmark, The Met is committed to maintaining superior facilities for the collection and for our visitors, and to handing off the building to the next generation in better condition than we received it,” said Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO of The Museum. “The halfway point of this monumental infrastructure project will give visitors an exciting preview of what’s to come when the skylights construction is finished—improved natural light quality and ideal viewing conditions in our European paintings galleries for years to come.”
Max Hollein, Director of The Met, added, “This new presentation of The Met’s renowned European paintings collection will allow viewers to rediscover the old masters in a new light—quite literally. The galleries have been reinvigorated with thematic contexts, meaningful new arrangements, outstanding recent gifts, and the addition of powerful dialogues with sculpture and decorative arts.”
“This project stems from our understanding that natural light is as crucial for the artist creating a painting as it is for those viewing it,” said Keith Christiansen, the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of European Paintings at The Met. “With the new roof and updated skylights—which can be adjusted for the changing seasons—Museum visitors to these galleries will be able to see the works illuminated by a quality of light similar to what the artists intended. As we reach the mid-point of this endeavor, we are excited to welcome visitors back into the refurbished galleries and offer fresh presentations to inspire new insights.”
The configuration of the updated galleries provides an opportunity for the curatorial team to present works from the collection in a new way, while respecting a chronological presentation.
The baroque gallery, for example, will include not only Italian paintings of the 17th century but also Spanish paintings of the same period, emphasizing the impact of Italian art throughout Catholic Europe. Another gallery will be dedicated to the different ways in which painters—Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Poussin, and others—resurrected themes from classical mythology and the Bible, infusing them with a vibrant, contemporary resonance.
One gallery will highlight the creation of still life and genre painting in the 16th and 17th centuries, including the work of two very different female painters. Two other galleries will provide an overview of oil sketches from the 16th through the 18th century, leading up to the Museum’s unsurpassed collection of works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
Other galleries will place painters from the north in dialogue with their contemporaries from the south, from Jan van Eyck and Filippo Lippi to Albrecht Dürer and Giovanni Bellini. Another gallery will be given over to various approaches to expressing identity, featuring artists from Rubens and Anthony van Dyck to Diego Velázquez and Charles Le Brun.
The 18th-century French galleries will take up such themes as the study of expression; François Boucher and the decorative arts; and the role of female artists, who finally found a place in the academy. The display of The Met’s unique collection of French Neoclassical painting, dominated by gifts from Jayne Wrightsman, will feature the portrait of the Lavoisiers by Jacques-Louis David alongside the sculptured busts of Denis Diderot and Voltaire by Jean Antoine Houdon.
The European Paintings Skylights Project Constructed in 1939 and last remodeled in 1952, the skylights above Galleries 600–644—located at the top of the stairs leading from the Great Hall—consist of 30,000 square feet of glass and a louver system that admits natural overhead light into the galleries. The project to replace and upgrade the roof, skylights, and all the HVAC systems serving these spaces is being carried out in two phases over approximately four years.
To prepare, The Met first undertook two years of extensive research and testing, including constructing a test site in New Jersey to determine the best system for the Museum. The first phase of the project began in April 2018. By July 2018, approximately 60 percent of the galleries—those to the north of the stairs—were closed. The process is now reversed for the second phase of the project, in which the suite of galleries south of the grand staircase will be closed for construction. Other highlights of the European paintings collection are on view in the exhibition In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met in the Robert Lehman Wing—where paintings by El Greco are also on display—as well as in Making The Met, 1870–2020 (on view through January 3, 2021). The Museum’s website features a video of the skylights project, updates on progress, and new ways to engage with The Met’s European paintings collection online.
History of the European Paintings Collection and Galleries The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s world-famous collection of European paintings encompasses works of art from the 13th through the early 20th century. Apart from its many individual masterpieces by artists as diverse as Jan van Eyck, Caravaggio, and Seurat, the Museum possesses the most extensive collection of 17th-century Dutch art in the western hemisphere, including outstanding works by Frans Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. The Met’s holdings of El Greco and Goya are the finest outside Spain, while the survey it offers of French painting between Neoclassicism and Postimpressionism includes extensive holdings of the work of Corot, Courbet, Manet, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, and Van Gogh. The collection’s origins date to the founding of the Museum in 1870, when 174 paintings were acquired from three private sources in Europe. Since then, it has been enriched by numerous donations, bequests, and purchases so that today, together with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., it possesses the most comprehensive survey of European painting in the western hemisphere.
For 140 years, the Museum’s collection of European paintings has been displayed prominently in galleries at the top of the staircase leading from the Great Hall. Part of the original 1880 building, these galleries were modernized and refitted between 1951 and 1954 to accommodate the expanding collection. Further growth required a major reinstallation of the galleries in 1972 in 42 contiguous galleries, which still could only provide enough space for the display of 60 percent of its collection of 2,500 works. To remedy this, the 19th-century European paintings were moved to a newly constructed wing at the south end of the Museum in 1980, and the 20th-century paintings were moved to the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing when it opened in 1987. An extensive renovation and reinstallation completed in 2013 increased the space for old master paintings by almost one-third and resulted in the current configuration. More than 700 old master paintings are typically displayed in the 45 galleries. The galleries are organized both chronologically and geographically to provide an overview of painting in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Great Britain.