Top Ten at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
I love the Met. Having grown up visiting the excellent National Gallery in DC, it pains me to say this, but the Met is the best art museum in the country. While it may not be free like the National Gallery, don't let the signs fool you - entry to the Met is "pay what you wish". While at art school, I went often enough to justify only paying a dollar or two each time, knowing they'd get the full admission fee from me before the year was through. These days, I visit about three to four times a year, including leading one of my art classes on a field trip each spring. My back-to-back visits on Sunday and Monday brought some changes - the iconic metal buttons have been replaced by stickers :( and the Costume Institute has reopened :) - but also reminded me of a few of the reasons I love this place so much. Please pardon me while I dust off my art history minor to bring you a list of my top ten things to see at the Met.
10) Roman Room
The Met's Greek and Roman collection may not seem as impressive as some of their other ancient artifacts *cough*Egypt*cough*, but it still contains some amazing treasures, including an entired frescoed bedroom from a villa that was covered by the explosion of Vesuvius. Sculptures, reliefs, vases, and jewelry round out the collection.
9) The Christmas Tree
The Met's medieval collection is centered around a gallery that feels like a Romanesque chapel, the key feature being a wrought-iron choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladolid. During the month of December, the screen serves as a backdrop for a baroque creche from 18th century Naples. Above it, a tree worthy of the other Met's Nutcracker production rises gracefully toward the ceiling, punctuated with angels in flowing robes. The whole thing is a delightful mishmash of different periods and regional traditions, that somehow just works.
8) The Lehman Collection
In some cities, Robert Lehman's collection would qualify as a museum by itself. Here in New York, it's simply tacked on to the back of the Met. A space where you can generally lose the crowds, the western wing is designed to evoke the feel of a private home. The collection is notable for its Renaissance works, decorative arts, and works by Ingres, Goya, and El Greco.
7) Arms and Armor
This is where you take the kids - boys and girls - when they're tired of looking at paintings. The focal point of the exhibit is a group of four heavily-armored knights on heavily-armored horses, trotting down the center of the hall. Aside from the Medieval European suits, there's a nice collection of Samurai garb as well, and enough swords and guns to sate the curiosity of any pirate or bandit-in-training. For the more aesthetically-minded, a lot of the pieces are genuinely beautiful (this is an art museum after all) showing great craftsmanship in metal working - be sure to check out the 'Garniture of George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland'.
6) Old Dutch Masters
The Met features 12 paintings by the Dutch master Rembrandt, including a very nice self-portrait. I feel Rembrandt is one of those artists whose work is best appreciated in person. His portraits often come across as brown and blah in reproductions. In person, the subtly of his colors and gradations of value are startling. While Rembrandt's works are large and grand, they make a nice contrast to an artist who came a few years later, Johannes Vermeer. Of Vermeer's 34 firmly attributed works, more are hanging in the United States than any other country (including the Netherlands). While the National Gallery in DC and the Frick Collection in NYC each have three, the Met wins with a total of five. The most famous of the group is probably 'Woman with a Water Jug', featuring the artist's signature composition of a woman at a window.
5) Roof Garden
The necessity of a visit to the roof garden is determined by two things - the weather and the installation on display. If it's a nice, sunny day between May and October, locate one of the few elevators that go up to the 5th floor (hint - they're back by the Modern Art) and spend a glorious half hour soaking in the sun and city views. As far as seasonal exhibits go, Cloud City was a big hit in 2012. The current one isn't as exciting, but it's also less intrusive and lets the space speak for itself.
4) Spanish Masters
Connected to Europe, yet isolated on the Iberian peninsula, Spanish art has a certain moodiness and pathos that stretches from Picasso's Guernica back through the ages. Pre-19th century, the Met features three of the biggest names in Spanish art, the most recent being Goya. While a portrait of a little boy and his bird exudes the sense of unease you'll find in the best of Goya's work, I still prefer the dubiously attributed 'Majas on a Balcony'. Velazquez's 'Juan de Pareja' is the clear stand-out from his works at the Met, an impressive portrait of the man who was both his slave and student. But it's difficult to pick a favorite from El Greco's work. A Spanish painter, born in Crete (hence the name) and trained in Venice, El Greco's religious figures have a sense of unearthliness, as if they're about to fly off the canvas and ascend to the heavens before your eyes. While this is beautifully illustrated in 'Christ Carrying the Cross' and 'The Vision of Saint John', the same brushwork electrifies a landscape - in this case 'View of Toledo'.
3) Astor Court
The Met uses its collection of architectural details, furniture, and other period decor to masterfully give you a glimpse into earlier times - from a Spanish courtyard to a French boudoir worthy of Marie Antoinette - but perhaps the most successful example of this is Astor Court. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the museum, you slip through a small, round doorway and are magically transported to a Ming Dynasty-era garden court. It's a wonderful, peaceful little spot that allows you to sit and decompress after a day full of intense visual stimuli.
2) Vincent van Gogh
Of course, van Gogh's most famous painting, 'Starry Night', is downtown at MoMA, but the Met has sheer quantity on their side, with 17 oil paintings by the artist total (in comparison to MoMA's 3). The collection includes portraits, landscapes, and still lifes by Van Gogh, the highlight of which is probably his 'Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat'. On the reverse side of the canvas is 'The Potato Peeler'. I like to use this picture to remind my third graders that even famous artists don't waste supplies!
1) The Temple of Dendur
The Met's entire Egyptian collection is fabulous - definitely in the top five worldwide. While they lack the sheer number of artifacts some other museums hold, the Met has a fairly comprehensive overview of the different eras. They have a copy of the book of the dead, sarcophagi, mummies, and an actual mastaba tomb, rebuilt inside the museum. Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the Temple of Dendur. In the 60s, America helped Egypt move some of its national treasures so they wouldn't be submerged by the impending Aswan Dam. As thanks, Egypt gave the United States a temple. It's relatively small and new as temples go (it was built 15 years after Cleopatra's death, during Roman rule), but it's pretty amazing anyway. It even includes 18th century European graffiti - how authentic!
So there they are. You'll notice I left out special exhibits, as they change often (though the Alexander McQueen show was the best thing I've ever seen in a museum, seriously). How about you - do you have Met favorites, or favorites at a museum near you?