The Magazine

Room With View

Small change at the Met.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

There are parts of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that seem to me like home. So it was with some trepidation that I wandered in to see the recent reinstallation of the 19th- and 20th-century painting galleries. I'm constitutionally opposed to change, and rehangings are generally done for the worst of reasons--to update galleries to meet our declining tastes and inspire younger visitors and press coverage--and with the worst of results.

More than any other museum, though, the Met has been immune to the faddish, and the goal of connecting its magnificent holdings in 19th-century art to its more recent collecting in Modern is a laudable one. But even with an extra 8,000 square feet, I feared the exile of some old friends, as depth gave way to breadth.

Part of the pleasure of paying regular attendance on a museum is that you know where things are. You can spend all your time looking at the art, rather than stumbling over wall labels and gallery numbers looking for it. To me, going to the Met is like attending a performance of the Marriage of Figaro: The plot is clear, the pleasure ready, and I am free to focus on nuance and discover new detail.

I dearly love a little Bonington that the Met acquired in 2001. Just 11 by 13 inches, View near Rouen exudes both tradition and modernity. Bonington was English and steeped in its landscape tradition, yet his short career was spent in France amongst painters like Delacroix and Rousseau, from whom he absorbed the new painting techniques coming to the fore in the 1820s. Richard Bonington's decisive strokes look forward to the generation that inspired the Impressionists and beyond. View near Rouen is defiantly modern, and yet still Romantic. The painter died, just 26, in 1828--the year after Blake and two years before Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People. (What would English art have been in the 19th century had its most precocious talents, Bonington and Thomas Girtin, not been dead of tuberculosis at 26 and 27?)

This delicious little Bonington has hung amongst a profusion of French landscapes--many Corots and some Rousseaus--and seemed right at home: a tiny painting amongst many on a long wall. The soft glories of the Corot landscapes highlighted Bonington's deft coloring, especially the thick paint he used to create his high summer foliage. It was one of those lovely unfrequented rooms in a busy museum, and offered me instant refreshment.

I had no trouble finding the room, but all was changed. I was farther along the painterly chronology, and so stumbled back a generation and into a smaller room looking around for my friend. Yes, here were the Corots. Actually, here were a lot of Corots. What a delightful room, I thought, as I settled myself onto a bench in the middle. I counted 32 paintings, and all Corots. His whole career seemed on display, from some early studies of the Italian campagna to those great late figuratives of women in poses drawn from the Renaissance masters. With Corot, the small landscapes are much more important than the grand allegories, and how well the Met has done by the Wheelwright's Yard and the Ferryman and the Ville d'Avray pictures.

This room seemed to represent everything that a museum can do right: collect in depth, focus your scholarly and technical resources on your holdings, commit to displaying works no matter how unfashionable an artist may be generation to generation, and show an artist in multiple and in rooms that encourage the visitor to consider the artist's achievement. We are told that museums must have blockbuster shows to attract corporate dollars and the extra thousands of visitors needed to balance the books. It may be true, but I don't know many museums that use their corporate lucre to produce as perfect a room as this full of Corots.

In the end, I found the Met's reinstallation a triumph. Drawing on the scholarly gambits of recent big shows such as "Manet/Velázquez," "Crossing the Channel," and "Painters in Paris," the Met's curators have told a continuous story of art's 19th-century revolution, making much of Courbet, Manet, Cézanne, Picasso, but finding room to bring in the American and British painters who absorbed the great events of Paris and even painters who rejected them. Figures like Dagnan-Bouveret and Henry Lerolle are treated respectfully. Change is bad, but it does have occasional recompenses.

Though never without victims. My dear little Bonington has suffered. He now holds court, with the Met's other Bonington, on a tiny two-foot space to the left of a doorway. He won't get much attention in the days to come, I fear. But I will do my best to keep his spirits up.

Robert Messenger is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.