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12:19am on Thursday, 6th October, 2005:

Museum Muses


I have a feeling this is going to be a longer-than-usual entry.

I spent five and a half hours wandering round the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art today.

I had no idea what to expect beforehand, not being in the possession of a New York guide book. I had an inkling that the establishment was Louvre-like in that it combined a museum of old artefacts with a gallery of paintings, but that was about it. I didn't know what objects it might hold.

The first set of rooms I looked at concerned ancient Egypt. These were pretty good: there were some excellently-preserved models there that I'd only seen in one other place (unsurprisingly, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). The British Museum's collection is better, but still, that's not to say there weren't some eye-catching pieces here (and they were generally displayed better, too). They had an Egyptiaan shrine that they'd shipped over so it wouldn't be drowned by Lake Nasser, but of course the real place to go to see ancient Egyptian artefacts is Egypt, where you walk past such shrines without giving them so much as a second glance.

I mention this because the next set of rooms I looked at concerned medieval Europe. To me as a European, they seemed bizarre: assorted church statuary, mismatched sculptures, even stained-glass windows! The thing is, though, I'm used to seeing these things in situ. I can see more in a single English cathedral than what there was in this museum, many times over. America doesn't have such history available to order, though, and has to buy its stuff on the international markets when they come up for sale. To an Egyptian, the Egyptian galleries of all the major museums would probably look just as impoverished.

The same thing applied to rooms from stately homes (mainly French). In the UK, I just go to a stately home if I want to see this kind of thing, and there'll be 20 or more sumptuous rooms to look around. America, again, doesn't have ancestral seats for people to look around, so if it wants them it has to buy them when they become available and ship them over.

The galleries and collections are all named after people, by the way, which I thought a little unnecessary. If people want to be generous with their money, that's very nice of them; being rewarded for their generosity by having a gallery named after them seems a little crass to me. This is America, though, and things don't work the same way here as back in Blighty.

Having looked at all the "museum" parts, I turned my attention to the "art gallery" parts.


The older paintings they had were special enough, with some famous ones in their number I wasn't expecting to see. Most of the major European artists were represented (they even had a Constable and a Turner!), with rooms stuffed with pictures by Vermeer, El Greco, Rembrandt, Breugel, Van Dijk, Hals, Raphael, Rubens, Velázquez, Canaletto, ... I was gobsmacked. Some of the better-known artists (by UK standards) had their works buried among other, less popular paintings, which was fun when I suddenly saw them.

If I thought those paintings were the cream of the crop, though, I was mistaken. The impressionist collection was absolutely stunning. I think maybe the Musée D'Orsay has more, but nevertheless this was a lot better than anything we have available in the UK. It was jaw-dropping stuff. Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Degas, Seurat, Renoir, the odd Gaugin. They had Cézannes, too! I love Cézanne's work.

The entrance fee of $15 was $15 too much, but still, amazing stuff...

OK, this post wasn't intended just to be a review of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art: there is indeed something else to it.

My favourite painting is in the Prado. We went there maybe 17 or 18 years ago while on a bus tour of Spain, and just as we were leaving the annexe I spotted this absolutely brilliant full-length picture of a woman. She was dressed in black, I think she was a countess, but that's about all I know — my wife wouldn't let me stay long enough to read the description. I can't even say who painted the picture. Despite her old-fashioned clothes and the several centuries separating her from me, nevertheless when I saw her portrait she looked real. I don't mean photo-realistic real, although the painting was indeed naturalistic; I mean the artist had somehow managed to reflect her soul in that painting. You could look at it, and it was as if you were connecting with someone long since dead, directly. I'll never forget it: it was astounding. You got a sense of the person in the portrait. Take a young woman off the street, dress her the same way: she was as alive as that.

Only a very few portraits have that effect on me, but those that do I cherish. There are some in the Tate, some in the National Gallery, some (but not perhaps as many as you might expect) in the National Portrait Gallery. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art has more than its fair share. At times, it was overwhelming: I was looking at a person who for all the world could have been looking right back at me, vital and vibrant. There were two in particular that brought a real lump to the throat, and one in the American collection that nearly had me bolting — I couldn't take it much longer. The thing is, I find it so sad when I see these portraits. People as they once were, their character, vivacity, intellect and suffering wrought in a single genius image — but they're just echoes of what once was. They're gone, they're no more, yet they look so alive. I can't even dream of meeting them. It's just so unbearable.

They let you take photos in the Met (and I saw pictures actually being touched on two occasions!), but I didn't snap my favourites. If I had photos, that would allow me to get used to the pictures, and I don't want that. What makes me go back to the galleries of London, and what will make me come back to the Met, and what will draw me, some day, back to the Prado in Madrid, are the people in those portraits. I can know them again that way, if only for a little while before my grief at their loss becomes too much.

I did take one photo, though, and here it is:

It's by Karl-Heinrich Lehmann. The girl in it looks like Portia, one of my younger daughter's friends.

Referenced by Portraits.

Referenced by Places I'd Like to Visit #2.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).