Five Must See Masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m highlighting one of my dream destinations: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City! It’s on my bucket list because it contains one of the best and most comprehensive art collections anywhere. Therefore, it’s no surprise that it is the fourth most visited museum in the world! Remember, these are only five of my must see masterpieces, there are literally thousands more to choose from and explore! So, without further ado, let’s get started!
The first piece of art in the Met’s collection was a Roman sarcophagus. Over the next 150 years, its collection grew by leaps and bounds. Major acquisitions include the Cesnola collection, as well as the first Matisse to be owned by a museum. The Met holds an astounding five of the known 35 paintings by Johannes Vermeer. It also has about 26,000 dating from Ancient Egypt, meaning that the museum holds the largest number of objects outside of the Cairo museum. In order to hold all of these pieces, the Metropolitan Museum has three buildings: The original one on 5th Ave, the Frick collection building which holds the modern/contemporary art, and the Cloisters building, where medieval works are housed.
Work #1: Madame X by John Singer Sargent
Madame Pierre Gautreau (also known by her American birth name Virginie Amélie Avegno) was one of the most famous women of her day. Not only
did she marry a wealthy banker, but her outgoing personality and rumored affairs made her the talk of the town. (My American art history professor once described her as the Kim Kardashian of her day!)
John Singer Sargent painted this work for free because he knew that it would catapult him into a similar level of fame as the sitter. As it turned out, his gamble paid off. This work was deemed quite scandalous when it premiered at the Paris Salon of 1884. Gautreau wears a revealing dress that shows off her delicate long neck and perfect body. However, the furniture is heavy and conservative. Some art historians have described this piece as a study of opposites! Personally, I like to look at it as a rebellion against societal standards!
Work #2: Duccio’s Madonna and Child
Duccio di Buoninsegna was one of the most important artists in the late Gothic period. He was from Siena and lived from around 1260-1315. Duccio’s body of work helped to start the Trecento art movement, bridging the gap between medieval and Renaissance art.
One of his most famous works is this painting of the Madonna and Child. Duccio painted this work sometime between 1290 and 1300. It is a rather small image, so it was most likely used for private devotion. (There is further evidence of this because there are candle burn marks on the bottom of the frame). The Virgin Mary holds the infant Jesus, who reaches up towards
His mother. She looks down on Him with maternal devotion and a tinge of sadness. Mary isn’t just an icon, she is a mother. Although there is no background, the sense of emotion and slight three dimensional composition make this work revolutionary.
In 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City acquired this work for a reported $45 million. (This makes it the priciest acquisition in the museum's history!) Details on the sale are scarce because it was done privately between the museum and brokers and not at auction. However, it seems that it came from a private collection and the sellers insisted that a museum or public art space purchase it. Thankfully, their wishes were honored and now everyone can enjoy this beautiful work at the Met!
Work #3: Temple of Dendur
In the 1960’s, Egypt decided to build a new dam near Aswan. However, it threatened several important sites, including the famous Abu Simbel. They asked for help and one of the countries that answered the call was the United States. President Kennedy sent the Army Corps of Engineers to Egypt to help save the historical architecture
and religious sites. In gratitude, Egypt presented America with the Temple of Dendur. It was placed in the Met, in a specially constructed room. A large window wall allows light to stream in, while a moat represents the Nile river.
Finished around 10 BCE, the Temple of Dendur was a part of the Emperor Augustus’
Egyptian building campaign. It was dedicated to Isis and Osiris, but it wasn’t just a religious building. In Ancient Egypt, temples were also connections to the natural world. This structure is built of sandstone and decorated with relief carvings of papyrus and lotus plants. The columns are also designed to look like papyrus growing up out of the Nile.
Work #4: Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David
Painted in 1787, this Neoclassical masterpiece is an incredible part of the Met’s collection. Jacques Louis David shows viewers the story of the death of the philosopher Socrates. He was sentenced to death on the charges of corrupting the youth of Athens with his ideas.
Instead of fearing his fate of drinking poisonous hemlock, Socrates uses it as one last opportunity to teach his students. They are in various stages of grief and despair, but Socrates is confident in his lesson. David uses strong lines and clean composition to convey the message of intellect’s triumph.
Work #5: Campin’s Merode Altarpiece
The Annunciation Triptych also known as the Merode Altarpiece is a masterpiece of Netherlandish art. Although there isn't an artist's signature, it is believed that this work was created in the workshop of Robert Campin between 1427-1432. The left side features portraits of the donors, who would have used this altarpiece for private devotion. The right panel shows Mary's husband, Joseph, working in his carpentry studio making mousetraps. The center work is what makes this piece so famous. We see a beautiful Annunciation scene. The angel Gabriel is telling the Virgin Mary that she will bear the son of God.
There are several details that are added to this painting to help us understand that Mary is pure and the perfect woman to carry Jesus Christ. She sits delicately with her hair unbound and reading a Book of Hours. The angel Gabriel is about to interrupt her devotions, but this moment is peaceful. The lily in the vase on the table and the hanging towel are traditional symbols of female purity.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the great American institutions. Thanks to a group of like minded people, the United States and the world are able to enjoy a collection of over two hundred thousand objects that span the entirety of human existence. These are only five of those works, so I highly recommend checking out their website to discover more!
If you want some guidance on how to get the most out of their collection, check out the Accessible Art History tutorial below!