Metropolitan Museum Of Art – Its Aim And History

FROM the first inception of the founding of the Metropolitan Museum its aim has been ” the education of the public and the cultivation of a high standard of artistic taste.”

It was not merely to establish a great collection of art objects, but to encourage and develop the study of the fine arts to the advancement of general knowledge and its application to manufactures and practical life. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded to be an educational institution — with an inspiring thought, carried through without abatement of enthusiasm, not ” Art for art’s sake,” but ” Art for humanity’s sake.”

Various opinions have been expressed as to what should be the scope of the purpose of an art museum, and many have denied the possibility of uniting its aesthetic and its didactic mission. Some have even gone so far as to say that its purpose can never be a pedagogic one, that the aim of instruction must remain essentially subordinate to that of aesthetic comprehension. Prof. Maebius, the managing director of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, insists on the division and separate installation of objects for show and those for study; and Prof. Ernst Gross, director of the Freiburg Museum, coincides with him in this fundamental sundering of the aesthetic purpose from the practical side.

But a museum need not confine itself to ministering to the pride and luxury of spiritually aesthetic and artistically developed minds — a mere plaything for the few. Belonging to the people, it may, and by rights should be, the best resource for their relaxation from strenuous labour, and also the most efficient educator to sharpen the taste and the artistic sense. Its collections should be arranged, ” not with the vagueness belonging to the emotions, but with the definiteness belonging to the under-standing,” as Tyndall expressed it.

This eclectic method has been pursued by the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum. They have not only brought together beautiful objects and displayed them harmoniously, but they have endeavoured to assemble the masterpieces of different countries and times in such relation and sequence as to illustrate the history of art in the broadest sense, to make plain its teaching, and to inspire and direct its national development.

Thus there may be found within the walls of the Central Park Museum collections that will give aesthetic enjoyment to some, knowledge to others. In painting and sculpture, in the ceramic arts, the decorative arts, the crafts, and in those peculiar works of exquisite beauty which distinguish the Oriental nations, refinement and culture will find their highest ideals gratified. But the student, the artisan, the teacher and pupil of our schools and colleges may go farther and profit more. Every apprentice will find here the teaching his eye needs. Every skilled mechanic may study the beautiful objects which it must be his ambition to equal. The potter, the joiner, the weaver, the smith, the glassworker, the hundred artificers, have opportunities afforded to find instruction in the successes and in the failures of their predecessors. And by this means the Museum has become the animating, in-forming and directing source of impulses, the most civilizing and refining influences, that radiate throughout the land ; that spread into homes, into workshops, factories and commerce ; and will yet in time make it the centre of artistic progress in this country — even as in Europe the influence of museums is felt in its products.

The Collections of Art — in its broadest sense it includes the work of the artificer or craftsman — cover all the links of its history from ancient times to the present day. The first gropings of half-skilled hands are found in the department of Antiquities. The Plaster-Casts trace the further development of art in Architecture and Sculpture. The entire range of the Glyptic art is shown here — the oldest Assyrian records, the Egyptian monuments with their characteristic extreme simplicity of design with great breadth of treatment to the exclusion of minute details, the greater variety of Etruscan Sculpture, and then the apogee of Sculpture, Greek art. Its ” noble naivete and placid grandeur,” as Winckelmann sums up its attributes — its love of symmetry and restraint, its robustness, sanity and vitality, its consummation of grace, will ever form the highest ideal of plastic expression. It illustrates noble objects under appropriate forms of beauty. Before, Sculpture had been simply mechanical, and employed exclusively for monumental or religious objects — with the Greeks it became a fine art.

From this classical art, appropriate to the age of lucid and self-possessed ideas, and characteristic of the Greek and Roman period, we pass to the Romantic art of Painting. From the early Renaissance to the latest plein air productions of the Giverny school the art may be followed in all its manifestations of the poetic, sensuous sense of form and colour of the painter.

The offspring of the glyptic art is found in metal work, coins and gems, as the weaver of textiles was inspired by the colour gamut of the painter’s palette; while the blending of art and manufactures is further demonstrated in the products of the wood-worker and the carver. Glass and ceramics have furnished from ancient times to the present day an outlet for the artistic conceptions of their creators.

There is no vagueness in the display of these collections. They do not merely give illustration, but are broadly outlined along synthetic methods, the gaps being constantly filled up. The collections could not at first be developed under any comprehensive plan — the inevitable consequence of having to rely for their expansion upon gifts. Nor were funds at hand to enlarge by purchase the collections in those directions which gifts did not supply. Up to a few years ago the department of paintings was confined to narrow limits; and even to-day there is a lamentable paucity of the work of the Italian schools, although modern work is well represented, notably that of the later American artists.

The departments of Ceramics, Musical Instruments, Textiles and Laces are as complete as may be desired, while strenuous efforts are being made to present adequately, by original work or reproductions, the art of the workers in metal and wood.

A natural consequence of the manner in which in the early years the Museum acquired its exhibits, by gift or bequest which could not be wisely declined, there were included objects hardly worthy of permanent display, and even such, the authenticity of which could not stand the probe of scholarly research. Yet withal, the Metropolitan Museum became far less the dumping ground of the ignorant selections of wealthy benefactors than has been the case in many other famous institutions. Especially the departments of paintings and antiquities have been open to attack, and frequently hysterical clamour has been heard to turn the museum upside down — as if the first self-styled expert that comes along should have the last word to say in the attribution of paintings or the genuineness of antiques. Questions of authenticity are constantly opened and re-opened here and abroad. The Metropolitan Museum does not stand alone in these attacks, which are often levelled at paintings in the Louvre, Berlin, Vienna, London, and everywhere for that matter. There is not an art gallery in Europe whose lists are impeccable. Revision of every museum catalogue is a periodical necessity. But as the doctors frequently disagree it is rarely safe to follow the specious activity of the crass doctrinaire. As an example we might take the ” Portrait of a Lady,” in the Lichtenstein Collection at Vienna, assigned to Verrocchio by Morelli. Others attribute this painting to Sodoma. Dr. Bode argues in favour of Leonardo da Vinci, while still others give it to one of Leonardo’s pupils, Boltraffio. Dr. Bredius disagrees with Max Rooses, Berenson assails Crowe, and so the merry dance goes on.

Like conditions prevail in the department of Antiquities, where especially the di Cesnola collection has been frequently assailed. Under the present administration we have found, however, that avoiding the stagnation of indifference and routine, and utilizing the results of progressive scholarship, governed by common sense, such spurious works as were found are being weeded out and mistakes rectified. Careful, systematic work, combined with a large expenditure of money, provided by the munificence of its benefactors, is transforming the nucleus of “a collection of objects illustrative of the history of art from the earliest beginning to the present time,” to a Museum of Art, which shall be adequate to the needs and desires of the public, and a powerful stimulant to the development of American taste and culture.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been a growth, fostered by individual initiative and effort. ” It had to be created out of nothing.” It had no government foundation, as with the great museums of Europe, often fostered by royal bounty. And when municipal help came to house the collections that were gathered, it was only after the value of ‘the Museum’s work had been demonstrated.

The first suggestion to establish a museum came from the Hon. John Hay, made at a dinner in Paris; and on the 23d day of November, 1869, a meeting of gentlemen in New York considered the subject of forming a Museum of Art. The Committee appointed prepared the way for the incorporation, on the 13th of April, 187o, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. John Taylor Johnston, the President, and twenty-one Trustees undertook a work which, in one generation, showed results that are nothing short of marvellous. Some of these Trustees poured out their money, and each in his degree gave unstinted time and study for the advancement of their cherished purpose.

The first exhibition-hall was at No. 681 Fifth Avenue, a building which for a time had some notoriety as Allen Dodworth’s Dancing Academy. A skylight was let into the ceiling of the large dance-hall, which was thus converted into a picture gallery. Here the 175 paintings, chiefly of the Dutch and Flemish schools, were hung, that had been purchased in Europe by Mr. W. T. Blodgett for the Trustees in 1871, together with a loan collection of various paintings and works of art.

The Legislature, in 1871, authorized the Department of Parks to raise $500,000 for the erection of a building for the Museum in Central Park. The site was known as the Deer Park, located on the Fifth Avenue side, between 79th and 85th Streets.

In the meantime the Museum speedily outgrew its first quarters, and in 1873 the Douglas or Cruger Mansion, in West 14th Street, was leased and occupied; and the interest was extended by the display of a part of the di Cesnola collection of antiquities from Cyprus.

The Museum remained in 14th Street until its collections were transferred to the new building in Central Park, which was formally opened by the President of the United States on March 30th, 1880. The Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection of paintings, which had been bequeathed to the Museum, was then first placed on exhibition.

In 1888, and in 1894, the building was enlarged, and in 1894 the architect, Richard M. Hunt, designed plans for a new building which was to surround the first structure on all sides. On December 22, 1902, the centre portion of the East front of this new building, forming the Fifth Avenue en-trance, was completed. A new North wing with several additional galleries is now being added to the exposition space.

The President, John Taylor Johnston, had died in 1893, and Henry Gordon Marquand was the President of the Board of Trustees until his death in 1902, when he was succeeded by F. W. Rhinelander, at whose death in 1904 J. Pierpont Morgan assumed the Presidency. The Johnston and Marquand collections, and the present, munificence of Mr. Morgan have greatly added to the Museum’s treasures. The income of the Rogers’ bequest of almost five million dollars is constantly used to fill up the various gaps. The magnificent generosity of Mr. George A. Hearn in providing a fund of $150,000, the income of which shall be spent in the purchase of paintings by living American artists, is affording a long sought opportunity to make the achievements of American painters fully recognized.