New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art – Part 1

WHEN we consider that it is less than fifty years (1871) since the collection of paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City was started, we may well congratulate ourselves on its collection today. That our men and women, whose talents lie in the accumulation of great wealth, dedicate the results of their power to uplift the nation through the treasures of the old world, speaks for the spirit of progress that permeates America. Naturally we can only hint at the vast number of picture treasures in the Metropolitan Museum in one short excursion, but our illustrations and suggestions will supplement the various catalogues of the paintings in the Museum.

The first picture to attract us at the top of the grand staircase is “James Stuart, Duke of Richmond,” by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (Fig. 24). This is one of those splendid portraits of royalty. that Van Dyck knew so well how to paint. There was never any question as to the rank of his sitters; his strong characteristic was to stamp his court people with the insignia of office in every line of the body and in every detail of the costume. Van Dyck’s life at the court of Charles I was just the opportunity for him to use his powers of observation in gratifying his love for beautiful stuffs, rare laces and jeweled ornaments. In this picture of the cousin of Charles I of England, Van Dyck has intensified the elegance of James’ costume of luscious black velvet with the gold embroidered star and the exquisite lace collar. Also the duke’s golden hair is the color note that emphasizes the silky luster of the cloak and the blue ribbon with its emblem of the Order of Saint George. The dog, too, is a foil that adds greatly to the ensemble.

Van Dyck was not only an untiring worker but the rapidity of his brush was a wonder to all. One time, when passing through Amster-dam, he called at the studio of Franz Hals and asked the aged artist to paint his portrait. In one sitting the picture was finished. Van Dyck looked at it critically and remarked f acetiously that painting seemed easy ; he believed he could do it. Hals, greatly amused at the audacity of the young man—he did not know Van Dyck—offered to sit for his likeness. In an hour Van Dyck announced the portrait finished. Hals, expecting some fun, glanced at the picture only to exclaim : “Either you are the devil or Van Dyck.”

The two little gems at either side of the large portrait are by Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675). Perfect little masterpieces!—little in size only. Vermeer had a peculiar manner of placing his figures in the fore-ground of his canvas directly facing us. Notice that we fairly intrude ourselves into the presence of the “Young Woman with a Water Jug” (Fig. 25). Of course it is unfair, but who could resist a sly peep when Vermeer has given the opportunity? He seems to have removed a section of the wall, for nothing of the ceiling or floor is visible. What a simple scene, yet how charming it is! The exquisite color of the oriental table cover and the bright metal of the ewer and basin are resplendent because Vermeer’s marvelous light has touched them. Light in his pictures seems a living, moving presence.

His originality in the use of color, a tender yellow against blue, and his shadows of “moon-light blue” seem to surround the rich draperies, hangings and table covers. Vermeer, though the strongest man of the little Dutchmen, dropped into oblivion until very recent years because his name was omitted from a work on the Netherland painters in 1718. To-day, however, a work of his is a rare treasure.

The “Madonna and Child” (Fig. 26), by Giovanni Bellini (1428-1516), is the only specimen of that artist’s work in the Museum. Bellini was the founder of the Venetian school. He was the first artist to really paint live children—true the Christ Child is stiff in pose, but he has baby flesh as warm and soft as any baby in Venice. The note of sadness in the mother’s face is that of accepting the will of God with no complaint. See how truthfully the artist has combined the beauty of girlhood with the softened charms of motherhood. How the tender flesh of the Child glows against the deep blue of the Madonna’s mantle.

“A Doge in Prayer before the Redeemer” (rig. 27), by Tintoretto (1518-1594), was once owned by John Ruskin. It hung in his dining room and was considered by him one of his most precious possessions. It was exhibited in London once at the Royal Academy, in 1896.

Tintoretto painted the picture as a preliminary study for a mural painting. The doge kneeling in the center of the picture was probably Advise Mocenigo, elected Doge of Venice in 1570. No doubt the picture is to celebrate Venice as a sea power; in the background are a number of gayly decked ships representing the commerce of the world. The men on the right are St. John the Baptist with the lamb, St. Augustine in a yellow cope, St. John the Evangelist with an open book. The floating figure of the Savior in light blue is attended by angels.

Tintoretto’s real name was Jacopo Robusti ; his nickname came from the fact that his father was a dyer and young Jacopo often helped in the trade. Often his artist companions called him “Il Furioso,” and gave the just criticism on his too rapid work that “Tintoretto is often inferior to Tintoretto.” Though he painted so many pictures that to-day “they are rotting on the walls of Venice,” yet we are proud that we own four in the Museum (see galleries 28 and 29).

We are fortunate in having one painting by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). In the picture of “Mars and Venus United by Love” (rig. 28) Veronese has portrayed mythological people in an original manner. Many artists have used the theme of Mars’ love for Venus, but usually somewhere in the scene stands Vulcan, the jealous husband, watching his lovely spouse. That the most beautiful of the goddesses should be married to the most ill-favored of the gods—Zeus gave Venus to Vulcan in gratitude for the thunderbolts he had forged—was indeed unfortunate. That she was faith-less to Vulcan when his handsome brother Mars (sons of Zeus and Juno) appeared, was not surprising—her various loves were almost equal to those of her amorous father, Zeus.

No man knew better than Veronese how to please the merchant princes of Venice. His canvases are filled with people clothed in fine apparel, but his imagination is restrained and his workmanship good. Look at the resplendent Mars. Were golden armor and gorgeous cloak ever more fitting garments for the soldier god? The soft, warm flesh of the lovely Venus glows and pulsates under the dull blue drapery so f rankly held to protect and reveal her beauty. Veronese painted quickly and lightly, enveloping his canvas with a trans-parent atmosphere that charms us. He came at the close of the Renaissance in Italy and kept his work up to the high excellence of his inheritance.

Before leaving this room of masterpieces we must look at Mr. Sargent’s splendid portrait of Henry G. Marquand, the man whose scholarly collection placed this museum among the world’s galleries. He was also big enough to realize the value of consecutive study and allowed his gift to be separated into its respective schools.

Stop a moment in front of Ruisdael’s (1628-1682) “Landscape” and recall the influence of the Dutch landscapists on the English school, with Constable as its leader, and then on the French Fontainebleau-Barbizon school. Also look at the “Young Painter,” by Rembrandt, and the delicious idyl of home life, “A Visit to the Nursery,” by Netcher.

In the next gallery (12) “Walt Whitman,” by John W. Alexander (Fig. 29), dominates the room. Possibly it is because Whitman was our most typical American poet that we feel his presence, but more probably it is because Mr. Alexander has preserved his own nationality in representing this true American man of fourscore years. It is just such typical pictures as this, and scores of others by our own men, that show our nationality and give us an American art. Foreign influences may guide, but they do not obliterate our inheritance.

Can you not hear this brave old poet repeat that heart-rending tribute to our martyred hero:—

“O Captain ! my Captain ! our fearful trip is done ; The ship has weathered every rock, the prize we sought is won.

But O heart ! heart ! heart ! Leave you not the little spot, Where on the deck my captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.”

This gallery is largely made up of early American portraits, most of them by Gilbert Stuart. “The Muse of Painting,” by John La Farge, is very beautiful with its opalescent quality, like that of stained glass.

In the next room 13), mostly of modern American artists, is that gorgeous “Scene from King Lear,” by E. A. Abbey. Cordelia in this picture is one of those marvelous creations of the human brain that exists for us as a real person. Abbey has painted a portrait of Shakespeare’s Cordelia—and Cordelia lives as do Jeanie Deans, Dinah Morris, Uriah Heep, Rip Van Winkle, and scores of others. They are individuals whose influence lives on through all time. What a splendid Cordelia she is! How noble and dignified and true and womanly. Our hearts burn with indignation against the jeering, flippant, untrue sisters who in their very attitudes of scorn show their unworthiness as daughters.

You will recall the scene—King Lear has decided to divide his kingdom in three parts, each daughter a part. He asks, in turn, “Which of you, shall we say, doth love us most?—Goneril, our eldest born, speak first.” And then “what say our second daughter, our dearest Regan, wife of Cornwall? Speak.” Both daughters speak honeyed words from false hearts. And when he asks Cordelia he fails to understand that in her answer speaks the true daughter. Abbey has chosen the moment when the poor, deluded, broken-hearted old king, having severed all ties with his youngest, his best beloved daughter, leaves the room. Cordelia turns to her sisters and gives those memorable words of reproof :

“Ye jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you; I know what you are; And like a sister, am most loath to call Your faults as they are nam’d. Love well our father : To your professed bosom I commit him. But yet, alas, stood I within his grace, I would prefer him a better place. So farewell to you both.”

The decorative quality of this painting is superb, and in the delineation of character Abbey has rarely equaled the figures of Cordelia and King Lear. Was anything ever more expressive of crushed love and hopes than the bent old man feebly leaving the room in a state of collapse after his denunciation of Cordelia? The picture of the dog is a bit of genre painting of rare excellence.

George Inness (1825-1894), with his poetic instincts, gave a subtle meaning to his interpretations of nature that proved him a genius. He was never prosaic or commonplace, though at times erratic and unequal. Always the poetry of scenes is fascinating. In his “Peace and Plenty” (Fig. 30) we greatly appreciate his tact in uniting the immensity of the out-of-doors and the human element and at the same time preserving perfect harmony between them. First the men in the wheatfield interest us, then the bordering river, where our eyes follow the stream as it winds off in the distance and is lost in the great beyond, as naturally and as dreamily as in real life. The rays of the afternoon sun glitter on the water and turn the sheaves of wheat into burnished gold. At times real stray sunbeams find the tranquil scene and then the whole landscape is transformed into a glory of light.

In his “Delaware Valley” (Fig. 31 we watch with delight the drifting clouds as they hang low over the surrounding hills.

The portrait of “Connie Gilchrist” (Fig. 32) is one of Whistler’s rare examples of a figure in motion. Connie Gilchrist was a popular dancer at the Gaiety in London in 1876. She is represented as on the stage with a skipping rope. Whistler has -caught her just as she will be off in an instant, as light as a feather, and under the gleaming footlights her mellow brownish-yellow costume will shimmer and twinkle like a butterfly in the sun. A color poem the painting certainly is! It reminds us of the Jersey meadows in the fall when the grasses and sedges are flaunting their feathery tops, catching every golden ray until they vie with the topaz in gradation of color. Possibly the charm of the color harmony in this painting is enhanced by the “Lady in Green.” It may be that the hanging committee were playing into the hands of Whistler and Alexander—one of the comforts of this museum is that few of the pictures are screaming at each other.

Now turn around and look at William M. Chase’s “Fish.” They may slip out of the picture before we have time to examine them, for no real fish were ever more slippery. Fish are not usually chosen for drawing-room ornaments, excepting gold fish, but we should consider it a rare privilege to possess Mr. Chase’s fish.

We unconsciously draw our cloaks closer as we look at Winslow Homer’s “Northeaster” (Fig. 33). The spray dashing against the brown-black rocks fairly strikes our faces and the great breaking wave is bound to overwhelm us. What a restless, resistless force is moving those mighty waters ! The swish of the spray and the roar of the breakers fill our ears as we drink in the grandeur of the scene.