What a reunion!

The two things I remember about my first trip to New York when I was a boy are the liner Normandie on its side in the Hudson River, and Jacques Louis David's painting "The Death of Socrates" at the Metropolitan Museum.

The ship is gone, but the painting remains. I know because the Metropolitan is now my second home and I see the painting all the time.

For over two decades I have visited the Metropolitan regularly. At least 100 of its works of art have become close friends; I worry and fret whenever they are moved or lent to other museums.

So I was concerned when a large number of them recently dropped from sight. But I need not have worried, for they have turned up -- many cleaned and reframed -- in the brand new Andre Meyer Galleries on the second floor of the Metropolitan.

What a joyous reunion we had! And what a wonderful place to have it!

This new home for 19th-century European art consists of 13 air-conditioned galleries surrounding a larger exhibition area. It is spacious, light, and obviously designed to put art center stage. Most of the walls are covered with silk fabrics of various colors. The rooms are flooded with natural light entering from skylights -- something especially important for viewing the Impressionists. And there is plenty of space for both closeup and distant viewing. Even the large and informative labels contribute their bit to making a visit to these galleries a memorable occasion.

The central area houses the museum's collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, including its 21 Manets, 28 Monets, 15 Renoirs, and 19 Cezannes -- and a special group of van Goghs.

All the museum's paintings by Degas as well as a large selection of his pastels fill another three rooms.

Other galleries are devoted to Rodin's sculpture, to Courbet, to Millet and the Barbizon school, to neoclassicism and romanticism, to symbolism, and to salon art.

Many of my old friends look even better in their new home. Manet's "Spanish Singer" and 'Woman with a Parrot," Cezanne's "Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory ," Monet's "Terrace at Sainte-Adresse," Degas's "The Dancing Class," and Renoir's "Madame Charpentier and Her Children" -- and many others -- seem to have taken on a new life in these fresh surroundings.

There are some recent acquisitions I know I'll want to see again and again, in particular Fantin-Latour's "Still Life With Flowers and Fruit," and Toulouse Lautrec's "Rene Grenier." The latter, a small portrait-study executed when Lautrec was 23, is the best evidence of that artist's genius I have ever seen. It is a miraculous fusion of objective observation and creative sensibility, -- and I'm most grateful that Mary C. Fosburgh gave it to the museum.

This, I thought as I walked around the galleries, is what painting is all about! This is what the old-guard salon painters fought so hard to protect, and what the modernists fought so hard to change. What a superb bunch of painters and sculptors these characters were! Paint and canvas, clay and stone were in their blood. Goya, Turner, Ingres, Delacroix, Theodore Rousseau, Daumier, Courbet, Corot, Monet, Manet, van Gogh, Rodin, Cezanne, Degas. On and on! Even the unfashionable salon painters Meissonier and Gerome are impressive.

What a century for painting that was! Has there been any other like it except for the glorious 17th? I mean for painting that is physical and direct, which makes its point and establishes its identity as tactile experience rather than as color-tinting filling in the drawing. And how many painters in the history of art were as good, I mean just simply good,m as Manet? The 17th century may have had Vermeer and Velazquez, but the 19th had Manet.

Nineteenth-century art covered an extraordinary range, from the precisely observed and exquisitely self-contained art of Ingres to the rhythmic and explosive art of van Gogh, from the political art of David to the socially alienated art of Lautrec. It was the century in which the line between those who saw art as tradition to be defended at all costs and those who saw art as dynamic and always moving was most clearly drawn. It was the century of polarization in art.

It's all there in these galleries at the Metropolitan: the beauty, the genius , the echoes of great social, intellectual, and political upheavals. But most of all the evidence of the greatness of art and of the human spirit.

This is art and museum-going at their very best!

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