American paintings and sculpture owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art here have found a new home in the museum's just-opened American wing. For the first time since its founding in 1870, outstanding pieces from the museum's extensive holdings in American art have been assembled in one place and in chronological order from the early 18th century into the 20th.
Visiting these new galleries is a rewarding experience, not only because it enables the viewer to follow the history of American art from Colonial times to just short of the present much better than before, but also because it permits him to see this art in galleries adjacent to areas devoted to the various decorative arts and to fully furnished period rooms. He can thus relate historical shifts and formal innovations in the fine arts to those in interior design, furniture, glassware, metalwork, ceramics, etc.
The wing tiself required five years of preparation and construction and consists of a spacious glass-enclosed sculpture graden court and a three-floor structure built around the old and rather cramped multilevel American wing. The Charles Engelhard Court, compete with relfecting pool and landscaping, is 70 feet from floor to skylight and contains a selection of 19th- and 20th century sculpture and architecture elements. Among the latter are teh 1822-24 facade of the United States Branch Bank, originally located on Wall Street, and the loggia designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the entrance of his Long Island home.
The new wing also inlucdes the period rooms dating from the 17th century the early 19the centuries. These rooms had been a part of the older wing, as well as permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, and open study areas. New period rooms dating from the later 19th century to early 20th centuries are now being prepared for opening at a later time.
The permanent display area for the museum's collection of paintings and sculpture is in the Joan Whitney Payson Galleries on the second floor of the wing and on the mezzanine. These works couldn't ask for better quarters. The rooms are spacious and light -- and ideal for viewing both very small and very large works.
Among the largest paintings in view is Emanuel Leutz's huge and famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware." No matter how often I see this painting, I can never get over its size and how much better it looks as a reduced reproduction in a history book than in full size on a wall. And yet, although it is far from being a great painting, its presence in these galleries is highly appropriate. It belongs here every bit as much as the Statue of Liberty belongs in New York Harbor.
One's stroll through American art history in these galleries begin with a cluster of Colonial portraits. The first of these could easily be mistaken for similar works executed in England at the same time or a little earlier -- except that These American versions are a bit stiffer and drier. The most interesting of these contain purely American details. The landscape background of Boston in John Smibert's portrait of "Francis Brinely," for instance, is one of the earliest known paintings of that city on record.
With John Singleton Copley, direct, full-bodied portraiture begins to win out over imported style. In his "Mrs. John Winthrop" we fell the personality behind the frills and laces. It is a real woman who meets our gaze so directly, one who would feel completely at home in the company of the very alive men and women Thomas Eakins painted a century later.
We next meet the artist who gave us our notion of what the American Revolution and its heroes looked like; John Trumbull, Gilbert Stuart, and Charles Willson Peale. Then on to the era of romanticism with Samuel F. B. Morse, Thomas Sully and George Healy. We see the mythology of local lore and of the magnificance of landscape taking shape in George Caleb Bingham's "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri," Thomas Cole's "The Oxbow," and Albert Bierstadt's "The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak." After seeing the Bierstad as a youngster, it came to represent the Rockies to me every bit as much as Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" came to represent the War of Independence.
This survey of American art now widens to include some of our more accomplished masters: Frederick Church, Asher B. Durand, George Inness, Eastman Johnson, Albert Ryder, Thomas eakins -- all of whom are represented by outstanding works. But the very heart of the exhibition for me was a small group of Winslow Homer paintings. Homer was as authentic as American voice as we have ever had, and this group shows him at his best. "Northeaster," in particular, is a superb painting.
Closing out the 19th century, we come to Saint-Gaudens, Whistler, Sargent, Chase and La Farge -- as well as to John Henry twachtman, whose "Argues-La-Bataille" is one of the real surprises on view.
Finally, in the last gallery, we come upon a small selection of early mid-20 th-century art. Included here are works by Henri, Sloan, Prendergast, Lawson, Bellows, Dove, O'Keefe, Sheeler, and others. These are wll chosen and representative -- and lead us up to the period of post-World War II American art , which is not included here.
American art couldn't get better treatment than it receives in these new galleries. Not only can most of these paintings be seen better than before -- a matter of cleaning and of better light -- but viewing these works in chronological order allows for much clearer notionof continuities and disparities in our cultural history than was possible when these works are scattered throughout the museum.