A romantic kind of aura hovers over the phenomenon of a people awakening, with pride, to their own national artistic heritage and creative genius. It is apparent this month as the new American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opens its door to the public after five years and $18 million worth of superb construction and remodeling. The original American Wing, which opened in 1924, closed in 1974 for this major renovation and addition.
So here again is the grand tour of art and American living styles ranging from the utter simplicity of the Pilgrim period through the utter opulence of the early 19th-century "gilded age." When its second phase of installation is completed in a year or so, the wing will exhibit 25 period rooms, including such new additions as a Greek Revival parlor from about 1830, an 1859 Gothic Revival library, and a Renaissance Revival music room of the 1870 period.
It will also show an early 20th-century room from a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and a selection of Shaker pieces and American folk art. New exhibition galleries for the decorative arts will also help display the vast collection's 950 pieces of furniture, 850 pieces of silver, 200 pewter objects, 450 ceramic objects, and large collection of 19th-century glass textiles.
The American Wing is today considered the premier collection of American fine and decorative arts in the world. The idea for the wing grew out of a large and highly successful exhibition at the museum of American furniture, glass, silver, and paintings, held in connection with the Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909. This collection, which had been loaned by H. Eugene Bolles, was later purchased by Mr. Russell Sage and presented to the museum to serve as the nucleus for the new wing. It has been expanded through the years through gifts and purchases of many other acknowledged masterpieces.
Museum director Philippe de Montebello, in referring to the precedent-setting original opening in 1924, remarks in the catalog that "the installation had a profound influence on attitudes toward American art throughout the country. It affected the art market, individual collectors, installations in other museums, and American studies in the academic world."
Harold Sack, president of Israel Sack Inc. and a historian and lecturer on American antiques, calls the reopening of the new wing 56 years later, a "reaffirmation of purpose that will have as much impact now as it did in 1924. It affirms both the blooming and the maturing of interest in American art and antiques. It will give additional impetus to an accelerating market. But, more importantly, it will present a cultural experience to Americans and to visitors from abroad that will have a tremendous effect."
Mr. Sack says that before the opening of the original wing, most directors of museums felt that the American decorative arts were worthy of neither their time nor their space. They, like most Americans, were still inawe of English and European arts and furnishings and confident that the work of most US artists and craftmen was inferior and second rate.
The original opening of the wing also coincided with a growing interest of some wealthy Americans in collecting and preserving the best of the country's past. Henry Du Pont's fascination resulted in the Winterthur Museum in Delaware , Henry Ford's interest brought fourth the Henry Ford Museum and Greefield Village in Michigan, Ima Hogg's collection became the Bayou Bend Museum in Texas , John D. Rockefeller's interest became Colonial Williamsburg in virginia, and Electra Havemeyer Webb's predeliction for early American arts is now apparent at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
Great museum collections that grew in those years included the Karolik Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Garvan Collection at Yale University. These were the predecessors of the hundreds of house and village museums that have followed, all of which have exposed Americans to the riches and unique character and characteristics of their own past.
Visitors to the new wing can not only check out the environments peculiar to life styles of the past, but glory in the exquisite highboys, slanttop desks, wing chairs, sideboards, and tilttop tables which were made in those early furniture capitals of Boston, Newport, Salem, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Providence, and Charleston. Jacobean, william nad Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale , and Early Victorian are among the styles included. Duncan Phyfe and Charles Honore Lannuier are two of the cabinetmakers whose works are shown.
The new wing was put together by a talented battery of curators, with Berry B. Tracy as the curator in charge of decorative arts. Many of the period rooms were made more historically accurate in color and furnishings in their fresh presentation.
The new wing is now again taking its place as a major museum attraction for visitors. But it also has new study facilities for scholars. It is a tour de force of American creativity and not to be missed.