THE next best thing to a leisurely walk through the Hudson River Valley or along the shores of Wisconsin's Door County is an unhurried stroll through the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, where the Manoogian Collection of American paintings is being shown. In canvas after canvas, the viewer encounters nature at its best and most diverse. There are the wild, panoramic mountain, lake, and forest landscapes of Frederic Church and Thomas Moran; the serene, civilized nature studies of George Inness and Martin Johnson Heade; and the sparkling, Impressionist-inspired outdoor scenes of William Meritt Chase and Theodore Robinson.
But that is only the beginning, for the Manoogians also collect genre and rural-life paintings, pictures of the American West, still-lifes, portraits, and figure studies. Almost everything, in fact, for which 19th-century American art is noted. Most of the big names are well represented, and some of the more interesting works are by painters with lesser reputations.
It is an extremely handsome and rewarding show, one that makes few demands and that includes more superb scenery, interesting subject matter, and beautiful painting than one might expect in an exhibition of 90 early American works of art.
The show proves once again that painting on this side of the Atlantic during the 19th century was not as backward as we've often been told. That it was, in fact, very good in general and excellent at times, thanks to a number of truly exceptional painters.
Of the best of these, only Homer, Whistler, and Ryder are missing here - but through no fault on Mr. Manoogian's part. As he explains in the exhibition catalog, he would love to own major works by these artists, ``but very few are available.''
Most remarkably, the collection was begun in the early 1970s and only became a serious commitment a little over a decade ago. To have assembled so many excellent paintings in so short a time required dedication and substantial financial resources, both of which Manoogian obviously had.
``Initially I was interested in contemporary art,'' he writes. ``My first acquisitions included Pollock, Stella, Kline, and David Smith.... Unfortunately, my home had limited wall space, which made collecting large paintings difficult. At that time, there were a number of collectors in the Detroit area who had a great love of 19th-century American art. I think some of their excitement rubbed off on me, which started my collecting in that direction.''
Once his commitment to 19th-century art was made, he began collecting in earnest. He writes, ``I have always admired the great 19th-century landscapes because they were painted when our country was still young and growing. They expressed the uniqueness of America, as opposed to portraits, whose style might have been copied from other times and places. Another area I have always loved is genre, because these paintings show American life as it was and as it has evolved.... I also love trompe l'oeil still lifes.... I admire their precision and detail.''
Manoogian is certainly not mistaken about 19th-century landscapes, several of which rank among America's all-time masterpieces. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees, with the result that many of this country's finest paintings - from Thomas Cole's early panoramic wilderness views to the slightly later glories of the Hudson River School - have been downgraded in favor of works with less appealing subject matter.
Even Homer's extraordinary late seascapes and Chase's light-struck outdoor scenes haven't been given full credit.
And more is the pity, for the best of them surpass all but a handful of American paintings produced in the 20th century.
I challenge anyone, for instance, to visit this exhibition and to not be moved by Jasper Cropsey's 1858 ``The Backwoods of America,'' John Frederick Kensett's 1852 ``Landscape,'' Thomas Whittredge's 1865 ``Twilight on the Shawangunk Mountains,'' and George Inness's 1887 ``A Breezy Autumn.'' Or, for that matter, the landscapes of Moran (even if they are somewhat melodramatic), Bricher, Gifford, Durand, and Duncanson.
HEADE also scores significantly, first with his haunting landscape ``Sunset on the Marshes,'' and then with a series of 16 very small oils of hummingbirds collectively known as ``The Gems of Brazil.''
Among the genre paintings, George Caleb Bingham's famous ``The Jolly Flatboatman'' and George Henry Durrie's ``The Half-Way House'' are outstanding (how Durrie could paint trees!).
As for the later paintings, here, too, Manoogian provides the viewer with a profusion of riches. Even in this company, John Singer Sargent's brilliant ``Miss Helen Dunham'' stands out, as do Chase's ``The Nursery,'' Robinson's ``Low Tide,'' Prendergast's ``Cove with Figures,'' and Lawson's ``Harlem River.''
Having seen the show, I can understand perfectly why Manoogian wrote, ``I'm often asked, if the house is burning down, which of your paintings would you grab? Forgetting value for the moment, it would be quite a few; I'd probably try to grab all of them.''
After its closing at the Metropolitan Museum on Feb. 25, this excellent exhibition, which was organized by the National Gallery and the Detroit Institute of Arts, travels to the latter institution.
It can be seen there from March 27 through May 27.