THE Metropolitan Museum in New York City is one of the world's great art treasuries. It overflows with marvels from all quarters of the globe and from all epochs of time. Paintings, sculpture, bronzes, carpets, ivories, porcelain, jewels, prints, glass, books, armor, the peculiar treasures of Egypt and the classical world of Islam - right up to photography - are all there.
It is only lately, however, that many of us have come to realize how many of these wonders come from the Havemeyer Collection, presently on special display at the museum. It was this collection, presented to the museum over a period of decades, and culminating in a lavish final bequest in 1929, that lifted the Metropolitan to the status it now enjoys.
Harry and Louisine Havemeyer were both natural collectors, and buoyed up by a vast fortune based on sugar (Harry Havemeyer was known as the Sugar King), they amassed wonderful paintings and objects of art in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. Havemeyer began his purchases before his wife did, and he had a wider range of taste. He was captivated by Oriental silks, porcelain, and bronzes and also loved ceramics from the Middle East. He purchased Old Masters in Europe, n otably of the Dutch and Spanish painters - Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya.
His wife's great love, instilled by her friend and mentor Mary Cassatt, was for the Impressionists. She began to buy pictures while still a girl living in Paris; her first serious purchase was a Degas, for which she had to borrow $100 from her sisters. Over the years, she acquired many of the greatest pictures of Manet, Monet, and Degas, while delighting (as her husband did) in the work of Corot. Unlike most of their contemporaries, the couple sought out Corot's figure studies rather than his landscapes.
They also loved Cezanne and Courbet.
The Havemeyers were married in 1883, after Harry divorced his first wife, who was Louisine's aunt. He is said to have had an income of $10 million a year (and there was no income tax), and could afford to buy freely even when the authorities imposed fines on his transactions amounting to $2 million.
THE Havemeyers' marriage was good: They were happy together with their kindred tastes, traveling to find pictures and sculpture. They built a great house for their treasures on the corner of 5th Avenue and East 66th Street and put its decoration into the hands of Louis Comfort Tiffany and artist Samuel Colman. The couple hosted renowned musical evenings, nurtured their daughters, and increased their possessions. Frick, Kress, and Morgan were doing the same thing, and Carnegie had a house farther up the A venue. This was an era we hear much about, and not always favorably, but the Metropolitan and its visitors certainly gained a great deal from the Havemeyers.
Harry Havemeyer fell in love with Japanese woodcut prints at a time when artists like Whistler were just discovering this rich, evocative art form. The famous Hokusai wave, which now delights many, was then an unusual concept outside of Japan. It took Havemeyer's eye to realize what such prints represented, and how much beauty, inspiration, and technical ability went into their production. Once the Western public was alerted, Japanese prints attracted a wide spectrum of viewers, which is true to this day . The great artists like Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Utamaro were studied, and their extraordinary flair was deeply admired. "The Great Wave at Kanagawa" is a color woodprint done by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) in 1831, during the Edo period. The Japanese artist understood waves. Japan, with its dangerous volcanic terrain, knows not only earthquakes but the accompanying turbulence at sea - tidal waves.
"The Portrait of a Young Man" by Agnolo Bronzino, purchased by Harry Havemeyer, is another familiar picture, and it illustrates how diverse the great collection is. The portrait, brilliant and compelling as it is, also repels many viewers because of its apparently cold, aloof, arrogant subject, a privileged sitter in the late Renaissance world of Florence.
Bronzino does not identify his subject; sometimes it has been suggested that the work was actually a self-portrait. The artist was a literary man who wrote Petrarchan sonnets in addition to producing pictures that seem nearly flawless. The literary arts flourished in Bronzino's time, when the city had gone back to Medici control, and the artistic giants had left it. Yet this artist's work was so wonderful in composition, technique, color, and strength that we never forget his pictures.
Louisine Havemeyer's great acquisitions include many of Degas's dancers. These were bold purchases for a young society matron to make at a time when ballet dancers were considered disreputable and were scorned by a censorious public.
She particularly admired Gustave Courbet (1819-77), acquiring over 40 of his paintings, including the one shown here, a woman in a riding habit. Courbet was a Realist painter with a wide range of subjects, from nature - woods and creatures of the chase - to the working people of his own region. He felt such a rapport with these people that he became a communist and a member of the Paris Commune.
Courbet came from a prosperous, cultivated family of wine-growers in southeastern France, near the Swiss border. Using many technical innovations, he often succeeded in making his pictures seem tactile; they are always vivid and bold, like the painter himself. Courbet's woodland scenes are beautiful and romantic, though also naturalistic, and his seascapes are dramatic and visually compelling. He often painted the eroded limestone cliffs along the Normandy coast, with the rough waves of the English chann el behind them, pictures where there is a strong contrast of light and shade. His nudes were so realistic that they shocked much of the public, but time has changed that reaction.
"Woman in a Riding Habit" shows a fashionably dressed lady, stiffly erect, enigmatic. Her black habit, a flat surface, contrasts with her pale face and hands. Though conventionally constrained, the woman has a hint of enigmatic character and is possibly an individual of strong impulses. Neither the artist nor the subject gives away any of her secrets, but the viewers' curiosity is aroused, and we wonder what she would be like when giving her horse its head and letting it gallop over rough terrain.
Going through the Havemeyer exhibit halls, realizing that El Greco's "View of Toledo," the famous Goya balcony scene, the Frans Hals and the many loved Dutch landscapes all came to the museum through Harry and Louisine Havemeyer, we feel grateful to these two people for their perspicacity and generosity. These treasures seem to have an added glow when we discover where and how they were found and the adventures that brought them to the Metropolitan. * `Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection' will be on display at the Metropolitan until June 20.