Monet had his poplars. Van Gogh, his cypresses. Visitors to the Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture Galleries at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art can have them all, along with Degas's dancers, Millet's peasants, and Renoir's apple-cheeked children. After two years' reconstruction, the museum has opened what is billed as ``a new museum within the museum.''
``New'' hardly seems the right word, however, for the Beaux-Arts setting in which the paintings hang. In contrast to the former galleries - a modern gymnasium-like shell in which masterpieces were displayed on temporary partitions - the redesigned spaces now feel positively retro. Ornamented by classical columns and cornices, the rooms resemble the 19th-century Salon, the official showcase of ``approved'' art that, ironically, refused to display much of the work now deemed immortal here.
Fittingly, the entrance to the new galleries houses grandiose Salon paintings like Cabanel's ``Birth of Venus'' (1875), against which the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists so vehemently rebelled. In the process, they created an art in which individual vision replaced the stuffy dictates of academia.
Besides exhibiting some of the best-loved paintings in the Met's collection, the 21 galleries offer a historic tour of 19th-century art. The tour is almost exclusively French. With the exception of English landscapists like Turner and Constable, French artists dominated the century, producing an outburst of innovation rarely matched since the Italian Renaissance.
The century kicks off with the meticulous draftsmanship of Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, represented by elegant portraits that define cool precision. Amid such a profusion of knockout art, it's a minor cavil to lament the omission of Ingres's stunning ``Princesse de Broglie,'' relegated to the Robert Lehman Wing.
The next gallery, devoted to Romanticism, is the opposite of Neoclassic restraint. Delacroix's ``Abduction of Rebecca'' (1846) is a high-keyed depiction of sensuality and violence, illustrating Goethe's credo that sums up the Romantic Movement: ``Feeling is all.''
Constable's serene ``Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds'' (1820) illustrates the worship of nature prevalent in Wordsworth's England, while Turner's ``The Whale Ship'' (1845) portrays the raw fury of nature in a near abstract maelstrom of paint and slashing brushstrokes.
Realism is represented by Daumier, the Barbizon painters, Corot's opalescent trees, and - above all - by two galleries of Courbet canvases. Courbet refused to paint idealized deities as required by the Salon style of history painting. Instead, he heeded Baudelaire's call to express ``the heroism of modern life,'' rendering humble people in everyday activities.
Edouard Manet appropriately occupies a double gallery at the heart of the 19th-century rooms, for his work is the pivot around which the rest turns. In his classically inspired scenes, Manet paid homage to tradition. In eschewing anecdotal detail and technical ``finish,'' however, he broke the ground that the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists would cultivate so fruitfully.
In ``Woman with a Parrot'' (1866), Manet's fresh colors depart from the ``brown gravy'' of historical painting. His energetic handling of paint overturned David's injunction against visible brushstrokes. Viewers accustomed to the polished illusion of three-dimensionality considered Manet's simplified images, set like stencils in hard contrast against a vague background, ``a practical joke.''
Once Manet established that painting is not a window on reality but a reality in itself, composed of color, lines, and shapes, the field was open for his followers. As Renoir said, ``Manet was a whole new era of painting.''
The roster of Impressionists includes Degas, Renoir, Morisot, and Sisley. Conspicuous by her absence is Cassatt, whose work is banished to the American Wing, even though she lived and worked in France.
The two Claude Monet galleries dazzle with the greatest breadth and depth of achievement. His early, open-air paintings capture a slice of light as fleeting as a firefly's flicker. (Bystanders reported that Monet would throw down his brushes and refuse to paint so much as a leaf if the sun went behind a cloud.) In the late waterlily canvases, form dissolves in pearly color.
The parade of visual majesty continues with Gauguin's celebration in his Tahitian canvases of what he called ``the dream caught sight of.'' He claimed as his motto ``dare everything'' and explored the capacity of intense color to evoke emotion.
Van Gogh's works show how he took nonconformity to an extreme. His bold colors, thickly applied in a swirl of turbulent strokes as in ``Cypresses'' (1889), inspired Matisse and the Fauves.
Enshrined amid the Met's collection (through December) are three galleries of paintings owned by Walter Annenberg, which will be an eventual bequest to the museum. In many cases, the juxtaposition highlights an artist's evolution. In early and late views of Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cezanne, the artist's obsession with nature's underlying geometry becomes increasingly apparent. One late painting portrays the mountain as a faceted prism of diagonal brushstrokes (see above). Voila the root of Cubism.
The sculpture collection includes notable examples by Rodin and Degas. Like the paintings, they show the trend toward suggesting the essence of life and movement rather than imitating external form.
As a whole, the galleries document how the mission of art switched tracks in the 19th century. Art gradually deviated from the tradition of reproducing appearances. Instead, it became a vehicle for expressing one's individual perception.
Van Gogh summed up the license this century passed to the next:
``I let myself go, paint what I see and how I feel,'' he wrote, ``and hang the rules!''