The Eagle in Flight

John Haber
in New York City

The Met's American Wing

A gilded eagle had an unlikely flight. William Rush carved it in 1809 and 1810, for a Lutheran church in Philadelphia, where it supported a sounding board behind the pulpit with its iron tongue. By midcentury it had come to rest in Independence Hall, not far from Rush's own statue of Washington. Now, still suspended by a chain and still atop its gilded sphere, it presides over the first room in the Met's new American wing, which soars.

Of course, its meaning has changed—from an attribute of Saint John to the American eagle to the spirit of American art. Rush understood national symbols all along, though, and so does the Met. It centers the wing on a single floor for painting and sculpture, from the colonial era to the Ashcan school. And it centers that floor on its hoariest display of patriotism, Emanuel Leutze's life-size Washington Crossing the Delaware. It does so with a knowing wink at its audience, too. The press would not have insisted so often on Leutze as icon rather than art without the museum's prompting. Martin Johnson Heade's Approaching Thunder Storm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1859)

Of course, too, the painting is storytelling, and the renovation is telling stories as well. Lots of them, in fact, and they overlap. By bringing painting together on one floor, the Met sets out American history as a series of unfolding themes. The same characters often reappear in new roles, as artists or as subjects. By moving the Ashcan painters here as well, it also says that the evolution of American themes did not end abruptly with Modernism. The museum gets to boast of its collection as at once authoritative and open-ended, and it makes for a terrific reintroduction to American art.

Too big to fail

Museums are always telling stories, loaded ones at that, with the power to back them up. Postmodernism insists on the fact, but the American wing was just plain begging for a critique of power and institutions. When it opened in the 1980s, excitement ran high. I myself was just discovering the Hudson River School as a cherished meeting of Romanticism and naturalism. I rushed to see favorites like Heart of the Andes, by Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt's Rocky Mountains with its Indian encampments—but I rarely came back. Everything felt cramped and isolated, not so much given context by the period rooms as trapped in the past.

Worse, one had to cross yet another national symbol at the end of a dull courtyard—the façade of a bank. This was art as too big too fail, which meant that it did. Improvements to the nineteenth-century wing in 2008 hardly touched its foregrounding of pure schlock. A farewell celebration of "The Philippe de Montebello Years," in 2009, half blended into a gift shop. The Lehman wing is still a waste of space, the modern wing still unwieldy, and the fake classical court between the central building and the last two centuries still an eyesore. Now at last, as with the new Islamic wing, the Met is starting to undo some serious damage.

The American wing took its present shape less than thirty years ago, with the museum's first distinct galleries for painting and sculpture. The Met could simply have shut the place down and started over, as it did for Islam. Instead, change has come gradually over ten years, with a reopening in stages since 2007. The new painting galleries merely complete the job. The basic architecture has not changed either, although the firm of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo has found another three thousand or so square feet of display space. Yet this time small changes matter big time.

The bank is still there, with the court flanked by tiers for the decorative arts. Over three levels, they have a nice history all their own. So do the period rooms, starting on the third floor. One can travel from the earliest rooms, with their low ceilings and bed canopied as if to escape the darkness, through a growing richness. One can still see work not on formal display, too, in glass storage cases. Even they look more welcoming, thanks to better lighting and touch screens, allowing one to match a work to its description. Still, one mostly enters now from a side door to the bank, and guards happily direct one to the big deal of the second floor.

That floor alone wraps the entire way around the back, for painting and sculpture. It does not cut them off from history. After early portraits, one gets a kind of tutorial on American beginnings, with a few rooms for silver, elegant dressers and grandfather clocks, and a more public period room—a long salon with grisaille wall paintings. This floor's galleries in turn wrap around a room for the big boys and big pictures, with Leutze's cleaned and restored museum piece at its center. Washington's crossing gets a long approaching vista from preceding rooms, not to mention a copy of its weighty original frame. And, believe it or not, it does not look bad at all.

It dates from the same years as those other ambitious landscapes, and it builds drama from horizontal storm clouds and dawn as much as commanding gestures. The big boys actually hung together before, during the Civil War, in a Metropolitan Sanitary Fair west of Union Square. (Aiding the U.S. Sanitary Commission meant a lot more back then.) Still, it pays to circulate around them all first, in the smaller rooms, to find other stories and other connections. The Met makes a big deal of bringing painting together on one floor. Not that you would mind moving from one floor to another, I know, but you will appreciate the stories and connections.

A republic of virtue

Even that central room says that something more is stake. Each room now gets a name, in this case "History, Landscape, and National Identity." Sure, Leutze has the approach by water of an entire army at right, an engine that drives the painting forward and balances nicely the pyramid of Washington and the flag. Sure, Church's Andes still combines unearthly precision with a cascade of sky, mountains, forest, and an actual waterfall. Worshippers at a cross gain significance by being only a small detail in the larger scene. Yet the large room fits in Church's oil sketches, too, from a man who seemed to think in the translucent glow of oil and natural light.

Better yet, leave that room for last, along with the question of national identity. (Actually, stuck at the end of a wall, by an entryway, Heart of the Andes is one of the few curatorial failures.) Reviewing the collection makes as little sense as reviewing a two-hundred year history of American art. It makes more sense to review the surprises and the artists thinking. The one distinct alcove, for portrait miniatures, has in fact a working artist's tools—and Edward Greene Malbone's ring-size illusion of a peephole for his wife's eye. To create an identity, Americans were looking hard for a sense of place and of each other.

First, though, they had to figure out whether they were Americans. Colonial portraits pretty much imitate British art, with less skill and more modesty. Only John Singleton Copley pulls off Joshua Reynold's strong colors and high gloss, but even then with more focus on thought, work, and character than status and surface. And, sure enough, soon after independence, the British are back as heroes—in a war with Spain for Gibraltar. At least one of their defenders, John Trumbull, also painted Washington. He did so often, when artists were shaping their leader's image, too.

Washington appears again and again in those years, because a public demanded it, much as Benjamin Franklin sat often for portraits in France. Before Gilbert Stuart and the presidency, though, try Trumbull's version from 1880. Washington still dresses as a general, and he points to a deep landscape as a gray as a battlefield. He looks young, casual, and ready to talk—and so does his slave behind him. One can see why portraiture remains the genre in demand for a generation, why it turns more and more to a rising middle class, and why that hides all sorts of class and racial conflicts. Ralph Earl's well-dressed merchant displays his record books along with his textiles like a fine library.

Women appear as spouses, muses, and even artists, but not yet as lovers or shapely nudes—not in this republic of virtue. One of the few early women artists, Lilly Martin Spencer, takes a wry view of a young husband going to market. Sarah Goodridge revises decorum things more overtly, with a miniature on ivory of a woman's breasts, as Beauty Revealed. One of the first nudes, European style, comes from Asher B. Durand, in the room before he and others invent the Hudson River School. And the first thing one may see in that next room is a group of men and woman by Jerome B. Thompson on a mountain picnic. Even the American sublime starts as a weekend diversion.

Folk art gets its own room, with the period's most famous woman artist, Ammi Phillips. Yet there, too, one has much the same emerging America. Alongside mothers and children are sea battles, grand landscapes, and new cities. Along with The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks painted Niagara Falls. And "peaceable" is still the word, right up to the Civil War. George Caleb Bingham, William Sidney Mount, and others can show traders, rafters, cider makers, and debaters, but always with time for leisure and community.

Beyond community

The Hudson River School shifts to the great outdoors, no longer the first settlers' rural paradise. It nestles beneath Durand's canopy of trees, at home with the texture of bark and leaves. It expands for Sanford Robinson Gifford to an immense valley, where light flows and gathers like honey. The founder, Thomas Cole, combines the reality and the myth with a goblet of light in a natural setting. Later artists, like Church and Bierstadt, ascend to greater and greater contrasts between dark skies and sunlight or warm climates and ice. With Martin Johnson Heade's approaching thunder, black pond, distant sail, and figure seen only from the back, the sublime turns to solitary meditation and encroaching darkness.

Sanford Robinson Gifford's A Gorge in the Mountains: Kauterskill Clove (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862)Once again, the stories cross periods and themes. If one skips the Leutze room, one may first spot Bierstadt with Frederic Remington and the West. But no one crosses as many rooms and peoples as Winslow Homer. He is there in the 1860s, for a reaper in late afternoon and with African Americans dressing for carnival. He is there at the turn of the century for his seascapes, sharing a room with Thomas Eakins. In the most dramatic, the sky is calm, lit by a searchlight, while the canon overlooking the Cuban harbor is firm and dark.

First, though, he is there at the front in the Civil War, and he is not alone. Gifford paints at least two views of a fort—as just one sign of the war's central place in this history. War already colors Heade's 1859 approaching storm, and it brings the end of an ideal of community. It brings distinct regions, darker emotions, and a turn to self-reflection, starting with the trompe l'oeil letter racks of John F. Peto and William Harnett. Harry Willson Watrous paints the old-world heritage in ruins, in fragments of a church sculpture. One could imagine a direct line from them to "art for art's sake."

The Civil War triggers one last hope of reconciliation. Homer paints northern soldiers treating less-heroic prisoners of war with respect, and Enoch Wood Perry calls a painting from 1872 Talking It Over. Soon, though, the cosmopolitan eye turns from the heartland and toward Europe. John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, and others discover France. Cassatt dominates a room for images of women, with affection and insistence of a woman's labor, but she and Hassam are the sole American Impressionists to nail Impressionism. They redefine European art in terms of family, cities, and American themes.

Often they respond to the new art by responding to themselves and to each other. John La Farge paints himself as a limber shadow in broad daylight, easily at home beside the moonlight fantasies of Albert Pinkham Ryder. When Sargent paints Chase and Chase paints James McNeill Whistler, they learn from their subject, not a bad thing for Chase especially. The final room for the new century has its place after all. From Hassam's New York in every season of the year, it is not all that far to the darker city streets and park scenes of John Sloan, William Glackens, and the Ashcan school. Eakins often sets paintings clearly in his studio, and that is before Modernism.

From changing images of Washington to changing images of the wilderness and the city, Met does not just present a history. It makes painting look good, by making paintings look at each other. It places sculpture in almost every room, from portrait busts to duck decoys. It shows the American eagle still in flight, not quite ready to land, with the textbook triumph of American painting another fifty years away. With luck, the wing's stories will keep changing. Will Washington Crossing the Delaware be their centerpiece forever?

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The new American wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its galleries for painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts January 16, 2012. A related review looks at the Met's 2013 installation of its galleries for European paintings.


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