Where can you find a British country house, Italian chapel, Spanish monastery, French chateau, sculpture courtyard and Egyptian temple, besides thousands of art treasures, in the middle of New York City? The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, backing onto Central Park. Could it be more perfectly placed? I was amazed at the Met, with how some sections felt like a traditional art gallery, some like walking through a life-size dolls’ house and some like a museum of the ancients, and also how without even walking through the door I could fulfil one of my many screen references I wanted to do in New York – pretending to be Blair Waldorf sitting on the Met steps. But beyond my Gossip Girl dreams, I was so excited to get inside and find out what the Met had to offer, and here are some of my highlights if you’re lucky enough to find yourself on those Met steps about to walk inside! (By no means did we manage to pack in visiting the whole of the museum, and I’m already compiling a list of things we missed that I’d like to go back for!)
EUROPEAN SCULPTURE AND DECORATIVE ARTS
Here is where you can find yourself in a life-side dolls house – and not just one, but many. The Met has a vast array of period rooms (some of which I realised I missed when I was flicking through my guide book when I got back to England) which have been faithfully reconstructed or pieced together from original panelling, furniture and accompanying objects. You were able to walk through the Tapestry Room from Croome Court in Worcestershire – this was gifted to the museum in 1958 – a staircase from Hertfordshire’s Cassiobury Park and dining rooms from Lansdowne House in London and Kirtlington Park near Oxford. Here you can see eighteenth century influences such as Palladian architecture coupled with French rococo and Italian baroque designs in the stucco decorations, which were key design features in Georgian England. I loved that there was a room with Tudor panelling nearby to a Georgian dining room, which was so typically light and airy compared to the darkness of wood decoration.
The Met not only presents a sweep of country house interiors, but also furniture, with galleries containing various pieces before you walk into the fully intact interiors. From here, you can walk into reconstructed interiors of French chateaux where there is gold and cream panelling surrounding beautiful gold and silk furniture. It is kind of like taking a walk through the history of the European elite home, which was pretty exciting!
I can’t not mention the Costume Institute exhibition that was on in the Robert Lehman Wing galleries. Manus X Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology was absolutely spectacular, with a centrepiece of a Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel wedding dress that had a train twenty feet long covered in gold embroidery. Unfortunately this exhibition closed in September (we were lucky enough to catch it in its final days on show), and at the moment the Costume Institute is hosting the Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion exhibition, but here are some pictures of all the great dresses which I couldn’t help but take photos of. The clothes on show were a mixture of haute couture and ready-to-wear pieces which showed how designers combined the use of handmade and machine-made techniques to solve design problems and create new ideas.
I particularly enjoyed the embroidery and lace work sections as the dresses on show there (lots of Chanel and Dior) were so beautiful, but then I found this beautiful black dress in the leatherwork section so I don’t think I could pick a favourite (if you’re listening, Costume Institute, I would happily borrow any of them!). It reminded me quite a lot of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in that there were lots of textiles and costumes in the museum alongside art and sculpture.
This was something else I was incredibly excited for – having seen it in Maid in Manhattan (when Jennifer Lopez’s character attends a dinner as senatorial candidate Ralph Fiennes’ date hosted in this gallery), it certainly didn’t disappoint. The Temple of Dendur is set in a huge gallery which has a glass wall looking out onto Central Park. The benefit of this (besides giving a spectacular view) is that it lights up the space and shows off the carvings of gods on the outside of the temple, which were done in sunken relief so as to be lit up by the Egyptian sun. Built around 15BC, the Temple was given to the United States by Egypt in 1965 and presented to the Met two years later. It shows an understanding of the natural world, with carvings of papyrus and lotus blossom on the inside joined by lots of symbols of the sky, including Horus, the sky God and a sun disk. It is truly spectacular and is surrounded by a water feature which makes it a very calming space to sit in the museum, despite being a particularly busy part of it!
PAINTINGS AND SCULPTURE
The selection of paintings on offer to look at was absolutely phenomenal. To keep this short and sweet I’m only going to be able to pick a few: so here is some Titian, Courbet and Degas. My favourite artist Titian made an appearance with this beautiful Venus and Adonis, painted at the end of his career. Titian was particularly famous for his mythologies and Venuses and he created whole cycles of mythologies for various patrons. A Venus and Adonis from 1554, which he completed as part of his series of poesie (painted poetry) for Philip II of Spain, is in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. (Read more about Titian, poesie and Museo del Prado here https://historylizzie.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/titian-and-the-painted-poetry-for-philip-ii/ ). Venus’ back is softly contorted as she reaches out to stop Adonis from leaving, in a pose I’m not sure is humanly possible to hold but Titian manages to make look extremely stable.
Nearby you can also find Gustave Courbet’s brilliant realist work of 1851-2, Young Ladies of the Village, in which he featured his three sisters as offering alms to a small girl. It shows his belief in the regional and in showing the social reality of the poor in a large and noble size. Courbet was particularly excited about this painting, but it was rejected as clumsy – if you look closely, the proportions are slightly off but it shows how he never really painted what he saw, that everything had an underlying message.
Finally, a model of Degas’ Little Dancer aged Fourteen stood with a background of Degas’ dancer paintings, which was particularly striking. The original, sculpted out of wax with a real tulle tutu, satin ribbon and wig, was exhibited at the 1881 Impressionism Exhibition (though Degas always saw himself as a Realist) and caused uproar. The dancer was not seen as a piece of art, but rather an ethnological specimen – it was seen as the first true attempt at modern sculpture. The Met’s model was cast by A. A. Hébrard in Paris in 1922, and is made out of bronze with a cotton skirt.
It’s true that when you visit the Met, you’ll see the world – it represents it to all four corners, and I only wish I had more space and time to fit in all the great things that were there (or that I now want to go back and seek out!).
- The Met has great opening hours, Sunday-Thursday 10am-5.30pm and Fridays and Saturdays it opens late until 9pm. It’s also included on the New York Pass if you get that to go and visit, but we found when we visited, on a Saturday afternoon in late August, that the queues for tickets weren’t too bad anyway. (Though we could have been lucky!)
- They also run EmptyMet tours which I’ve now discovered and am desperate to go and do – you get a tour before it opens for the public and your ticket also includes entry to not just the Met Fifth Avenue, but also the Met Breuer and Cloisters. I think I’m going to have to start saving to go to New York again! http://www.metmuseum.org/visit/met-fifth-avenue