Five extraordinary paintings from the Metropolitan Museum.
by Richard Pantell | July 27, 2016
I can literally say that I grew up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My parents first brought me there when I was six years old, and soon after, those visits became weekly. By the time I was nine or ten, I started going there on my own, taking the subway down from the Bronx. I remember making two trips to see the Mona Lisa when she visited New York —four hours waiting on line!
In order to determine which five paintings to single out from the Met’s amazing collection, I had to think about which paintings are most meaningful to me…this week. Here they are:
The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt, painted in 1863, is the nineteenth century’s answer to CinemaScope. Its large scale, approximately 6 by 10 feet, is fitting for such a monumental scene, allowing me to become part of its environment. The depth, luminosity, color, and air within the painting have held me captive. After many decades, I’ve never tired of seeing it. The image was painted from sketches that Bierstadt made while accompanying his friend Frederick Lander on a surveying mission in Wyoming, in 1859. After Lander’s death during the Civil War, Bierstadt named the peak in his painting after him. The name “Lander’s Peak” is still used on maps today.
Wondering if the scene was exaggerated or partially invented (especially as the work’s scale does not allow for plein-air painting to be combined with Bierstadt’s grandiose vision), I went onto Google Maps and found that it was not. The area is still very much intact, aside from logging operations. The waterfall was not visible—it may have been seasonal or invented, as were the cliffs on the far side of the lake. The Native American tribe Bierstadt depicted is the Shoshones, many of whom today live on a nearby reservation.
Working from the sketches after returning to his studio back East, Bierstadt used the technique of oil glazing, the building up of multiple thin layers of transparent paint over an underpainting. This gives the painting a glowing luminosity. Bierstadt was part of the Hudson River School, many of whom used an approach later referred to as luminism.
Next on my list is The Weeders, painted by Jules Breton in 1863. Though not as large as Bierstadt’s painting, its luminosity and color dominate visually from three galleries away. Breton also used a glazing technique. The scene depicts a group of women bending over as they conclude their work, grabbing the last light of day. Yes, it is romantic, and yes, it looks comfortable when in reality it might not have been. The fading light appears so bright that the women in the foreground seem to darken until I shield the upper portion of the painting, allowing my eyes to readjust onto those in the foreground. I love the dusk and this is a great example of it.
Jean-Léon Gérôme painted Pygmalion and Galatea in 1890. It is the smallest work among my nineteenth-century selections. The artist painted several variations on this theme. While Gérôme was an impressive painter, my particular interest in this canvas is more the story than the well-executed painting. The story, from ancient Greek mythology, is about a sculptor named Pygmalion who just couldn’t seem to find the woman of his dreams, so he sculpted his fantasy woman, wishing somehow that his perfect woman could come to life. Venus, the goddess of love, observing this and figuring that Pygmalion wasn’t a bad fellow, decided to allow his fantasy to come true. This popular theme had been painted and sculpted for many centuries prior and was still popular among Gérôme’s contemporaries. In Gérôme’s painting we see the moment that life comes to Galatea as she is bending over to kiss Pygmalion. You can see that warm flesh tones working their way down towards her legs that at this point are still stone. (This is a nice effect from Gérôme’s glazing technique.) So, Pygmalion and Galatea were married—with Venus herself in attendance. They had a kid or two and lived happily ever after.
However. I’m not so sure. Yes, he had the ultimate love of his life. But my point is that Pygmalion was still a great artist. I’m wondering what he would have sculpted next—certainly not another woman. The success of his Galatea would be tough to follow. Maybe some great monumental piece? I believe he would have attempted this, trying to work it all out with studies and sketches. But alas, his heart was no longer in it, the passion was gone, and all that was left was labor. He was a one-hit-wonder at a very young age and desperate for a follow up hit. Pygmalion needed inspiration, but from where? He looked toward the bottle hoping for some mind-expansion, but one bottle wasn’t enough and he became a heavy drinker. There were still bills to pay. After all, Galatea literally came with nothing—no dowry, and not even the clothes on her back and she was starting to get a little bit cranky. Sculpting miniature jockeys with lanterns to sell as lawn ornaments was not an option. His public expected more. The story did not have the happy ending that we were hoping for.
My next selection is The Hermit (1908) by John Singer Sargent. At first glance, the painting resembles an abstract expressionist work painted nearly a half-century later, but suddenly the hermit’s face emerges. Then as one stands back, the forest fills itself in and then a final surprise—two deer! The brushstrokes are broken down to sunlight and shadow, and sunlight and shadow, with very few details. Our brains fill in the details.
The hermit, recently awoken, has had his breakfast and has perhaps a journal in his lap. We can pity him, envy him, or both. Those thoughts are more about us than Sargent. He has given us that opportunity. This was masterfully painted by an amazing artist who saw the sky as the limit, that is, the sky of Pluto.
Finally, we come to Government Bureau (1956) by George Tooker, painted in egg-tempera. Much of Tooker’s work revolves around the theme of man being trapped within a man-made environment. His inspiration struck after spending frustrating weeks in Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, waiting on lines to get the required permits for renovations on his house. Nothing in the painting is moving. We see the bureaucrats’ worn eyes peering through the windows with their motionless fingers ready on calculators, but the order to proceed has not yet come. The figures themselves are as repetitive as the architecture. All of the participants are part of a much larger Kafkaesque machine.
Technically, Tooker’s egg-temperas seem to glow. Painstakingly painted in the classical manner, utilizing the glaze technique and using small brush strokes of opposite colors, he would produce only one to three paintings a year. While much of his painting had light and dark, much of the contrast was between warm and cool color. I had the pleasure of meeting him once, and I was amazed to see how much that he had used his own likeness as the model for so much of his work. I felt as though I was speaking to a character in one of his paintings, which I was! His paintings came from within.
George Tooker and another favorite artist who is also represented in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, Edwin Dickinson, both studied and taught at the Art Students League. Both were teaching in 1968 — and I keep thinking that maybe at that time it would have been a better idea for me to have left high school, thus giving me the opportunity to have studied with these masters. Oh well, another case of 20/20 hindsight.
I have many more favorites at the Met: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez, van Eyck, Bonheur, Zorn, Sorolla, Millet, Beckman, Dix, and more. Next week I will probably have a different list of favorites.