Despite having the good fortune to live just a short walk away, a proximity that I take advantage of as often as possible, there are still many areas of the museum that I have only passed through briefly or never even visited. And so, when I was invited to participate in a walking tour called "Meet The Met", I jumped at the chance!
Walks of New York, kicked off a three hour exploration of The Met's "greatest hits".
We began at the beginning, in the section devoted to Ancient Egypt where some of the museum's oldest artifacts are on view. Passing sculptures, vessels, jewelry and sarcophagi, we came to the Mastaba Tomb of Perneb, built around 2300 B.C. and featuring walls decorated from floor to ceiling with colored depictions of the good things that one might like to take along into the afterlife.
Still in the Egyptian Wing, we visited the Tomb of Meketre (1981 B.C), learned the origins of The Met's unofficial mascot William the blue hippopotamus, and ended up in the spectacular Temple of Dendur. The Temple of Dendur was constructed of sandstone along the banks of the Nile near Aswan, Egypt, in 15 BC. Facing the imminent destruction of the Temple with the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1965, the government of Egypt offered the United States the unique opportunity to dismantle, transport and re-assemble one of their cultural treasures. Today the Temple of Dendur occupies pride of place in the museum's Sackler Wing and is the site of many upscale events and fund raisers.
Five hundred years later we found ourselves looking in a vitrine next to the gift shop where the Antioch "Chalice" is humbly displayed. I confess that I have have passed this unprepossessing, somewhat beat-up silver object countless times without ever realizing that it was once considered to be the actual Holy Grail!
The next stop was the Arms and Armor Collection, where, amid life size models of horses bearing knights in shining armor, we find the actual field armor of England's King Henry VIII. Forged of steel, blackened, with gilt and etched decorations, the suit was every bit as regal as its oversize wearer.
From Medieval England we crossed to Colonial America and the atrium of the newly restored American Wing. This beautiful space with its magnificent Tiffany mosaics and decorations features the actual Neoclassical facade of the Wall Street headquarters of the Branch Bank of the United States on the north wall, while the graceful gilded statue of Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is the central focal point.
Zigzagging back in time and through the museum's first floor, we came to The Met's magnificent collection of Greek and Roman Art. It was fascinating to see how the arts had evolved both aesthetically and technically from the ancient Egyptian models. Now, for the first time, men were portrayed in marble in all their athletic glory as the human body became something to be admired rather than hidden.
From the Temple of Artemis at Sardis we passed into Melanesia and the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas where wooden artifacts from the Southwestern Pacific are displayed under a ceremonial house ceiling comprised of about a hundred decorated sago palm spathes.
Here the focus was more on paintings, as opposed to sculpture and objects, as we explored some of the highlights of the museum's incomparable collection of 19th and 20th century European art. We stopped to admire a "blue period" Picasso, Van Gogh's "Wheat Field with Cypresses", and a Rembrandt late self-portrait before arriving in the gallery that houses The Met's astonishing group of five Vermeer paintings. I say astonishing not only because of their exquisite beauty, but because with only 34 paintings in Vermeer's entire repertoire, The Met has the largest holding of his work in the world.
"Young Woman with a Water Pitcher", circa 1662
With a quick jog through the Department of Musical Instruments to see a 1939 Martin Guitar played by Eric Clapton, we came to the American Wing and the last stops of our tour. The penultimate painting was John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)", 1883-84. This stunning portrait of a "professional beauty" in a black velvet evening dress caused a scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1884. The sensuality of the pose, the exposure of the shoulder (a strap was later painted on), the extreme whiteness of the sitter's skin as enhanced with arsenic powder, all proved too much for French society and the painting was removed. It remained in Sargent's own private collection until he died and is one of my very favorite paintings in the museum.
Finally we come to one of the most iconic paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Washington Crossing the Delaware". This massive canvas (it measures over 21 feet wide) was painted in 1851 by the German artist Emanuel Leutze and is actually the second version of the subject - the first was destroyed during a World War II air raid in Germany. Though the subject commemorates an event of major importance in the American Revolutionary War, it is full of historical inaccuracies. The actual crossing of the Delaware River occurred on Christmas Night, 1776 but in the painting the sun is shining on Washington's face. The size of the boat could never have held all the passengers on board, nor could they have stood up, unsupported in the choppy water. The Stars and Stripes that is so prominently displayed was not designed until 1777 nor do icebergs flow in the Delaware River in the winter. Nevertheless, it is a stirring painting and was an appropriate ending for our tour.