“American Art Really Exists”

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The reopening of the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing this spring deserves the great attention it is likely to get. During the several years that the Wing has been closed for rehabilitation and for new construction that will more than double the size of the old premises, most of the museum’s collections of American art have been in storage. But even in such confinement they continued to grow in size, scope, and importance. When the new construction is finally completed, it will house what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive and representative assemblage of American arts and crafts to be found anywhere under one roof. Here will be seen outstanding examples in every medium and from all periods of this country’s history —painting, sculpture, architecture, prints and drawings, and decorative arts of numerous kinds.

 

The latest and largest addition to this wealth of material, although it does not bear an accession number, is the lofty and spacious glass structure, designed by the architectural firm of Kevin Roche-John Dinkeloo and Associates, that envelops the newly fashioned garden court and other galleries. Beneath this example of strictly contemporary architecture, the courtyard is flanked on one side by the monumental neoclassic marble façade of the United States Branch Bank, built between 1822 and 1824 by Martin E. Thompson and which originally stood on Wall Street. At the opposite end of the court, in brilliant contrast to the massive dignity of that bank facade, there has been installed an arrangement of architectural elements by three of the most celebrated American architect-designers—Louis Comfort Tiffany, Louis H. Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright, all men who have won international renown for contributions to the modern movements of their time.

Between these two facing structures in the courtyard, several dozen sculptures have been selected from hundreds of others in the collection to provide a capsule history of the art as it has been practiced by Americans over the years. (This introductory survey is fleshed out with scores of additional examples interspersed among the paintings shown elsewhere in the Wing. ) The earliest of the figures shown here is an allegorical depiction of California in the form of a nubile but unquestionably chaste female nude modeled at Florence in 1850 by the Vermont-born Hiram Powers. It was the first American sculpture acquired by the museum, just two years after its founding.

In his heyday, Powers was compared by estimable European critics to Praxiteles and Michelangelo. That a virtually unheralded artist from the cultural wasteland of the New World could produce such “sublime” creations as this and his earlier and more famous Greek Slave caught Old World audiences by surprise. The curator of the Grand Ducal Gallery in Florence hailed Powers as “the first sculptor of the Age.” His ardent admirer and friend Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote an impassioned but very indifferent sonnet in praise of his work. Russian princes and British nobles coveted copies of his sculpture, as did his enormously wealthy compatriot William Backhouse Astor, who purchased California for conspicuous display in his Fifth Avenue mansion before giving it to the museum in 1872.

To have ranked Powers with the greatest artists of antiquity and the Renaissance seems to our generation more than extravagant, simply absurd. However that may be, it calls to mind that we all too often tend to use the present as an absolute standard for judging the past, a tendency that reduces much that was once deemed important by qualified contemporaries to the level of quaintness. This is also absurd for, properly understood, no achievement of the past remains merely quaint. As we are frequently reminded, to view the past perceptively and for its own sake may lead to better ways of evaluating the present. We can thus, at least, hope to escape from what the late Bertrand Russell referred to as “the parochialism of time.”

The American Wing is an ideal testing ground for this line of thinking. Aside from affording a panoramic view of the American arts, the exhibits in its rooms and galleries represent an outgrowth of interests and attitudes that played important roles in this country’s social and cultural development. This was manifest from the start. When the Wing first opened in the autumn of 1924, nothing in the history books or books on art had prepared either the press or the public for what was then and there disclosed. It was the first time a major museum had displayed a large and representative collection of early American decorative art appropriately arranged in what have come to be known as period rooms, domestic architectural interiors contemporary with the materials shown in them.

Today, there are thousands of historic houses in the United States and many museum installations dedicated to the same - general principles. But in 1924 the Metropolitan Museum was setting a precedent. To some degree all those later endeavors, such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the restored New England village at Deerfield, Massachusetts, the vast complex of the Henry F. du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware, and so on, all owe something to the earlier model of the American Wing.