A week ago today I went to my favorite place in the world: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a dizzying experience even before you walk in the front door, with its neoclassical facade stretching before you. That feeling is only compounded when you get inside and realize you could probably spend a week there and not see everything. I almost missed the 19th century paintings, my favorite area, the first time I went. I’ve had two years to get to know the place, so here are my top picks from the permanent collection. Warning: they’re all paintings and all skew heavily to my areas of study…hey, it is my blog after all. To get a comprehensive taste of the Met I encourage you to explore all the curatorial departments online (or in person if you’re lucky).
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the central figure in this painting has one of the most beautiful faces in all of art history. The Met has four Caravaggios, all earlier works as far as I can tell (only two are dated). The artist is most famous for his later, darker, more muscular paintings, but I think it’s nice to see something earlier on the timeline. You can get a sense of Caravaggio’s growth as an artist (even dark geniuses improve with age).
One of Ingres’s best known works has a mouthful of a title, but it speaks for itself. Ingres fancied himself a history painter but never caught up with the trend of painting war scenes. Instead, his portraits are considered his best work. This painting lies in the home like Robert Lehman Collection, which includes everything from Medieval art to Renoir. The realism of this piece is striking, especially in the fabric of it’s subject’s dress. The woman’s flesh looks as if it could be made of cold marble, but the folds of her gown look sumptuous and touchable.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to the Met, and this beauty was waiting for me at the end of a long hallway. Not only is it one of the most stunning portraits of all time (of all time!), it has a fascinating and kind of sad back story. Madame X’s name is actually Virginie Gatreau, an American expat and socialite in Paris. She was famed for her strange beauty and affectation for lavender powder (part of the reason for her ethereal pallor). Sargent painted her with one dress strap falling down. When the painting was revealed to Paris, viewers were scandalized. Sargent repainted the strap on, but the damage was done. Both the artist and model were humiliated by the experience, and Sargent soon returned to America. The painting stayed in Sargent’s studio until 1916, when he sold it to the Met, saying, “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”
I’ve had a print of this painting in my bedroom for years. I don’t know if this is the reason that I cry every time I see it, but there you go. There’s something about Van Gogh paintings in general that just send me over the edge. Those famous fat brush strokes are amazing in person, and it’s overwhelming to comprehend that Van Gogh actually. touched. that. I’ve been known to cry merely upon walking into a museum, but there are definitely certain triggers. This will always be one of them.