Published: December 23, 2008
Philippe de Montebello has been called the “conscience of the profession,” the “most admired museum director of his generation,” and he is further credited with running the “best-managed museum in the world.” Stepping down at the end of the month as the director of America’s greatest art museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, de Montebello has certainly earned his accolades. After 30 years and 700 comprehensive exhibitions, he is the longest serving leader at any major museum in the world.
As part of his stellar leadership, de Montebello, 71, has managed a professional staff of more than 300 curators, conservators, educators and librarians, backed by an administrative staff of 2,300 employees, about double the number when he became director in 1977. He also manages an annual budget of $100 million in a two-million-square-foot building that hosted 4.6 million visitors last year. Guiding the Met to new heights with quality exhibitions and scholarly publications, he has made it a must-visit destination for serious art, antiques and antiquities lovers.
He was born in Paris, the son of a World War II French Resistance leader who became a painter, art editor and art critic. The family came to the United States in 1951. For a time, de Montebello wanted to be a painter, but he soon recognized that this was not his calling and went off to Harvard, where he majored in art history. After studying French and Netherlandish painting at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, he joined the Met’s European paintings department in 1963 at age 27. With the exception of 1969‱974, when he ran the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, de Montebello has served continuously at the Met, rapidly climbing to chief curator (1974) and director (1977).
Regarded as stiff and pompous at the outset, de Montebello has mellowed over the years, gaining the admiration and respect of the public and his staff, especially the large corps of curators. The latter group notes how he has grown in the job, applauds his catholic tastes and salutes his ability to inspire those around him.
“He’s willing to go along with his curators when they recommend something for acquisition,” observed one curator. Said another, “The Met is one of the last places where curators actually matter.”
It is fitting, therefore, that the man who restored the primacy of the curatorial function should be feted as he retires with an exhibition, “The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisition,” on view through February 1. It consists of 300 works selected by curators in 17 of the museum’s departments from the 84,000 objects collected during de Montebello’s tenure. They have been assembled and integrated by exhibition coordinator Helen C. Evans, the Met’s curator of Byzantine art. The occasion offers an opportunity to juxtapose centuries and cultures and differing media not normally possible within the museum’s collections galleries.
The breadth of the museum’s acquisitions is suggested by three highlighted works collected in 1979, early in de Montebello’s tenure. That year, the Met acquired a red sandstone “Standing Buddha Offering Protection,” dating to the late Fifth Century and conveying qualities of inner calm and wisdom; a hauntingly beautiful painting by Johannes Vermeer †the museum’s fifth †”Study of a Young Woman,” circa 1665‶7; and American artist Ralph Earl’s “Elijah Boardman,” 1789, depicting the learned, richly dressed dry goods merchant in his New Milford, Conn., store in which an opened door offers a glimpse of the bolts of textiles from which he made his living.
An interesting Islamic work was donated by de Montebello himself and his wife, Edith, in 1991 †a sizable white “Plate” audaciously decorated by Turkish craftsmen with cobalt blue Chinese designs, circa 1580.
De Montebello approved acquisitions of a wide variety of non-European artworks. Among the highlights: a remarkable early Mesopotamian copper sculpture of a “Striding Horned Demon,” circa 3000 BC, whose upturned boots, ibex horned headgear and bird of prey draped around his shoulders suggest power and shamanic beliefs. Not as old, but equally impressive is an Egyptian “Ritual Figure” from around the Fourth Century BC, made of superbly carved wood and formerly clad in lead, which may depict a pharaoh or a mythical being.
Among standout works from the department of Islamic art is a minutely detailed, brightly colored, candidly expressive watercolor illustration of the Sixteenth Century poems of Hafiz, “‘Allegory of Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness’: Page from the Divan of Hafiz (Collected Poems of Hafiz),” circa 1526′7.
Added to the Met’s trove of Greek and Roman art in 1992 is an impressive “Support for an Oblong Water Basin,” Second Century, made of red porphyry quarried in Egypt, then under Roman rule, featuring at the ends that supported water basins, large lions’ heads and enormous paws.
Among de Montebello’s African acquisitions is an eye-catching wood-paint-metal-ceramic “Mangaaka Power Figure,” second half of the Nineteenth Century, from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola. The figure’s headdress, metal adornments, aggressive posture and gesture suggest the assertive attitude of this Kongo personification of power.
A stunning addition to the Met’s Asian art collection is a “Bodhisattva Padmapani,” dating to the Tenth or Eleventh Century. Made of gilded copper with multicolored, semiprecious stone inlays, the “bearer of lotus” figure is composed in the Nepalese traditions of that time.
Among the magnificent paintings and sculpture added to the museum’s European collections, perhaps the most publicized is the exquisite, tempera and gold on wood “Madonna and Child,” circa 1295‱300, by Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. De Montebello nearly broke the bank to obtain this tiny (11 by 8 1/8 inches) rare panel that documents a defining moment in Western art when Duccio, rather than painting a symbolic image of a divine being, depicted his figures as human beings and explored their psychological relationship.
Another standout is Peter Paul Rubens’s full-length “Rubens, His Wife, Helena Fourment, and One of Their Children,” circa 1630. Rubens, then in his 60s and nearing death, gazes tenderly at his beautiful, young second wife and child as they walk through the Garden of Love.
On a more expansive scale are Canaletto’s “Piazza San Marco,” late 1720s, detailing the main square of Venice, and Vincent van Gogh’s iconic “Wheat Field with Cypresses,” 1889, a colorful view on a sunny, extremely hot day, painted in the year before his death.
Two well-known works of the Parisian turn-of-the-century avant-garde stand out, starting with Pablo Picasso’s “At the Lapin Agile,” 1905, which shows the 24-year-old artist in a harlequin outfit, standing at a Montmartre café table with a striking femme fatale, as the café owner strums his guitar in the background. Using a decorative style and Fauvist palette, Henri Matisse painted a masklike face and colorful costume for the subject of his memorable “The Young Sailor” in 1906.
Drawings by Edgar Degas (of Edouard Manet) and Paul Gauguin (of Tahitian faces), augment impressive Impressionist acquisitions. Degas’s etching of Manet, seated with hat in hand, captures something of the latter’s intensity, while Gauguin’s appreciation for the Maori people he encountered in the South Seas is suggested by his charcoal sketches of a native.
Two quite different pieces stand out among the European sculptures acquired on de Montebello’s watch. They range from Medici court sculptor Giovanni Battista Foggini’s marble busts of “Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici” and “Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici,” circa 1676‸2, featuring the balding, commanding father and his young, curly haired son, both swathed in lace cravats and other opulent adornments, to Constantin Brancusi’s smooth marble, minimalist image of a bird in flight, “Bird in Space,” 1923.
A notable addition to the museum’s large European decorative arts collection is an oak veneered “cabinet (armoire),” 1867, animated by varied wood adornments, silvered bronze mounts and a central plaque of a battle scene by sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet. The cabinetmaker was Charles Guillaume Diehl; the designer Jean Brandely.
The museum’s 1995 acquisition of more than 8,500 photographs from the Gilman Paper Company collection propelled the “Metropolitan to the top ranks of photography collections worldwide,” according to Malcolm Daniel, curator in charge of the department of photographs. One masterpiece, Onesipe Aguado’s “Woman Seen from the Back,” circa 1862, is an enigmatic portrait from behind of a carefully coiffed and elegantly dressed woman of rank.
The Met’s effort to catch up in the field of American art continued during de Montebello’s tenure, as epitomized by the acquisition of an early Winslow Homer watercolor, “Boys in a Dory,” 1873. Painted in Gloucester where he began experimenting with the new medium, this beauty shows three local lads wiling away time in a boat under brilliant sunshine and on rippling water.
Among the Impressionist works added are “Low Tide, Riverside Yacht Club,” 1894, by Claude Monet’s friend Theodore Robinson, depicting a view from Cos Cob, Conn., across the Mianus River to the local yacht club, and Childe Hassam’s beautiful evocation of the famous, naturalistic flower plot on Appledore Island, “Cecilia Thaxter’s Garden, Isles of Shoals, Maine,” 1890. Of more recent vintage, shoring up the museum’s post-1945 American collection are works by Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and its first Robert Rauschenberg, a “combine” (mingling painting, sculpture and collage), “Winter Pool,” 1959, in which a 7½-foot ladder separates two 6-foot canvases covered with paint and found objects.
Among the American photographs acquired are a tiny daguerreotype of the stern, dignified abolitionist Frederick Douglass, circa 1855; a simple but compelling Walker Evans view of three African American barbers sunning themselves in front of their Vicksburg, Miss., shop as they wait for customers and a characteristic Diane Arbus shot of offbeat people, “Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, N.Y.C.,” 1963.
Additions to the museum’s already large collection of American decorative arts include a neoclassical, silver hot water urn, 1791, by Paul Revere; an elaborate Jacques & Marcus brooch, circa 1882‹2, fashioned of gold, pearl, garnets and diamonds in a charming, if somewhat creepy insect pin; and a delicate hair ornament, circa 1904, by Tiffany created of precious metals, opals and garnets that are employed to depict dragonflies resting on dandelion seed balls.
The most fascinating object is an “autograph quilt,” circa 1856‶3, measuring 77 by 80 inches, made up of small diamond-shaped pieces of white silk stitched into a “tumbling blocks” pattern. The pieces contain autographs of eight American presidents, several famed artists, scientists, ministers and educators, Civil War heroes and authors, such as Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Two magnificent chests, 100 years apart in age, stand out. One astutely proportioned mahogany chest-on-chest, standing more than 7 feet tall, was made with characteristic refined craftsmanship by famed colonial Newport cabinetmaker Thomas Townsend in 1772.
An exuberantly decorated Modern Gothic-style cabinet, circa 1874‷7, was designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness (who designed the grand Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts building) and constructed by skilled furniture maker Daniel Pabst. This monumental piece features perforated door panels and reverse-painted ribbed glass panels.
Additions to the museum’s arms and armor collection include an elaborately decorated armor of Infante Luis, Prince of Asturias, 1712, made by the French royal armorer for the 5-year-old prince. Also notable is a French rococo flintlock gun, 1735, with steel mounts chiseled in low relief of classical gods and goddesses and a carved walnut stock inlaid with silver wire ornaments.
The department of musical instruments acquired a handsome guitar, made in 1937 by German craftsman Hermann Hauser, which was used for a quarter-century by celebrated guitarist Andres Segovia.
The Costume Institute, founded on de Montebello’s watch, boasts in its growing collection a 1740s dress made in England with Dutch or German silks that replicate Chinese painted silks and an exotic silk velvet and metallic thread “Paris” coat designed by Frenchman Paul Poiret in 1919.
The foregoing merely hints at the treasures in this celebratory exhibition. The exhibition reminds us that we can be grateful for Philippe de Montebello’s leadership in acquiring superb works that fill gaps in the Met’s collections and immeasurably enhance this encyclopedic museum, one of the world’s great art museums.
The accompanying online exhibition catalog, which illustrates and explores each object, works well. It is available at www.metmuseum.org; enter the site and click on “The Philippe de Montebello Years” exhibit.
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