Skip to main content

French Lessons: Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art's New American Wing, and Paris Photographs from the Second Empire

The New American Wing, the second phase of the renovation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American collection, has opened to the public, including the Charles Engelhard Court and the period rooms of decorative arts. In spite of the name, the wing feels as much French as American, given the museum's strengths in French-influenced artists like Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany, collaborators on several occasions for projects favored by East Coast patricians. Richard Morris Hunt's French-style lamps that once graced the entrance of the museum take a new place in the airy room, a court that echoes the classical mindset of the Founding Founders (of the Met and of the nation) and the aesthetic preferences of its early tastemakers.

The museum has repositioned many of its decorative objects, making new use of the balcony space. While new computer screens aid in understanding the form and function of the decorative objects, the works themselves, although exquisite, tend to reinforce old school notions of Americana. With the exception of the sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright room, the one that looks the most radical and the most comfortable in context, there's not much evidence of a nation that looked west for a significant part of its history. Though the Met has a different mission that the Smithsonian, for example, I'd love to see a period room here representing the diversity of the American experience - a California Mission-style house, a Texas Victorian ranch, or a beautiful adobe structure with New Mexican retablos and Spanish furniture.

One stunning highlight of the American wing, although French in spirit, is American artist John Vanderlyn's "Panoramic view of the the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, 1818–19." First exhibited in a building called the Rotunda near City Hall in New York and now installed in a large circular room in the museum, the panorama was a sensation in its day, giving the viewer the illusion - we may call it virtual reality, of actually walking through the gardens of the great French palace. The work is impressive in its precision, though once again, the effect is more French than American.

For those interested in seeing a special exhibition that deals forthrightly with France, I recommend a visit to the Met's small focused exhibit titled Napoleon III and Paris (The Howard Gilman Gallery through September 7, 2009). The modernization of Paris under the direction of Baron Haussmann, a powerful city planner who directed the destruction of the medieval and less hygienic city in favor of wider and more manageable boulevards and the construction of a monumental Paris, is told through the photographers of the 1860s and 1870s, many of whom were commissioned to document the changes. The exhibit is divided into Old Paris and New Paris, culminating in images of the ruins of Paris following the crisis of the Franco-Prussian War and the brief uprising of the Commune of 1871. Yes, people often compare Baron Haussmann to Robert Moses, the man who oversaw much of the remaking of modern New York.

I didn't know how to resolve these dueling ideologies of the civic city. In gazing through the exhibit's stereoscopes, half of me wanted to roam the orderly tree-lined sidewalks of the Boulevard de Strasbourg in the company of fellow flâneurs. The other imagined herself behind the barricades, seething at the attempts to destroy the mysterious streets of the old world. Those were my thoughts leaving the steps of this grand Beaux-Arts museum and into the rush of Fifth Avenue. It's the duality of how I often feel roaming the streets of this New World city - as a willing booster of its avenues, as clandestine subversive in its winding lanes and streets.

But today, I'm on the barricades. "Le jour de gloire est arrivé!" Happy Bastille Day, everyone.

Additional French-related Posts on Walking Off the Big Apple

Gustave Caillebotte: Impressions of Water
Antoine de Saint-Exupery on E. 52nd Street
Edgar Varèse Lived Here
J.P. Elephant: Drawing Babar at the Morgan
A Walk in Nolita, Sometimes Speaking French
Seurat Out Walking and Drawing on an Ordinary Sunday
The Cloisters: The Unicorn Tapestries and Their Provenance
Homage to Pâte à Choux: French Pastry South of 14th Street
Walking Off the Big Apple with the Situationist International

Elsewhere: Many stereoscopes of Paris in the 1860s and 1870s may be viewed on this external site, stereoscene. It's possible to simulate the 3D aspects of the images by holding your index finger in front of your face at the place in the middle of the two pictures and relaxing. Try not to go cross-eyed.

Exhibit Information:
Napoleon III and Paris
The Metropolitan Museum
June 9, 2009–September 7, 2009
The Howard Gilman Gallery

Images of the New American Wing and John Vanderlyn's "Panoramic view of the the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, 1818–19" by Walking Off the Big Apple, Sunday, July 12, 2009.









Popular posts from this blog

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors.  New landscaping in Battery Park At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020.  Shade plants like hosta thrive in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty is in the distance. With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out.  Statue Cruises is still sailing. It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and

Facing the Dark Ages

A close look at The Met Cloisters Update: The Met Cloisters reopened on September 12, 2020. See the museum's website for ticket information. The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 82-year-old home for its medieval collection in Fort Tryon Park (known as The Met Cloisters in recent years, the result of rebranding), dominates Northern Manhattan like a mystical fortress, like some object of a mythical quest. From nearly any direction, it’s easy to see the tower with its sandy-colored walls, double-arched windows, and Mediterranean style tile roof. Walking south on Broadway north of Dyckman Street , the way of everyday serfs and pilgrims going to market, the otherworldly sight of the imposing structure can transform an otherwise pedestrian journey.  View of The Met Cloisters from the northeast Culture and architect critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), reviewing the museum’s opening in 1938 for his regular column in The New Yorker, didn’t care much for the tower, but that was his

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had