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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.

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