The Metropolitan Museum of Art Opens

"Madame X" by John Singer Sargent (LEO Design)

Madame X (detail) by John Singer Sargent (1884)

In 1870, a group of American businessmen, artists, and society types joined forces to establish a grand, new American art museum—its goal to bring art and culture to the American people.  Perhaps they also wished to show Europe that “the new country” had the taste, money, and wherewithal to compete in the big league.

On this day in 1872, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in its original location, 681 Fifth Avenue.  Alas, the Victorian Gothic Revival architecture was considered (by some) to look dated by the time the museum was opened and plans were soon laid to move to a new, larger building several blocks uptown.  At 2 million square feet, the museum is the largest and most-important in America.  It is amongst the finest art museums in the world and one of New York City’s chief attractions.

One of my favorite paintings in the collection is Madame X by American painter John Singer Sargent.  The subject is the artists’s friend living in Paris, Madame Pierre Gautrau, an American married to a French banker.  Although Sargent was an in-demand society portraitist, he did not paint his friend as a commission—he painted her for himself.  When exhibited at the 1884 Paris Salon, it created a scandal.  The sitter’s indifference to the viewer, plus the jeweled strap falling-off of her shoulder (since re-painted), was considered so shocking that Sargent was forced to move out of France—a career there was now impossible. He kept the painting in his private collection for a number of years, finally selling it to the Metropolitan Museum.  Toward the end of his life, Sargent wanted to make sure he had found a secure home for the painting, of which he remarked, “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done.”

Interestingly, when I first moved to New York City, Madame X was relegated to hang in a Met Museum stairwell—alas, Mid-Twentieth Century art academics so despised Sargent (and his beautiful pictures).  In the last twenty years, it seems, these curators have re-evaluated their sentence (or, younger academics began to replace the older ones).  Today, Madame X has pride of place amongst the museum's other American masters—and she hangs on a proper wall, in a proper gallery, amongst other great Sargent paintings.  

Sometimes things do get better!


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