Without being pretentious but in an effort to look at familiar art more closely, I herewith embark on a project to evaluate the Met’s collection gallery by gallery, selecting the best and the worst – or, rather, my favorite work and least favorite, for I do not confuse my opinion with quality. (To see a chosen work, just click on the painting title.)
801. Delacroix and Ingres
Best: Jean Dominique Auguste Ingres, Portrait of Jacques-Louis Leblanc (1824). This is perhaps not a great or notable Ingres, but there is little of note to choose from in this gallery, and typical Ingres is still pretty good. (Much better examples are found in the Frick and the Lehman Wing.) He also looks good in comparison to his wife, hanging adjacent. Both their left arms seem unduly elongated, but his at least is hidden by his black jacket, and his face has some personality, not her vapid gaze.
Worst: Eugene Delacroix, The Natchez (1835). This has been my choice for worst painting at the Met since its acquisition, so it is an easy choice here. The side wall is rife with the kind of Delacroix’s I don’t like: sketchy, wild colors, unfinished; but The Natchez has the most ungainly figures in addition, and is of a subject – Native Americans – far outside Delacroix’s ken. In a concession to Delacroix, I should compliment his portrait from the same year as my second favorite work, with a wonderfully frilly cap and ridiculous ruff set off against a soft background. Presumably on commission, Delacroix abandoned his loose style for something more conventional – and satisfying.
802. The French Countryside
Best: Theodore Rousseau, A Meadow Bordered by Trees (c. 1845). Amid an entire wall of Rousseaus, seemingly descended from Hobbema and Ruysdael, this small work is the most resolved and the one I’d live with most happily.
Worst: Theodore Gericault, Evening: Landscape with an Aqueduct (1818). Hard to choose among a passel of sappy, cliched peasant scenes by Millet, so the overgrand Gericault stands out. Admittedly decorative in purpose, it is artificial to its core.
Best: Camille Corot, Hagar in the Wilderness (1835). Corot’s misty grey landscapes looking over the water at Ville d’Avray are generally my favorites, but partly because it would be hard to prioritize among the Met’s three examples I will go with the Salon-size Biblical work, not normally Corot’s strong suit. The lushly arid landscape with crisp sky and warm agaves never fails to please.
Worst: Corot, The Burning of Sodom (1843,1857). Corot does not do people in motion, at least not well; here they are terrible, and the subject and colors are ugly, to boot.
A fun gallery, for a change, that cleverly opens onto the Islamic Wing.
Best: Jean-Leon Gerome, Prayer in the Mosque (1871). A wonderful fantasy full of exquisite details: the pigeons circling overhead and feeding on the ground, the hanging mosque lamps, the richly robed gun-toting potentate with a gorgeous yellow sleeve, the semi-naked ascetic, the line of worshipers that leads the eye deep – all looking like the most normal scene, although it never was.
Worst: Alexander-Gabriel Decamps, The Good Samaritan (1853). A mushy unresolved mystery of a scene, with the main subject buried in the shadows. Decamps is the worst painter to be represented in many museums, and here he seems to have taken all the wrong lessons from Rembrandt. Honorable mention for bad to Bonnat’s offensively schmaltzy Egyptian Peasant Woman (1868) and Gerome’s Tiger and Cubs (1884).
The next three galleries are a catch-up moment for the Met collection: almost everything here was purchased or gifted in recent years as the Met discovered 19th-century plein-air sketches (principally French) and 19th-century art of Northern Europe (principally Scandinavia). Coupled with the modest size of most works, this means there aren’t the highs and lows associated with the galleries with legacy acquisitions and where the big names are favored. Nevertheless, it is possible to pick some favorites, even if the calls are close.
805. French Landscape Sketches
Best: Simon Denis, Aniene River at Tivoli (1786-89).
A brilliant and lively depiction of rapids rushing through a shadowed gorge, emerging from misty background hills and sky. The same artist’s View on the Quirinal Hill, Rome (1800) is very different – a rooftop symphony beneath a boldly blank sky – but almost as good; and it’s hard to overlook the young but masterful Camille Corot’s View of Genzano with a Rider and a Peasant (1843).
Worst: Jean Victor Bertin, Classical Landscape with Figures (1803).
In a room of natural, fresh landscapes, this stands out for its stilted figures from antiquity, their histrionic gestures and the divorced mountains in the distance.
Best: Thomas Jones, Ponte Loreto Near Nettuno (1787).
An intriguing matte finish softens and unifies a vast scene, from the arched bridge in the foreground to a distant city on a hill. A lone shepherd stands in shadow by river’s edge, peering into that distance while his sheep graze on a ledge above him. A rock outcrop at the heart of the composition anchors our gaze and further connects the figure, and us, to the distant church steeple.
Worst: Leon Palliere, The Flagellation of Christ (1817).
The dregs of the Baroque: posed soldiers prepare to whip Christ, before a pseudo-Classical landscape of tightly packed temples and pyramids (reminding me of Poussin filtered through Sebastien Bourdon).
807. Nordic Romantics
Best: Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1825-30).
This justly famous (and repeated) composition recalls Chinese landscapes and anticipates Kindred Spirits. The jagged tree that is balanced by the calm of the men and the eternity of a new moon epitomizes the Romantic spirit.
Worst: Eduard Gaertner, The Family of Mr. Westfal in the Conservatory (1836). The conservatory is overbusy, but it is the stilted figures, reminiscent of Pieter de Hooch, that ruin this scene.
808. Turner and Friends
Best: J.M.W.Turner, Whalers (c. 1845) The white on white of sails against a bleached sky sets off the froth and foam churned up by a bloodied sperm whale. The figures in the chase boats are insignificant, moreso when you see the whale’s fluke surrounding them at the other end of the painting.
Worst: Samuel Palmer, The Shearers (1834). On loan to the Met, so I won’t belabor it; but there’s nothing else here that remotely qualifies.
Best: Claude Monet, Portrait of Dr. Leclenche (1864). Amid a terrible gallery of dark, morose, unnatural portraits by Gustave Courbet, a small, early portrait by Monet of a gentleman sitting casually in an armchair holding a cigar stands out.
Worst: Gustave Courbet, Woman in a Riding Habit (1856). A lugubrious work, both in the sitter’s expression and the muddy background of dark clouds and darker forest. The hat’s bow, normally a painterly flourish, is undistinguished, and “The Amazon’s” left hand appears from nowhere. (Mary Cassatt allegedly called this the “finest woman’s portrait Courbet ever did.”)
810. Manet or Degas?
In a real upswing from Gallery 809, we have here a rare tie for first.
Best: Edouard Manet, Young Lady in 1866 (1866). A simply gorgeous work, painted with total assurance, a wonderful gray background – a model for portraits to come from Whistler, Sargent and Chase. The odd side items – monocle, nosegay, orange, parrot – add color and interest and may represent an allegory of the Five Senses.
Best: Edgar Degas, Woman Beside a Vase of Flowers (1865). Modernity arrives with Degas’s off-center composition; sketchy dress but finished face and hand. A background of floral wallpaper softens the bouquet of chrysanthemums, and a cut-off left hand in the bottom corner anchors the body above. Then you notice a glass pitcher to the bouquet’s left reflecting light from a window – so much going on, so much innovation, so much beauty.
Worst: Manet, The Dead Christ with Angels (1864). Religious works are not Manet’s thing; and his realism doesn’t sit well with angels.
811. Better Courbet, but…
Best: Courbet, Woman with a Parrot (1866). A convincingly fleshy nude with an exotic, erotic parrot.
Worst: Courbet, After the Hunt (c. 1859). A thudding cacophony of excess: six separate “still lives” thrown together, lorded over by a Dandy off the showroom floor in a landscape not worthy of the name.
Best: Johan Barthold Jongkind, View from the Quai d’Orsay (1854). In a gallery of fine landscapes, this proto-Impressionist work jumps out for the clarity of its light, its precision, its perspective, its accurate rendition of a place and time.
Worst: Charles-Francois Daubigny, Hamlet at Optevoz (c. 1852). Nothing really bad in this room, but this landscape is flat, dark and dull – far below Daubigny’s normal high standard.
Best: Fernand Khnopff, Hortensia (1884). Daring in its composition and arresting in its atmosphere.
Worst: Odilon Redon, Bouquet of Flowers (c. 1905). Only because the pastel is so much worse than the oil Bouquet hanging next to it.
814. Degas Sculptures
815. Small Degas
Best: Degas, The Dance Class (1874). So much is going on, but everything is in its place. As the room recedes sharply to the right, no one stands out except the ballet master.
Worst: Degas, Young Woman with Ibis (1860-62). Is this for real? Absurd ibis are painted over a weird woman.
816. Degas Pastels
Best: Degas, Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1878-79). Only a study, but it shows Degas at his experimental, insightful, drafting best with beautifully subtle colors, to boot. Of the Impressionists, only Degas showed us interesting people, as here.
Worst: Degas, Russian Dancer (1899). Twenty years later Degas has lost insight and subtlety, and his experiments hold less visual appeal.
817. Impressionist Portraits
Best: Manet, George Moore (1879). Immediate and fresh, Moore’s startled look is memorable.
Worst: Degas, Woman with a Towel (1898). The artist doth try too much: clumsy pose, exaggerated technique and muddy colors.
818. Claude Monet
Best: Claude Monet, Garden at Sainte-Adresse (1867). Since its remembered acquisition, one of my favorite Met paintings. Three planes echo the French tricolor: red garden, blue sea, white sky. The figures are calm, while smoke from a steamship imparts a hint of motion in the scene. The adjacent Regatta at Sainte-Adresse (1867) is brighter and just as good.
Worst: Monet, Bouquet of Sunflowers (1881). Daubs of weird color have replaced the crisp figures and flowers of Sainte-Adresse, pink and orange being among my least favorite colors, especially when together.
819. Mature Monet
Best: Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Waterlilies (1899). Take your pick from the famous series: Poplars, Grainstacks, Ice Floes, Rouen Cathedral, Etretat, the Seine; but I’ll go with the stunningly beautiful, nearly symmetrical, not-too-fluffy Japanese Bridge.
Worst: Monet, Water Lilies (c. 1918) A really ugly work, oppressive and formless, hard to believe it’s the same Giverny pond as in Japanese Bridge.
Best: Camille Pissarro, Jalais Hill, Pontoise (1867). Early Pissarro, like early Monet, is the best, and this flat, solid, serene landscape is a neighbor to my all-time favorite at the Guggenheim.
Worst: Pissarro, Two Young Peasant Women (1892). I call this pseudo-pointillist Renoir mush, Impressionism gone soft.
821. Renoir and Friends
Best: Eugene Boudin, On the Beach, Sunset (1867). A typical Boudin, which means it’s wonderful, with a lovely soft pre-sunset sky from the King of the Skies.
Worst: Auguste Renoir, Reclining Nude (1863). An ugly and obscenely young girl in a graceless pose – what’s she leaning on? – against a background that combines every color you don’t want to see.
822. Lesser Works by the Greats
Best: Paul Gauguin, The Siesta (1894). Maybe not the best Gauguin, but the lounging woman seen from behind is lovely, and the flat abstract colors and shapes are refreshing.
Worst: Monet, Path Through the Irises (1917). Similar to the Water Lilies in Gallery 819 but worse. We can give him a pass because he could no longer see, but it’s of no benefit to him or us to display these works.
823. A Hodgepodge
Best: Paul Cezanne, Mont Ste-Victoire (c. 1902-06). Maybe unfinished but allows one to see Cezanne’s technique: blocks of color, brown to green to blue, simultaneously flat and receding, with the eponymous mountain peak tucked upper left, an accent, not an undue focus.
Just as good: Georges Seurat, Gray Weather, Grand Jatte (c. 1886-88) Calm, monumental, the best of Pointillism, this simple scene shimmers from afar.
Worst: Georges Braque, Boats on the Beach at L’Estaque (1906). Here is Braque gone wildly Fauve to no good effect.
824. No Standouts
Best: Henri Fantin-Latour, Still Life with Flowers and Fruit (1866). Not even the best Fantin-Latour – that would be Roses and Lilies in Gallery 821 – but this nudges above the surrounding Renoirs and mediocre Sisleys. Early and naturalistic, reminiscent of Dutch still lifes with a split pear and a knife overhanging the table, the earthy reds, green and yellows of fruit in lower left balance the ethereal lilac and white flowers soaring in upper right.
Worst: Renoir: Madame Edouard Bernier (1871). Nothing terrible in this gallery, but the early, firmer Renoir is devoid of magic (perhaps unfair to judge an obviously commissioned work).
825. Greatest Hits, Part I
Best: Vincent van Gogh, Irises (1890). Iconicly simple or simply iconic, van Gogh’s irises have faded to three colors: blue, white and green (no pink background) and are as powerful as they are pretty.
Seurat: Circus Sideshow (1888). Horizontals and verticals freeze a scene in motion into an eternally fixed tableau, while a forlorn bare tree adds a note of irregularity.
Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women (1899). The label calls Woman 1 a “Tahitian Eve,” knowing in her naivete, naked without shame, and indeed she shows us the nicest breasts in the Metropolitan. Her companion with pink flowers complements Eve’s basket of red blossoms, while a mulithued abstract background (foretelling Vincent Augustus Tack) completes the dreamy mood.
Worst: Gauguin, Tahitian Landscape (1892). With ungainly figures, a badly drawn horse, its flatness versus depth unresolved and haphazard colors, I can understand why this work’s authorship was once questioned.
Best: Cezanne, Still Life with Jar, Cup and Apples (c. 1877). Of Cezanne’s wonderful tabletop still lifes, this is the prettiest because of the color harmonies and wallpaper pattern of blue crosses and white diamonds on a brown field. The horizontal tabletop provides unusual stability while the vague bottom third keeps the scene visually challenging.
Worst: Cezanne, Bathers (1875). I’m not a fan of Cezanne’s Bathers, and this early effort is especially weak. Cezanne’s discomfort with nude female models shows in his figures, and a bizarre green cross in the background diverts attention.
827. Salon Art
Best: Alfred Stevens, In the Studio (1888). The least grandiose painting in the gallery with the most going on: It echoes Regnault’s Salome and prefigures Chase; there are Japanese references and, a la Velazquez, the sharpest focus is on a stove in the mirror.
Worst: Leon Frederic, The Three Sisters (1896) [on loan]. Beyond saccharine, with dresses, hands and cheeks all red, artificial and unattractive.
Antonio Mancini, A Circus Boy (1872), by a deservedly forgotten artist, disappears on the wall while all around it jump at the viewer.
828. Mostly Bonnard
Best: Pierre Bonnard, View of the Old Port, Saint-Tropez (1911). Has the abstract shapes of the best Bonnard with a rare recession to a distant coast. Colors dissolve in the bright light of southern France, with dark purple shadows at bottom anchoring the floating pink, orange and yellow of the sun-drenched walls.
Worst: Bonnard, Morning in the Garden at Vernonnet (1917). Ugly from a distance, a mess up close: a blobby bent-over woman in pink in the foreground is bad but trumped by a heavy blonde in mid-ground right. The garden is a sickly green and the trees are no better.
829. Austria and Symbolism
Best: Ferdinand Hodler, The Dream of the Shepherd (1896). Everything you want in a Hodler: a crisp, symmetrical design, a precise, outlined tormented figure, bold greens and blues dotted with red flowers and ethereal nudes floating above in the dreamscape.
Worst: Otto Friedrich, Scherzo (1913). A macabre contortion of young nudes, including a pre-adolescent boy apparently being ogled by one young girl and three young women.
830. Into the 20th Century
Best: Pablo Picasso, Woman in White (1923). Almost monochromatic, with its pinks and browns blending with the white of the dress against a pillow-soft background. Picasso’s neoclassical period is my favorite, and this is as good as it gets. The handsome woman appears to be modeling for her statue.
Worst: Andre Derain, The Sunken Path, L’Estaque (1906). A Fauvist experiment in color and brushstroke that was better left in the studio. Every section of this small canvas is ugly (and surpasses the five sub-par Matisses in the gallery).
Observations on the 19th-Century Collection:
Until I looked closely, in order to select my best and worst, I hadn’t realized how many “not good” paintings adorn the Met’s walls. I was also struck by how committed the Met display is to Big Names. Courbet, Corot, Monet, Degas, Pissarro are leaders among the over-represented. Undoubtedly, this reflects collectors’ preference for the security of name artists, and they are the source of much of the museum’s collection. The curator, as well, can justify accepting gifts of minor works in order to collect an artist “in depth.” Then again, the Met is playing to its audience: most visitors are impressed by the label more than the painting; if the artist is someone they haven’t heard of, they tend to pass the work by quickly, in favor of “here’s a Picasso,” “here’s a Monet.”
The above reasons probably all contribute to the fact that the Met did not own a Caillebotte until recently. Many of his works are better, by any measure, than dozens of the Pissarros and Courbets that flood the Met’s walls, but he was not recognized as a Name during the decades the Met’s collection was being formed. Where are the less famous 19th-century artists at the Met, the Stanislas Lepines, Armand Guillaumins, Giuseppe De Nittis, Mariano Fortunys? The adage that it is better to buy a great work by a minor artist than a minor work by a great artist has been lost or ignored. In any event, while conducting my canvass, I was surprised at how many paintings – even how many galleries – were less than great. I had ignored many of them during repeated visits over the years, and now I see why.