It is apt that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American paintings galleries, closed for the past four years for a massive renovation and expansion that encompassed the entire American wing—the other parts of which have already been completed—are reopening to the public during an election year, on Jan. 16. And not just any election year, but one during which the very definition of Americanness—what American values are, what it means to be patriotic, whether the president is American—seems always to be at stake.
While walking through the old galleries, designed in the 1980s, was akin to slogging through one big, unwieldy block of text, the experience now feels like a novel made up of 26 short, elegant chapters, each containing manageable themes.
The greatest hits of the Met’s collection, like John Singer Sargent’s alluring Madame X, are, yes, back on view in a layout that the museum intends to create an experience that is understandable for the visitor. But another one of the Met’s goals, and one of the real pleasures of these galleries, was creating sight lines between the galleries and arrangements of pictures that add historical resonance to the experience.
There is much to see, from Colonial portraiture and furniture to Impressionism and the Ashcan school. On a recent tour of the galleries, with the installation almost entirely complete, Morrison H. Heckscher, the American Wing’s chairman, walked The Observer through just a few of its great moments.
The galleries’ single period room is a recreation of a room in Albany’s Van Rensselaer Hall. On the walls are facsimiles of Old Master paintings made as wallpaper—portable versions of European masterpieces. Look out one of several entryways to the gallery and you spot, in the next room, a portrait of Euphemia Van Rensselaer, daughter of landowner and politician Stephen Van Rensselaer. She had herself made into a portable version of a European masterpiece: in 1842, the portraitist George P.A. Healy painted her in Paris, with an Italian landscape behind her. Look from a slightly different angle and you can spy one of Asher Durand’s Hudson River School landscapes and imagine you are gazing out one of the windows of the Rensselaer home. Exit this period room through another one of its openings, look back, and you spot a grandfather clock in a gallery behind it, looking, from a certain perspective, as though it is in a farther room of the house. It’s a triumph of clever installation.
Adjacent to the Rensselaer room is what Mr. Heckscher called the “main historical corridor.” One particular vignette here might be called hallway of aging in office: it’s possible to look past Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of General Washington during the Revolution and a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington to, in the next gallery, a full-length portrait of Washington at the end of his presidency, also by Stuart. Concluding this vista is Emanuel Leutze’s monumental, dramatic 1851 vision of Washington Crossing the Delaware, which, Mr. Heckscher points out, “is not for a moment trying to be based on the details. It’s meant to be a grand statement. It really encapsulates the fact that though our raison d’être is the aesthetic quality and importance of the works of art, there is a strong historic armature of history that runs through this, and that I think will be appealing to many of our visitors who are not connoisseurs of American paintings but who are interested in American history.” It now boasts a brand-new frame specially made to replicate one seen in an early photograph.
The enormous gallery in which that last painting has pride of place, and for which it was specially designed, is an example of how museum display can evoke history in subtle ways. Washington Crossing the Delaware is flanked here by Frederic Edwin Church’s majestic landscape The Heart of the Andes (1859), which came out of Church’s trip to South America, and a great Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863), which resulted from Bierstadt’s first trip out West. (Next to the Bierstadt is one of many recent acquisitions that have never before been on view at the museum, a study of four Indian heads that appear in the painting.) These three paintings were in this same arrangement in New York in 1864, at the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, a fund-raiser for money to provide health care and other services to the Union Army.
Next door, appropriately, is a gallery devoted to the Civil War era and dominated by Winslow Homer. Here is Homer’s Prisoners From the Front (1866), when the artist was essentially a war reporter for Harper’s Weekly. Visiting the Union front, he depicted the capture of Confederate soldiers in a painting that put him on the map. Turn around and look back across the gallery that houses Washington Crossing the Delaware and you are gazing straight into a room with paintings from Homer’s late career, when he focused on sparsely populated scenes, most of them made on the coast of Maine. There’s The Gulf Stream (1899), in which a man steers a ship on a roiling sea as sharks circle below him. “There’s nowhere else in the world where one can see seven of these great late Homer pictures together,” Mr. Heckscher said.