NEW YORK—The Metropolitan Museum of Art is embarking on a momentous project to improve the way visitors experience its collection of European Paintings (1250–1800) by replacing and updating the galleries’ skylights. Constructed in 1939 and last remodeled in 1952, the current system consists of 30,000 square feet of glass and a louver system, which admit natural overhead light into the galleries. The project will begin in April 2018 and will be carried out in two phases over the next four and a half years.
“As stewards of this historic architectural landmark, we are committed to maintaining superior facilities for the collection and for our visitors,” said Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO of The Met. “By undertaking this important infrastructure project, the Museum will be ensuring impeccable light quality and ideal viewing conditions in our European Paintings galleries for years to come.”
The project will impact the galleries dedicated to European Paintings, 12500–1800. The new system of louvers above these galleries will result in a diffused light that can be closely maintained and adjusted for each season.
“Natural light is crucial in the world of paintings—whether you are the artist, conservator, or viewer. It is only with natural light that one can fully appreciate the artist’s intentions for the work,” said Keith Christiansen, the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of European Paintings at The Met. “The current skylights have illuminated our celebrated European Paintings collection for more than half a century, and now we eagerly look forward to presenting the works in a new, more evenly distributed light.”
Phases of the Skylights Project
The skylights project will be completed in two phases. To prepare, The Met first carried out two years of extensive research and testing, including constructing a test site in New Jersey to determine the optimal system.
The first phase of the project will begin this April. By July, approximately 60 percent of the galleries at the top of the stairs leading from the Great Hall will be closed. These include the galleries devoted to Italian, French, and Spanish paintings of the 14th through the 18th centuries.
During the second phase, currently scheduled to begin in 2020, the process will reverse and the newly lit galleries will be re-opened while the remaining 40 percent of the galleries will be closed.
To ensure that The Met’s greatest masterpieces remain on view throughout the project, many works will move to other galleries. Beginning in July 2018, a curated selection of paintings will be displayed together in the southern half of the European Paintings galleries. Then, in October 2018, the exhibition In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met will open in the Robert Lehman Wing, uniting Dutch paintings from the European Paintings collection with paintings from the Lehman, Altman, and Linsky bequests.
The Museum’s website features a video on the skylights project, and will offer updates on the progress and new ways to engage with The Met’s European Paintings collection online.
History of the European Paintings Collection and Galleries
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s world-famous collection of European paintings encompasses works of art from the 13th through the early 20th centuries. Apart from its many individual masterpieces by artists as diverse as Jan van Eyck, Caravaggio, and Seurat, the Museum possesses the most extensive collection of 17th-century Dutch art in the western hemisphere, including outstanding works by Frans Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Its holdings of El Greco and Goya are the finest outside of Spain, while the survey it offers of French painting between neo-Classicism and post-Impressionism includes extensive holdings of the work of Corot, Courbet, Manet, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, and Van Gogh.
The collection traces its origins back to the founding of the Museum in 1870, when 174 paintings were acquired from three private sources in Europe. Since then, it has been enriched by numerous donations, bequests, and purchases so that today, together with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., it possesses the most comprehensive survey of European painting in the western hemisphere.
For more than 100 years, the Museum’s European paintings collection has been displayed prominently in galleries at the top of the staircase leading from the Great Hall. Part of the original 1880 building, these galleries were modernized and refitted between 1951 and 1954 to accommodate the expanding collection. Further growth required a major reinstallation of the galleries in 1972 in 42 contiguous galleries, which still could only provide enough space for the display of 60 percent of its collection of 2,500 works. To remedy this, the 19th-century European paintings were moved to a newly constructed wing at the south end of the Museum in 1980 and the 20th-century paintings were moved to the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing when it opened in 1987.