Where else can you find masterpieces extending from the dawn of civilization to today; or encyclopedic holdings from all the major cultures on earth; or genres ranging from paintings to period rooms, sculpture to suits of armor, metalwork to musical instruments—all situated in a palatial building beside one of the world's most magnificent parks?
No other museum covers the history of humanity and its achievements as thoroughly as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Professor Richard Brettell believes that The Metropolitan Museum of Art is not just the greatest art museum in America, but that it is also the most complete encyclopedic art museum on the planet, rivaled only by the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, whose collections have significant gaps by comparison.
A Consummate Guide
Professor Brettell is a scholar, an author, a teacher, and a former museum director, known to many Teaching Company customers for his dazzling investigation of a much-loved period in From Monet to Van Gogh: A History of Impressionism and his overview of a legendary cultural icon in Museum Masterpieces: The Louvre. Above all, he is a consummate guide who delights in selecting superb works of art and then exploring their resonance with other works. For example, in this course he exploits The Metropolitan Museum of Art's wide-ranging holdings to draw your attention to masterpieces that share intriguing similarities, linking different cultures, genres, and periods:
- Two noble countenances: Auguste Rodin's lifelike portrait bust of Honoré de Balzac from 1891 evokes, in its realistic power, the remarkable 4,000-year-old copper head of a ruler in the museum's Ancient Near Eastern Art collection.
- A study in forms: The overlapping abstract forms of Willem de Kooning's 1949 painting Attic strikingly recall the figures crowded onto the surface of Roman funerary sarcophagi or the swarming melee in Nicolas Poussin's The Abduction of the Sabine Women.
- Mother and child: Every culture uses art to depict the bond between mother and child. Professor Brettell chooses four paradigmatic examples: an early Italian painting by Berlinghiero, a 14th-century Indian copper sculpture, a pre-Hispanic Olmec figurine, and a Renaissance relief by Andrea della Robbia.
Many Museums under One Roof
In these 24 visually rich, half-hour lectures, Professor Brettell takes you through The Metropolitan Museum of Art from front to back, from bottom to top, introducing practically every department in the museum. Each is a museum unto its own, representing one of the world's finest collections in its field. You will see an astonishing number of works—more than 400 in all—focusing on Professor Brettell's favorites, and in the process touching on virtually all of the best-known pieces in the museum, and many more besides. His is a personal tour, driven by his enthusiasm and a ceaseless curiosity to see riches of The Metropolitan Museum of Art unknown even to him.
Your journey begins in Lecture 1 with a brief history of the museum, Central Park, and the city itself. Then you proceed up the broad steps facing Fifth Avenue and into the museum's Great Hall. Lectures 2–5 take you to the complex of galleries at the front of the building, dealing with the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, ancient Egypt, Asia, the ancient Near East, and the Islamic world.
Then in Lectures 6–9 you return to the Great Hall and ascend the grand staircase to The Metropolitan Museum of Art's outstanding collection of European paintings, covering the Renaissance to the 19th century. Here you find masterpieces by Giotto, Raphael, Dürer, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and many others. Lectures 10 and 11 cover the nearby Department of Drawings and Prints, which has the largest holdings in the museum, plus the Department of Photographs; these collections are largely in storage, and you will see treasures that are normally not on display.
Lectures 12–15 take you to galleries in the heart of The Metropolitan Museum of Art on the first floor, devoted to European decorative arts and sculpture, along with the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the ancient New World. These four lectures present a study in contrasts, covering the height of European culture represented by its rooms, furniture, statues, and other objects, followed by a survey of some of the world's most powerful non-European art, including masks, figures, and ritual vessels produced on three continents and countless islands over a span of 3,500 years.
Lecture 16 is a study in contrasts itself, featuring musical instruments, arms, and armor. Then in Lecture 17 you descend to The Metropolitan Museum of Art's ground floor to investigate fashion and fabrics at the Costume Institute and the Antonio Ratti Textile Center, whose extensive holdings are rarely seen by most visitors.
In a great sweep across the back of the museum, you study American art in Lectures 18 and 19; you sample 20th-century art in Lectures 20 and 21; and you tour the Robert Lehman Collection in Lectures 22 and 23, exploring a wing devoted to one of the most extraordinary gifts of art by a single individual. These six lectures feature scores of artists such as Sargent, Whistler, Picasso, Matisse, Goya, and Renoir. Lecture 24 concludes the course with a look at some of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's most illustrious donors and directors.
You would have to move through the museum at superhuman speed to take in all of the works investigated in detail in the 12-hour running time of this course. Yet the experience with Professor Brettell is one of a relaxed stroll with a very knowledgeable, very personable, and ceaselessly curious companion. The course is truly a user-friendly guide to a mammoth institution that has amassed astonishing treasures.
Where Did All These Masterpieces Come From?
One of the fascinating aspects of this course is that Professor Brettell provides insights from the curator's point of view. For instance, he notes that museum directors and curators have an idiosyncratic way of reading labels: They start at the bottom, which lists the donor and year of acquisition. "Those of us in the profession are interested in the stories of the formation of the great American art institutions, which are stories about donors." Some of these stories include:
- In 1946 Gertrude Stein spurred the museum to start collecting modern art in earnest by bequeathing the famous portrait of her by Picasso.
- The year 1969 saw the donation of an entire museum by Nelson Rockefeller: The Museum of Primitive Art, which formed the nucleus for the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
- In 1971 the museum used donated funds to pay a record price for Velázquez's remarkable portrait Juan de Pareja—a likeness "so quiveringly alive," says Professor Brettell, "that you can't believe that the man won't walk out of the picture!"
Feed Your Imagination
A great art collection like The Metropolitan Museum of Art's is a place for dreamers, thinkers, and time travelers. It is a world where you can connect to people and cultures that are long vanished. "Great works of art communicate across time," says Professor Brettell. They evoke distinctive people, ways of life, and points of view that are both familiar and strange, and that put the present into a more universal context. A brooding sculpture, an intricate piece of jewelry, a reconstructed room with meticulous period furnishings, a powerfully painted portrait or landscape—these and other works of human craft and genius feed the imagination and satisfy the soul in ways that are hard to pin down, but that open a limitless vista of learning and enjoyment.