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Museum Masterpieces: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Museum Masterpieces: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Professor Richard Brettell Ph.D.
The University of Texas, Dallas
Course No.  7510
Course No.  7510
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

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.

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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.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Making of the Museum
    Using maps, charts, photographs, paintings, and prints, this lecture provides a historical portrait of New York City and the circumstances that spawned its greatest museum. x
  • 2
    The Art of Ancient Greece and Rome
    We begin our tour of The Metropolitan in the Classical collection, which occupies large spaces of a grandeur suited to Greco-Roman art. x
  • 3
    Ancient Egyptian Art
    The Egyptian collection ranges from entire tombs and temples to tiny objects of gold, glass, and ceramic, with particularly rich holdings in "the art of the afterlife." x
  • 4
    Asian Art
    These galleries contain masterpieces from Tibet, India, Cambodia, Korea, China, and Japan. Especially notable is the Astor Court, which is modeled on a Ming dynasty scholar's courtyard. x
  • 5
    The Ancient Near East and Islamic Art
    Extending from Bronze Age objects to a glorious room from an Islamic palace, these collections show the mastery of glass, ceramic, stone carving, and bronze in successive urban cultures. x
  • 6
    European Painting I—The Renaissance
    The Metropolitan is famous for its Department of European Painting. We investigate the development of figural illusionism in works by Giotto, Fra Angelico, and others. x
  • 7
    European Painting II—16th–17th Centuries
    Covering the High Renaissance and the extraordinary profusion of painting in Europe for the next two centuries, this lecture includes works by Raphael, Vermeer, El Greco, Velázquez, and Rembrandt. x
  • 8
    European Painting III—18th Century
    Works examined include Italian paintings by Tiepolo and Canelletto, French Rococo oils by Watteau and Boucher, and British portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough. x
  • 9
    European Painting IV—19th Century
    The Metropolitan has perhaps the most balanced collection of French painting from 1830 to 1900 in any universal art museum. We look at works by Monet, Cézanne, and Gauguin, among others. x
  • 10
    Drawings and Prints
    We sample some of the more than 1.5 million objects in the Department of Drawings and Prints, which includes the entire range of drawing styles and materials from the Late Middle Ages to the present. x
  • 11
    Photographs
    Photography, the most pervasive of modern media, is well represented at The Metropolitan, with a collection extending back to the earliest experiments in the early 19th century. x
  • 12
    European Decorative Arts
    In an exercise of time travel, we visit luxuriously appointed period rooms representing high European culture—from an Italian Renaissance studiola to an 18th-century Parisian grand salon. x
  • 13
    European Sculpture
    The Metropolitan's European sculpture collection includes Renaissance works in stone, bronze, and terra-cotta, and masterpieces by artists such as Bernini and Canova. x
  • 14
    The Arts of Africa and Oceania
    The intricately crafted objects in this lecture include a feather box, a ceremonial shield, and a painted wooden skull rack from Oceania, as well as powerful masks and sculpted figures from Africa. x
  • 15
    The Ancient New World
    We survey a collection of materials from the rich cultures of the Americas before European colonization, the most comprehensive display of ancient New World Art in any universal art museum. x
  • 16
    Musical Instruments and Arms and Armor
    This lecture looks at major masterpieces in the arts of making music and war. The Departments of Musical Instruments and Arms and Armor both feature stunning examples from the histories of their fields. x
  • 17
    Costumes and Textiles
    New York's preeminence as a fashion center led The Metropolitan to create the Costume Institute and the Antonio Ratti Textile Center to study collections of historical fashions and fabrics. x
  • 18
    American Art—1650–1865
    Starting in period rooms from the colonial era, we explore the development of a distinctive American art up to the Civil War through works by Revere, Stuart, Copley, Hicks, Cole, Church, and others. x
  • 19
    American Art—1865–1900
    America entered an industrial boom after the Civil War that created a new demand for art in a wide range of genres. We sample pieces by Tiffany, Saint-Gaudens, Eakins, and Sargent, among others. x
  • 20
    20th-Century Art—Before World War II
    The Metropolitan's encyclopedic holdings allow comparisons between its 20th-century collection and its other works—for example, a Brancusi sculpture and an archaic Greek figure. x
  • 21
    20th-Century Art—After World War II
    We explore The Metropolitan's post–World War II art, including abstract expressionists such as Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and David Smith, as well as Pop, Op, and other movements. x
  • 22
    The Robert Lehman Collection—1400–1800
    A remarkable private collection kept intact after its donation to The Metropolitan, the Lehman Collection is rich in old master paintings and drawings. We sample its holdings up to 1800. x
  • 23
    The Robert Lehman Collection—1800–1960
    The Lehman Collection has important works from the 19th and 20th centuries. We examine paintings by Ingres, Corot, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Derain, Bonnard, and Balthus, as well as works on paper. x
  • 24
    The People of the Museum
    The Metropolitan has been built by farsighted directors and generous donors. We look at some of the most remarkable of these. x

Lecture Titles

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Richard Brettell
Ph.D. Richard Brettell
The University of Texas, Dallas

Dr. Richard Brettell is the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Professor of Art and Aesthetics at The University of Texas at Dallas. He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Yale University. Prior to joining The University of Texas at Dallas, Professor Brettell taught at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Yale University, and Harvard University. Professor Brettell was the founding American director of the French Regional and American Museum Exchange, designed to promote the exchange of art and information between regional museums in France and the United States. He served as the McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art and has advised and consulted for museums such as the Portland Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. His museum exhibition work includes Monet in Normandy (for the de Young Museum in San Francisco) and The Impressionist in the City: Pissarro's Series (for the Dallas Museum of Art). He has given scholarly lectures at numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art, and has written over 25 books, including 19th and 20th Century European Drawings in the Robert Lehman Collection and Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890.

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Reviews

Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 51 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Worthwhile even if you never visit the Met I recently visited the Met for the first time, and didn't have time to finish the course before I left. I should have taken the time; however, thanks to Prof Brettell, I'll be much better prepared next time. If you are planning a trip and are new to the Met, this course can make your visit much more valuable. The Met was overwhelming for me, and the bookstore guide material I found there was not nearly as useful as this course would have been. When I returned from New York I was motivated to finish the course: 1) as a result of my visit, I was interested in the Met and wanted to learn more about it., and 2) I realized as the course went along that our local art museum is similarly organized and has many of the same types of objects and artists represented. As Prof Brettell spoke, I followed along with the handbook of the collections for our local museum and learned a lot about our museum, which I can visit any time I want. The course is well organized and Prof Brettell's knowledge and enthusiasm are big pluses. My (relatively minor) complaints: 1. The bright glare from Prof Brettell's glasses is distracting. 2. Prof Brettell often tells us why he believes some object is a great work. However, other times he merely says the piece is "marvelous" or "wonderful" and it's not always clear to me why he believes this. To take just one example of many: I was hoping to understand what is "marvelous" about Picasso's painting of Gertrude Stein. Sure, it's interesting because it's a famous person painted by a famous artist. It's a realistic painting of a body (painted in person) with a mask-like face (painted later) that doesn't resemble Gertrude Stein's face. The story was interesting, but the presentation left me puzzled about what was "marvelous" about the painting. In summary, in spite of some minor flaws, this is an excellent course for someone planning to visit the Met, or for someone who wants to better understand their own metropolitan art museum. September 17, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Would give it 4.5 stars-if I could I thoroughly enjoyed the course and the professor. Professor Brettel is an amiable and knowledgeable guide, providing a look at the Metropolitan's vast collection by departments as well as some of the museum's history and development. I would have given it 4.5 stars if I could-it was better than good but not up to the level of Professor Kloss's courses, in my opinion. Worthwhile nonetheless. July 19, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Gift, in Several Ways This course was a gift. I wasn't sure how enjoyable it would be to view a museum virtually, as a tourist guided from place to place, with no random wanderings as displays piqued my interest. Would I miss the sense of wonder that is usually my response to items of antiquity and rarity? I need not have worried. If you are an avid museum aficionado, there are only two situations in which you need to view this series. The first situation, if you are not able to attend the museum in person, is to at least get a feel for what you are missing. The second is if you plan to attend, or have attended, to help you plan your tour or to understand what you saw. Professor Richard Brettell is fun. He uses his expertise and knowledge to introduce you to the departments of the museum, the history of the museum, and the holdings and collections it possesses. His charming manner engages you while his encyclopedic knowledge of art and art history gives you a feeling for what is there, why it's important, and where it fits in the scope of the art world. It is probably a testimonial to my lack of knowledge of the art world, but his explanation of how the items in the collections are related really brought a depth to the experience. I think previously, I had dismissed the donor tags as irrelevant bits of egotism instead of viewing them as a relationship between the items in a collection. As the professor relates it, presenting the entire museum in 24 half-hour units is impossible, so he has carefully chosen from millions of artifacts, a set which is impressive, Some I expected (European and American painting),some unexpected but predictable in retrospect (Fabrics, Armor and Musical Instruments) and some incredibly mind-blowing (Persian and Roman architecture and antiquities, and the period rooms). And if you view this small sample size in the correct light, it gives some enterprising company the opportunity to release several more sets of discs showing more of this museum's displays. What company that would be, I cannot imagine. As for the worry that I would not enjoy a virtual tour of a museum, it was unfounded. All tours of museums, even those you walk through, are virtual in a real sense. The museum staff would prefer it if you limited your interaction with the displayed items. True, you have to miss the awesome 21' width of the painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” but juggling the Nazca stirrup vessels is not encouraged even if you happen across them in the museum. July 16, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Disapointment Dr. Brettel apparently knows his subject well, but too much time is spent in talk behind the lectern and not enough in viewing the works of art. In general I feel the course tries to cover too much ground with not enough lectures and is therefore sketchy and superficial. September 3, 2013
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