Museum Masterpieces: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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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Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 160-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 160-page printed course guidebook
  • List of works discussed
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Richard Brettell

About Your Professor

Richard Brettell, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

Museum Masterpieces: The Metropolitan Museum of Art is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 76.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Unusual approach, very well presented This course is an unusual offering, although it does an excellent job at its stated purpose: to walk us through the Met, show us around every department and explain how it came to be etc, and provide a few examples of works in that department. Thus it isn’t an art appreciation course or an art history course per se, but instead an overview of the museum itself. The presenter is highly expert not only in the history of art but also as a curator and museum director, and his delivery is clear and articulate. It made me wish we lived in NYC, so that we could explore each of the covered departments in much more detail.
Date published: 2019-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from loved it! My first trip to NYC is coming up and the MET is on the list. This course was wonderfully prepared and delivered with great and interesting works of art. Additionally, learning about the museum itself, its curators and donors was a fun plus to the course. I can't wait for my visit and I know that I will be able to enjoy my time at the MET more now that I have learned more intimately about its pieces.
Date published: 2019-07-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Glad I am glad, that I took this course before my second visit to the Met. The lectures from Professor Brettell pointed out to many paintings and displays that I missed the first time. This course is a must for every visitor to the Met.
Date published: 2019-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Met Masterpieces is OUTSTANDING We have done all the art lectures available on Great Courses and this one is outstanding, It is well orgainzed, the lecturer makes it so outstanding and educational that we wanted it to last and last.
Date published: 2019-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from get excited about the met i’ve done two courses now in the “museum masterpieces” series in order to prepare for visits to those museums, and both times i was incredibly glad i did. it’s much easier to visit a great art museum for the first time if you have some touchstones—some works that you’re already familiar with. in addition, this particular course guides you through the met so thoroughly that i felt like i knew my way around from the moment i arrived. in prof. brettell’s course on the louvre, he opts to restrict himself to a handful of european paintings but discuss them in some detail. in this course, which is twice as long, he makes the opposite choice. here he covers every department in the met and a stunning number of artworks, with the result that he can’t give too much time to any particular one. there are obvious pros and cons to both approaches, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of complaining about whichever pros you didn’t happen to get. in this case, while it would certainly have been nice to spend more time with many of the works we rush by, the professor made the choice he did in order to show how the met is a truly encyclopedic museum, and this i feel was ultimately the right choice. the met’s holdings are much more diverse than those of most museums, and dipping into all of them is the best way to get a sense of the full range of material that’s on offer. furthermore if you go all the way through the course, including those lectures that might not sound all that interesting to you at first glance, you might well find yourself intrigued—as i did—by objects and even whole departments that you would otherwise have walked right on by. personally, i really enjoy listening to prof. brettell. his friendliness and good humour make even the more abstract discussions seem like an informal conversation between friends. he also has a deep personal knowledge of the met which shines through from beginning to end. if you’re going to the met, this course is an absolute must. it gives you a very strong sense of the whole museum and helps you plan exactly what you want to see. on the other hand, because of the breakneck pace at which we move from one work to the next, the course might be a bit frustrating for those who aren’t actually planning a trip. the louvre course allows one to study some great works in depth and thus stands perfectly well on its own. this course by contrast is more like a sampler—albeit an incredibly rich and varied one—and so i’m not sure it would be as rewarding if you’re just planning to stay home.
Date published: 2019-04-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Title; fits the material I like the professor and his enthusiastic delivery. What I really would have liked, however, would be a video walk through the museum, while focusing on the specific masterpieces, rather than seeing slides of various pieces and areas. This would be so much more comprehensive and interesting.
Date published: 2019-02-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nothing substitutes for actually visiting the museum if you can. However this course gives you a great overview of what you will see when you do visit.
Date published: 2018-06-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Superficial This is mostly about the museum, not the art. I didn't/don't care about the population of Manhattan, the creation of Central Park, the strategic placing of the museum on 5th Ave. Clearly this guy expects his audience to come to NYC and see the museum. A photo of the lobby, directions to the galleries, many many photos of objects in glass cases. You can't even see the objects. What little info there was (and there was very little) was fascinating. While I'm on the subject, I just watched your lectures on Broadway. I was very disappointed in those too, but didn't say so. Now I'll say so. I thought that guy would never get past 1920. Over 2 discs about Minstrel Shows and some vaudeville, much not even in NY. Then a swift glib over the remaining 80 years. I thought it was prudishness that made him say Larry Hart was "shy" around woman. Hart was gay. But he did say Porter was gay. So that wasn't the reason. How can he or anyone talk seriously about the tunes in a Sondheim show? He said Sweeney Todd was one of Sondheim's more tuneful scores. On that, he did say one thing I liked a lot. That Sondheim's money came from rich backers. And Lloyd Webber's money came from the success of his shows. I have two more courses to watch. I hope they're better.
Date published: 2018-05-10
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