There are few finer places to start a day than at a museum, especially if that museum is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Crowds tend to be a bit lighter early in the morning allowing more time with the art and unincumbered wandering.
Pro tip: The Met is a pay-what-you-want setup, so it’s up to you to put a price on priceless works of art. (Suggested donation is $25, but they don’t scoff at you if you give less.)
After gawking at the Grand Hall and getting our tickets, we ascended the central stairs and consulted the map to devise our plan of attack. The Met is enormous–the largest in the U.S. if you’re into superlatives. We intended to spend an hour or two focusing on periods we like. Those intended two hours turned into four hours and we barely scratched the surface of their offerings. We tried to catch the free guided tour at 10:30 but were a few minutes late and not gifted with the tracking capabilities of a bloodhound. We meandered the wing devoted to Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.
We met under the clocks at 11:30 for the guided tours. What happened next was one of the best experiences I’ve had at a museum. For the next 70 minutes, a guide took us around the world for an exploration of Art and Power.
A Trip to the Congo
We started in Congo and the below Kongo Power Figure. The wooden figure was used to track arrangements between parties. For example, if someone arranged to trade land for cow’s milk, they would drive a nail into the figure to solidify the arrangement. Visually, the figure has a knit cap denoting an elevated/religious status. The elongated forehead communicated intellect. The nails on the jawline are believed to have held moss to emulate a beard. There was a circular void in the abdomen of the figure where it is thought a shaman-like figure would add a lion’s tail or other significant items to seal the arrangement.
Begin the Benin
We then moved to plates taken from a Benin temple in Nigeria. The brass plates depict the status of the ruler after the Portuguese established the area as a pit stop on their trade route. The Edo peoples, in particular, the ruler, became extremely wealthy from the trade route. The temple was adorned with these brass plates to show the role of the leader and peoples. The plate on the right depicts the leader on a horse with a headdress, denoting superiority, and several smaller people supporting him.
We were off again, this time for Russia! The below bust was that of Alexander Menshikov. Alexander rose to power not by birth, but by his close relationship with Tsar Peter the Great. This bust aims to solidify Alexander’s role in history. There are a few items to note in this sculpture:
- Big wig – the height and intricacy of the wig was an attempted display of affluence. I think this is the bedrock behind Texans’ “bigger the hair-closer to heaven” ideology.
- The pine is stained to make it look like more expensive wood.
- There are three oval scenes depicted on the breastplate that further demonstrate Alexander’s effort to be associated with the tsar and royalty (full info in the picture below).
Allons à Versailles
After a short walk we are in a dimly lit room depicting a chambre à Versailles. The Met has assembled a collection of items from Versailles to depict King Louis VIV’s bedroom.
The below relief displays similarities to the bust of Alexander. We see the sun king’s flowing mane and armor.
The more notable pieces in the room are a bed where King Louis is believed to have slept. Our guide discussed the morning ritual at Versailles and how the king used it to assert power—who was invited, roles they played in the ritual.
The tapestries on display also tell a fascinating story. Louis’ mistress had them made by a convent to remind Louis of his illegitimate children and his son’s potential to be the next king. One tapestry strokes Louis’ ego with imagery depicting the Roman god Mars hurling lightning bolts beneath a sun. And I thought I was special getting a mixtape from an ex.
Painted by El Greco, the portrait of the cardinal was a work I likely wouldn’t have stopped to appreciate. I also wouldn’t have known much of the context behind the painting. This work was commissioned by Phillip III. Again we see the importance of headwear signifying power. In the late 1500s, this cardinal was given the task of overseeing the judgment of the Spanish Inquisition.
Our guide shared a few observations of the work. The paper at the feet of the cardinal includes the artist’s name. He discussed several of El Greco’s choices in this portrait: the inclusion of glasses – a sign of wealth in the late 1500s, the use of perspective depicting the tile floor, how one hand grips the arm of the chair while the other is relaxed, the sharp contrast in the folds of the white garment.
America the Beautiful
Our last portrait is that of George Washington, likely commissioned by his wife. Contrary to other portraits of Washington, this features a relaxed, let’s-get-a-Sam-Adams-and-watch-sports George. Other portraits and busts on display in this gallery feature the dollar bill Washington with a pronounced stoicism. In this portrait, we see the depiction of power as Washington casually rests his arm on the cannon, beneath which rest the flags of the defeated British troops. The background depicts Trenton, the turning point of the war.
Recapping Sunday at the Met
We spoke with our guide at the end of the tour and thanked him for sharing his knowledge. He asked what other museums we were visiting and recommended his favorites. I’ve been to a fair number of art museums, but having a guided tour was a magnificent experience. Through attending other museums like Van Gogh’s museum in Amsterdam, Picasso’s Museu in Barcelona, or seeing the lily ponds in Giverny, I have gained a better understanding of particular artists and their work. But through this tour I learned I am barely scratching the oil on the surface of these canvases. While exiting the museum, I contemplated how many tours I could take in a week to soak up more knowledge. This was a truly fascinating experience and one that changed my perception and appreciation of art.
Other works worth sharing