There was a major event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently -- the opening of the reconfigured galleries that hold the museum's esteemed collection of European paintings, the first such overhauling in 40 years.
"The museum's European paintings were the basis of its first collection," says Maryan Ainsworth, an Old Greenwich resident who has been heavily involved in the reconfiguration as curator of European paintings in the Museum's European Paintings Department.
Ainsworth recently gave a personal tour of the newly revamped European galleries -- there are 45 in total -- including the half dozen she was primarily responsible for.
The galleries are approached the traditional way, at the top of the big stairs on the second floor. She noted how European paintings have always been centrally located on the museum's second floor. "It's where people gravitate to," she says.
She calls the reconfiguration, which took two years, a great opportunity to reorganize the collection. "There were 13 adjacent galleries that were taken back," she explains, which allowed for a "totally new routing system" for the paintings.
"We have 3,000 European paintings," Ainsworth says, "including those of the 19th century." With the added galleries, she describes, "We took paintings out of storage, cleaned and restored them, and we borrowed things from collectors to help tell the story."
Early on, with the gallery walls in place, Ainsworth and her fellow curators had met to begin the placement process for the paintings. "The design department gave us a model of all the rooms," she says, "with tiny images of the paintings in a scale relationship to each other and to the rooms. We had our little box of pins to place them in the rooms, to change them as ideas evolved."
Their toughest challenge was in choosing which paintings would be exhibited, she explains. "We wanted to have more than was physically possible." To safeguard their selections, she says, "We've put a moratorium on loans for a year."
Entering the newly painted galleries there's a spacious, airy feeling. The paintings stand out on the pale-colored walls. "We were given paint panels in various colors to choose from. We'd hold them up in the context of the paintings."
Entering one of her six galleries, Gallery 641, the Jan van Eyck gallery, one of the artist's works is displayed in the center behind glass on a standing base. "It's an eye-catcher," she describes. "It introduces you to the gallery. This gallery is about the influence of van Eyck. He's the most important Netherlandish painter. His painting technique created a new sense of illusion that seemed so lifelike."
Stepping up close to the van Eyck (which he painted with a workshop assistant), a pair of panels, "The Crucifixion," and "The Last Judgment," Ainsworth explains, "This van Eyck looks calm, but if you look closely it has lots of voices -- it's a noisy painting." Ainsworth has recorded her point of view on these two panels for a new online video feature from the museum called, "Met 82nd and Fifth," that viewers can freely subscribe to. Viewers also can see each one of the European galleries pictured on the museum's website, according to Ainsworth.
Continuing through the six galleries, she explains that in each the paintings were hung either chronologically or by theme. A group of Madonna and child paintings were painted by different artists, but depicted similar poses. Ainsworth notes how "the paintings talk to each other." "They're having a conversation," she says.
In Gallery 642, the eye fell on the familiar landscape painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Harvesters" (1565). But she quickly introduced another landscape painter, Joachim Patinir, whose painting preceded Bruegel's by 50 years. "With Patinir, the grand painter of landscape," she says, `the genre came into its own."
"In these grander galleries," she says, "They allow you to see the visual connections in the paintings even before you've read the text of the labels." And yes, she writes the labels. "It's a joint process done by our curatorial division."
Gallery 643 is devoted to German Renaissance paintings. Ainsworth pointed to a "major" new museum purchase she had encouraged, a double-sided panel painting by Hans Schaufelein, with "The Dormition of the Virgin" on one side and "Christ Carrying the Cross" on the other. She has coauthored a thick catalog on "German Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 1350 to 1600." "It was a 5-year project," she says, that required her to do conservation research on each of the museum's German paintings.
Ainsworth's scholarship had just taken her to Belgium where one of her projects was to observe the historic cleaning of the famous Ghent Altarpiece painted by van Eyck. Ainsworth calls it "probably the most important work of art of the Netherlandish School." The multi-panel work was seized on Hitler's orders at the beginning of World War II and subsequently stored in the Altaussee salt mines. "It's being cleaned and restored in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts," said Ainsworth and, as she's a specialist in this area, she was seeing how the cleaning was going. "It's a huge opportunity," she says, "to see it up close."
Ainsworth's other project in Belgium was to shop for paintings to borrow for an upcoming exhibit in October 2014 on the 16th century Flemish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst. "He was mainly known for his tapestries," she says. "He did the drawings for the tapestries, but others did the weaving." Van Aelst also did a few paintings, she adds. She had her eye on "an enormous triptych that is in Lisbon that has never traveled before."
And -- small world. "There is even a painting of his in a private collection in Greenwich," Ainsworth says.