The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a magnificent puzzle. The last piece of its current configuration, the New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, has just been put in place.
The most direct way is up a small glass elevator -- which will surely have to work like a piston to accommodate crowds.
Once upstairs, however, the suite of 26 galleries is spacious. A minimalist interpretation of 19th-century Beaux Arts galleries, the arrangement is mostly sky-lit and includes high cove ceilings. Although it adds a modest 3,300 square feet, the galleries feel expansive. Their range of thematic spaces -- from monumental to intimate niches -- flows naturally.
The installation of almost 600 artworks from the 18th to the early 20th century provides long-range views of classics, such as Emanuel Leutze’s 21-foot-wide “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) -- America’s response to grand-manner European history painting.
The Leutze work has just been restored, replete with a new hand-carved, gilded frame based on a recently discovered 1864 photograph. The frame is crowned by a commanding crest comprising weapons, an eagle, a stars-and-stripes shield and waving banners.
One of the most famous of U.S. artworks, the painting provides patriotic trumpet blasts and is the designated hallmark of the collection.
I was surprised to learn that Leutze’s “Washington” is also the most popular object in the museum. It beats out the Vermeers, Rembrandts and Van Goghs, El Greco’s “View of Toledo” and Bruegel’s “The Harvesters.”
For me, it’s when the drums aren’t beating and the flags aren’t waving, when the galleries feel less like boastful history lessons, that the artworks shine.
The great 19th-century U.S. landscape painters Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole are represented here. Yet when their landscapes are compared to those by Cezanne, Claude, Corot and Poussin, the American pictures feel burdened by well-intended morality tales.
Cole’s small study for the painting “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm -- The Oxbow” (1836) is more fluid and convincing than the larger, stiffer finished work.
You’ll find many crowd-pleasers by Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Charles Willson Peale and James McNeill Whistler in galleries devoted to American Impressionism; History, Landscape and National Identity; Portraiture in the Grand Manner; the West; and the Civil War Era. There’s also, of course, John Singer Sargent’s infamous “Madame X,” the wife of a banker. Poorly received at the Paris Salon of 1884, the portrait made the painter flee to London and sent the poor, odd-shaped woman into the vale of tears.
A room of works by John Singleton Copley includes the masterwork “Daniel Crommelin Verplanck” (1771), that strange little portrait of a squirrel with a seated child who is perched like a bird and has the knowing, if not predatory, countenance of a man.
The new American Wing Galleries’ most compelling works are often small, humble and restrained. They include furniture, silver and folk art, such as Ammi Phillips’s portrait painting “Mrs. Mayer and Daughter” (1835-40) and a beautiful grouping of hand-carved, 19th-century wildfowl decoys.
A sheet-metal, iron and gold-leaf weathervane of a bird (c. 1874), which once topped the barn of a New Jersey shooting retreat, is elegant and quirky.
There are two little dark, moonlit masterpieces by Albert Pinkham Ryder in a corner. In the small Portraits in Miniature Gallery, you’ll find, among other gems, Emily Drayton Taylor’s coin-sized painting on ivory “Eye of Maria Miles Hayward” (c. 1930).
The new galleries are packed with big favorites. Allow yourself to venture off the beaten path, away from the grandstanding and into its nooks and crannies, and you will be rewarded by an astounding range of small treasures, made in America, newly discovered.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)