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Dead Rabbit, Overripe Fruit Star in Met’s New Galleries

Metropolitan Museum European Paintings
"Study of a Young Woman" (c. 1665-67) by Johannes Vermeer. All of the Met's five Vermeer paintings are housed in one intimate room, which can be seen from 3 galleries away. Source: Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman/The Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

May 30 (Bloomberg) -- Light adorns the Met’s spectacular, new sky-lit galleries housing Rembrandt, Hals, Memling and Vermeer portraits. Watch as passing clouds momentarily shadow the paintings, making the facial expressions move and change.

It’s as if these jaunty men and women -- adjusting their eyes, stretching their legs -- just stepped out of the darkness and into the fresh springtime air.

They’ve found a great new home among the 45 rooms comprising the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s expanded and renovated European paintings galleries, 1250-1800.

I felt as though I’d never truly known these familiar faces. The brocaded cape worn by Rembrandt’s “Man in an Oriental Costume” showers the room with light and threatens to consume us like a golden dust storm.

Another Rembrandt figure, a portrait of a man in black, appears to slip his hand into the mysterious, dark cavity of his chest as if he were guarding something.

Vermeer’s small “Portrait of a Young Woman” can now be seen from a full three galleries away. Her glowing, swelling head, like her pearl earring and eyes, gleams like a jewel. She looks invitingly over her shoulder, impossible to resist; yet the closer you get the more she seems to shun and turn away.

These are among the many fresh sightlines in galleries where there is room now for pictures to breathe and to interact more subtly. Space has increased by one third and the number of works on view has jumped to more than 700 from 450.

Durer Blooms

There are wonderful new connections. Netherlandish galleries featuring angular pictures now set the stage for the sudden flowering of Albrecht Durer.

And there are fresh faces among the crowd. About 40 works from private collections have been loaned to the Met. Integrated, they give weight to the current installation.

Some fill holes in the permanent collection: In Goya’s “Still Life of Dead Hares,” one rabbit’s extended hindquarters appear to fly -- the painter gives us not just the aftermath but the height of the chase.

Alessandro Magnasco’s sinister “Ecce Homo” depicts the bruised, beaten Christ -- his mouth a toothless, yawning abyss -- as an overripe fruit.

Other loans tell different parts of the story. Bernard van Orley’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” is the companion piece to the Met’s own “The Birth and Naming of Saint John the Baptist.”

Severed Head

In “The Birth,” the infant Saint John is presented standing on a shiny platter, while “The Beheading” shows a similar dish holding his severed head.

Gentileschi’s large, erotic odalisque “Danae” is displayed in an early gallery. Nearly nude, reclining in her bed chamber, she revels in a shower of gold -- Zeus in disguise.

Perfectly placed, “Danae” is a harbinger of the seductive riches, old and new, currently available at the Met.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets and Jason Harper on cars.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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