‘In the Spirit of the Present Day’: The Met Gets Modern With a Major Donation of 19th-Century Painting, in 1930

The Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's annex for modern and contemporary art, opens today.COURTESY METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

The Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annex for modern and contemporary art, opens today.


Today the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens the Met Breuer, its hotly anticipated annex for modern and contemporary art. Many have seen the Met Breuer as a way of bringing the Met up to date, making it an encyclopedic museum that finally includes today’s art as well. In honor of the Met opening its new annex, we turn back to 1930, when the museum received a major donation of 19th-century painting. The bequest had come from the collection of Henry O. Havemeyer, the industrialist who founded the American Sugar Refining Company, who had died in 1929. With the influx of work by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and others into the museum’s collection, the Met suddenly seemed with the times. From the pages of the March 15, 1930, issue of ARTnews, below is coverage of the unveiling of the Havemeyer Collection. —Alex Greenberger

“From Poverty to Riches at Metropolitan”

Watchful Waiting Wins Once More and Museum Now Has Splendid Collection of XIXth Century French Pictures

Only a captious and quarrelsome fellow could find cause for complaint in the accession of the Metropolitan Museum of the paintings and works of art from the Havemeyer collection. There can be no complaint of the collection. Its quality is a continued source of amazement and delight and even those who knew it before its removal to the Museum will find things to surprise them. Never have the pictures, sculptures, the Chinese and Japanese paintings and screens been shown so well.

There has, however, been a belief that the policy of the Metropolitan Museum to watch and pray for bequests was neither the most dignified nor the one most likely to build splendid collections. It is true that no museum could hope to compete with all of the great private collectors and that every museum must be dependent upon gifts to some extent, but it should be possible for a great museum to be something more than a receptacle. Mistaken persons will always assume that because a museum has magnificent collections those who direct must be leaders. They do not understand that a museum cannot become aware of any art form until private collectors have shown the way and prices have risen to a point beyond the museum’s means.

Until the Havemeyer bequest was received the Metropolitan Museum had no adequate representation of XIXth century French painting. It is still waiting in Gauguins, Van Goghs and Seurats and has but two Renoirs. There is nothing, apart from prints to indicate that it has heard of anything later. It is so busy amassing in educational deficit that it has no time to devote to the acquisition of pictures which might indicate to the public that the creation of art was not wholly a thing of the past. This protest is not a new one but it may be unexpected. Somewhat to its surprise the Museum now finds itself able to answer those who insisted that the XIXth century French school should be represented in the collections. Its famous policy has won another victory and it will probably be less inclined than ever to venture upon the troubled seas of collecting in its own right. Which is too bad.

Attributed to Francisco de Goya, Majas on Balcony, ca. 1800–1810. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Attributed to Francisco de Goya, Majas on a Balcony, ca. 1800–1810.


Whether or not the Metropolitan deserves a fine collection of XIXth century painting is, after all, a comparatively minor matter. The important thing is that the collection is there where all may see and enjoy it. Moreover, it should be seen while it is shown as a unit and its fine quality is not dissipated among the other collections, for never in New York has a group of old and modern masters been shown in which each picture was of such outstanding quality. Any one of the nearly one hundred pictures would have been a fine addition to the Museum’s collections.

Greater interest will naturally attach to the later pictures for although the older things are superb, many of them can be paralleled by those in other bequests or gifts. The six Rembrandt portraits and eight drawings are notable additions to an already good collection and provide examples of Rembrandt’s early work, in which the coexisting collections were weak. The de Hoogh, the Hals portraits, Hugo van der Goes, Bronzino and Veronese would each deserve a long article if given singly.

The five Goyas and two El Grecos will be an immeasurable benefit to the Museum’s Spanish collections. Two of the Goyas, the “Majas on the Balcony” and the “City on a Rock,” are of especial interest since they illustrate phases of his genius quite distinct from that of the more usual portraits or grotesqueries. The Majas are gay and delightful, brilliantly painted and graciously composed. The City is fantastic, full of that lively imagination which so often suggests the supernatural in Goya’s pictures.

El Greco’s “Toledo” is probably the most famous of his landscapes and must be reckoned as one of the really great pictures in the world. In it are combined tremendous and sinister drama and masterly painting which has seldom been equaled. It is an unforgettable picture and its rugged masses of hills and buildings and tortuous sky seem to burn with dark fire. The portrait of Cardinal don Fernando Niño de Quevara is also superb both as a portrait and a picture. These two paintings, with those already in the Museum’s collections, make a group of El Grecos which is probably unrivaled except in Spain.

The appreciation of El Greco in modern times developed almost contemporaneously with that of the XIXth century painters and, though he painted more than three hundred years ago, his work has been so closely associated with the modern school that it seems to belong more to the XIXth and XXth centuries than to the XVth and XVIIth. His amazing pictures in the Havemeyer collection serve as a rallying point for the XIXth century painters. The test is severe and not all, even of the Havemeyer pictures, survive. Weaknesses which might otherwise pass unnoticed become apparent but the fact that the collection is not completely dominated by the El Grecos is a high tribute to its quality.

But it is much easier to make comparisons or attempt to measure quality away from the pictures. At the exhibition the galleries are too dazzling and the pleasure that each picture gives is much more real and has more importance than any hypersensitive balancing. It does not matter that the pictures are not equally great, it is impossibly that they should be, but there is not one negligible thing in the collection, not one which is not a really fine picture.

One of the most brilliant groups is that of the eight paintings and three pastels by Manet. Several of them are life size, full length figures, superbly painted, vivid portraits. “In a Boat” is one of the finest and its bright color is like a patch of significant sunlight on the wall.

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877.


Mrs. Havemeyer’s Dégas were internationally famous and those in the gift to the Museum include many of his finest pictures. There are the famous “Dancers at the Bar,” “The Foyer,” “The Pout,” “Rehearsal,” “Woman with Chrysanthemums.” Altogether there are thirty-six pictures in various media, probably as splendid a collection as exists anywhere. In addition to these there are are sixty-nine bronze reproductions of his studies in wax of dancers and horses. Only the more gracious side of Dégas is displayed here and the pictures are those in which the cruel realism of many of his works is tempered by admiration for the silvery lights and delicate textures of ballet costumes, the colors of flowers or hats or graceful poses.

Courbet is represented by twenty fine pictures which include a number of portraits and several nudes. Both because of the quality of his pictures and the recognition given to a painter whose fame has been somewhat obscured by his more sensational contemporaries, Courbet’s group is one of the most welcome. The addition of several of Corot’s finest figure paintings is also of great value to the Museum’s collections. There are nine of these and, with the one only recently presented from the Senff collection, the Museum can now correct the impression which it formerly gave that Corot only painted feathery landscapes. Monet’s eight pictures include both early paintings and those of his middle period. The “Green Wave” is a fine, early work, stronger in design than many of his canvases, and the two flower pictures are among his best. Renoir is represented by only one painting, but that is superb.

In his Bulletin article on the collection, Mr. Burroughs writes that “many visitors will be surprised to find so important a group of paintings as nearly in the spirit of the present day as the five Cézannes.” Since Mrs. Havemeyer’s Cézannes were famous, the surprising thing must be either to find them in the Museum, a surprise quite justified by its former neglect of the master, or else that things “nearly in the spirit of the present day” should have been permitted to enter. In any case, here they are. It would be pleasant to write that Cézanne, like the other painters whose work is included, is splendidly represented by the pictures, although good, do not include any of his masterpieces. The “Man with a Straw Hat” is great only in spots and his landscapes, fine as they are, have been surpassed. The still life is also one of his less powerful canvases.

Among other especially notable pictures in the collection are two Poussin landscapes, four paintings by Mary Cassatt and one by Daumier.

A version of the story originally appeared in the March 15, 1930 issue on page 33 under the title “From Poverty to Riches at Metropolitan.”

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