Scholarship and collecting and our views of the past have to be revised continually,” says Keith Christiansen, chairman of the European paintings department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “That’s why the collection looks so different today than it did 40 years ago and the reason it’s absolutely crucial that we are constantly questioning what we know about the past and questioning our notions of quality.” Christiansen recently presided over the first major rethinking since 1972 of the Old Master galleries housing the permanent collection. The reinstallation underscores the museum’s longtime strengths in artists ranging from Rembrandt to Rubens, Vermeer, Poussin, Velázquez, Goya, and David, and it highlights the big changes in the area of the Italian Baroque. The effort was widely acclaimed at the time of the reopening last May, with critics appreciating the new organization for its coherence and revelations.
“The great transformations in taste in the 20th century were with a revisionist view of the Italian Baroque, one of the defining moments in European painting,” Christiansen says. A prime example he cites is Caravaggio, who came to public consciousness after a 1951 landmark exhibition in Milan. Yet the artist’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604–5), which Christiansen believes is the greatest Caravaggio in the United States, was turned down by the Met and by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., before it was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1950s.
“The Met was a generation behind, at least, in buying it,” says Christiansen. He notes there had been only a handful of Baroque pictures in the collection when he started in the department in 1977 as an assistant curator with a specialty in the Italian Renaissance. Working with his predecessors, John Pope-Hennessy and later Everett Fahy, until he was named department chairman in 2009, Christiansen, now 67, has focused most over the years on exhibitions and acquisitions of Italian Baroque artists including Caravaggio, Jusepe de Ribera, Guercino, and Guido Reni. “It was a learning on the job experience for me,” says Christiansen, who is particularly pleased when academic colleagues tell him they are now able to teach their classes from the Met’s Baroque collection.
Christiansen had begun lobbying the former director Philippe de Montebello for more space to show the growing collection in 2007. Hoping to get two additional galleries, Christiansen was thrilled in 2009 when the then new director Thomas P. Campbell gave him all 13 galleries contiguous to the Old Masters’ rooms that had previously been earmarked for special exhibitions. The shift, part of the Met’s overall refocus on its permanent collection, increased the space dedicated to Old Masters by one-third, making it the largest footprint in the museum. “That transformed it,” says Christiansen, who is now able to show more than 700 paintings in the collection, up from 450. “Rather than simply move part of the collection over incrementally, we were able to stop and think how we would ideally like the collection to be organized.”
Working with a three-dimensional scale model of the 45 galleries and tiny images of the paintings, Christiansen and his curatorial staff played around with different ways of presenting the material. In the end, they fell back on the most traditional—by region and chronology rather than theme. “We reached the decision that we should get out of people’s way,” he says. “A permanent collection is for people to come back again and again and we should make it easy for them to find what it was they came to see rather than force them to see things through a particular individual’s take.” But some decisions followed the idiosyncrasies of the layout and size of the galleries.
The gallery at the top of the grand stairs, for instance, was specially constructed in the original 19th-century museum building for the monumental Tiepolos that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. “Given that as the starting point, we pulled all the Baroque pictures forward,” says Christiansen. “It was not done to showcase what we’ve achieved in the last 40 years, but that’s what it does anyway.” Similarly, the large dimensions of the works by Rubens and van Dyck dictated their new gallery, which the curators then decided to bracket with 16th-century Venetian pictures by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese on one side and 18th-century British works by Gainsborough and Reynolds on the other. “For van Dyck and Rubens, the formative moment in their careers was the trip to Italy and their awareness of Venetian painting, and they passed that tradition on to British painters,” says Christiansen.
Within the grand chronological sweep, Christiansen was excited to have the opportunity to make intimate connections. He was able to give a room over to Dutch still lifes for the first time, juxtaposing thematically related pieces from the decorative-arts collection including a domestic cabinet and leather wall panels painted with fruits and flowers that would have graced a contemporaneous 17th-century home in Amsterdam. The maker of that cabinet, Herman Doomer, is shown in a portrait by Rembrandt—one of 19 by the artist in a flanking gallery that comprises the most extensive holdings of Rembrandt outside of Europe. The other end of the still-life gallery leads to a single room clustering the museum’s five Vermeers—one of his earliest pictures, one of his late allegories, one of the two heads he did, and two classic genre pictures. “You might say, ‘What clever curators, they’ve covered the whole spectrum of Vermeer,’” says Christiansen, who moved the Vermeer given by department-store magnate Benjamin Altman—previously shown with the rest of the Altman collection—to join the others. “Each one is a gift from a different person and they happen to form the most coherent group that exists.”
Tall, lean, and engagingly professorial, Christiansen always thought he’d be a teacher. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he was born in Seattle and moved with his family to Concord, California, at 13. He took drawing and painting classes in college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he was a double major in history and French literature, but didn’t have much exposure to museums until his junior year abroad at the University of Bordeaux in 1967–68. There, he took his first art-history classes, and during breaks over the year took advantage of traveling cheaply. “I probably went to every major museum in Europe at that time,” he says. “It was my grand tour. What I discovered was how much I liked looking.” He remembers finding Poussin to be ridiculously academic during class, but standing in front of a Poussin at the National Gallery in London, the artist clicked for him. “He’s been one of my favorites ever since,” says Christiansen, who organized “Poussin and Nature” at the Met in 2008. “I firmly believe in education where everyone gets exposed to everything, even things they don’t think they like, because a seed gets planted.”
He went on to get his master’s degree in art history at UCLA and finished his Ph.D. in 1977 at Harvard, where he did his thesis on Gentile da Fabriano. (It won the 1983 Mitchell Prize for the best first book in art history.) After a lecture at Harvard, he met Pope-Hennessy, then the director of the British Museum, and would see him periodically in Florence where both were conducting research. On his last day in Florence in 1977, after receiving numerous rejections for teaching positions in what he recalls was a tough job market, Christiansen ran into Pope-Hennessy in line at a bank. Pope-Hennessy told Christiansen that he was moving to the Met and invited the younger scholar to come along. “My one question was, ‘Do you think this is longer than a one-year opportunity?’” Christiansen says, laughing.
Thirty-seven years later, he says the range of exhibitions he has worked on broadened his horizons enormously. He calls his first big show—“The Age of Caravaggio” in 1985—“a transformative one for me.” Christiansen later negotiated the acquisition of the artist’s The Denial of Saint Peter as a partial gift from the owner in the early ’90s. Exhibitions devoted to Ribera and Tiepolo threw him in with groups of Baroque scholars outside his field. He describes his most recent show in his specialty, “The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini,” which he co-organized in 2011 with his department colleague Andrea Bayer, as “total pleasure.” While his administrative duties as department chair have curtailed his work on exhibitions, acquisitions remain a focus. In the past couple of years, he was excited to buy a rare German Renaissance painting by Hans Schäufelein, one of Dürer’s major pupils, and a canvas by Charles Le Brun that helps tell the story of 17th-century French painting.
“People are always talking about how the art market has dried up,” says Christiansen, who has been an adjunct professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts since 2001. “It’s true that there’s not a succession of great works constantly on the market. But there are great works, and they do become available. The key thing is to be aware when they come up and to move when they do.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 40 under the same title.