The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been around for 150 years now, and in that time, it has mounted thousands of major shows. But what are the most well-attended ones? To survey the Met’s most widely seen offerings, ARTnews has assembled a list of the top shows ever mounted at the New York museum, ranked by their attendance figures. (All attendance figures are self-reported by the museum.) The numbers don’t lie—Met visitors love fashion, but they have also flocked to surveys that illuminated new areas of art history.
10. “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art”
April 27–August 15, 2010
The first Picasso entered the Met’s collection in 1947—relatively late in the game, compared to the museum’s peers—after poet Gertrude Stein donated the portrait Picasso had painted of her in Paris. Since then, the museum’s Picasso collection has grown to include 34 paintings, about a dozen sculptures and ceramics, around 400 prints, and 58 drawings, nearly all of which were displayed for the Met’s survey of its Picasso holdings. While the show was heavy on important Blue and Rose Period works, the show accentuated what was at that time a weak spot for the Met—it had few major Cubist works by the artist. That changed three years later, however, after collector Leonard A. Lauder gave the museum an significant grouping of Cubist pieces from his holdings that included Picasso paintings.
9. “Horses of San Marco”
February 1, 1980–August 31, 1980
The exhibit’s titular horses refer to the four bronze sculptures stationed above the entrance to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, dating from as early as the 4th century B.C.E. to as late as the 4th century A.D. They are considered key artworks in the development of Western art, and they have a colorful history, having been plundered by Napoleon during his sack of this city in 1797 (and returned in 1815). Those currently on the Venetian Basilica are actually casts, as the originals were moved inside the structure in the early 1980s. During the move, however, the Italian government lent one horse for a traveling exhibition, which was supplemented by a score of classical representations of horses in the form of marble reliefs, mosaic panels, and drawings by Renaissance Masters such as Leonardo da Vinci.
8. “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”
May 5, 2016–September 5, 2016
This show considered how haute couture, traditionally defined by its handmade quality, integrated new technologies and materials over roughly the past century. More than 170 ensembles were on display in the two-story Lehman Wing in a marriage of costume and sculpture, including a 3-D printed dress by Dutch designer Iris van Herpen and a 2014 wedding gown by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel made from synthetic scuba materials. Cutting-edge creations by Lagerfeld were installed beside signature tweed suits hand-stitched by Coco Chanel, a succinct illustration of the medium’s evolution.
7. “Origins of Impressionism”
September 27, 1994–January 8, 1995
This major exhibition examined the painting scene in 1860s Paris, where the beginnings of what would later be termed Impressionism came into being. Curators focused on the artistic exchange between the movement’s key members—Manet and Degas, Cézanne and Pissarro, for example—to map how a network of creators helped birth one of the most influential styles ever. The works on display included Gustave Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866), Manet’s A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers (Madame Paul Valpinçon?) (1865), and a portrait from Cézanne’s 1866 series of paintings of his uncle Dominique Aubert.
6. “China: Through The Looking Glass”
May 4–September 7, 2015
The “impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries” was the subject of this exhibition, which was staged in celebration of the centenary of the museum’s Asian department. Some 140 couture outfits were juxtaposed with traditional Chinese costumes, porcelains, and Western art that featured “Chinese imagery.” The museum brought on big talent for the show—filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, of In the Mood for Love fame, acted as artistic director—but critics were mixed on the show, labeling some of its curatorial choices, among them one display featuring a luxe gown ringed by Buddha statues, tone-deaf.
5. “Painters in Paris”
March 7, 2000–January 14, 2001
The “School of Paris” was coined to describe the group of foreign artists that worked in the city in the first half of the 20th century. In spite of their name, however, the artists weren’t close-knit—few included in the school ever exhibited together. Accordingly, “Painters in Paris,” which included more than 100 paintings from the Met’s collection, sought to present a more complete view of the school’s membership. Prominent members were represented, with important works by Matisse and Georges Braque shown alongside 23 Picassos, though there were also some unexpected entries, such as the still life Table on a Cafe Terrace (1915) by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
4. “The Vatican Collections”
February 26–May 12, 1983
More than 200 works were displayed in “The Vatican Collections,” which examined the evolution and influence of papal patronage, from the 15th century through the 18th century. Met curators undertook lengthy negotiations to draw pieces not only from the Vatican Museums, but from Saint Peter’s and its Treasury, the Apostolic Palaces, and the Vatican Library; many of the works that made their way to New York had never before left the papal collections. The show, which a review in the New York Times called “an enormous experience,” included panels by Gentile da Fabriano and Raphael, mosaics and fresco that once adorned Old Saint Peter’s, and resplendent paintings by Old Masters such as Caravaggio and Pietro Lorenzetti. Also included were eight astronomical studies by 18th century painter Donati Creti, created to (successfully) convince Pope Clement XI that astronomy was a field worth funding.
3. “Mona Lisa”
February 7–March 4, 1963
Crowds lined Fifth Avenue on the opening date of “Mona Lisa”; by some reports, the first in line, a taxi driver, had even arrived at the Met steps at 4:30 a.m. It was the first time Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait had traveled to the United States, accompanied by the French Minister of Cultural Affairs for a month-long, single-picture loan. The painting was installed in the medieval sculpture hall, protected by bulletproof glass and a few Secret Service agents. Museums had not yet reorganized infrastructure to accommodate blockbuster exhibitions, and the Met staff was anticipating record-breaking attendance. Before the exhibit’s opening, Met director James Rorimer told the New Yorker, “The dirt we expect, from them and everybody else! The accumulation of dust from scuffling shoes! We’ll have literally balls of dust.” At one point, disaster nearly struck. Thomas Hoving, who was then working at the Met’s Cloisters annex, recalled in his memoir that he once found staff frantically mopping water in the museum storeroom. It turned out that, during the night, a fire sprinkler had inexplicably broken over the Mona Lisa, drenching the gallery. Thankfully, the Mona Lisa was left unharmed—her glass barrier kept her dry.
2. “Treasures of Tutankhamun”
December 20, 1978–April 14, 1979
We’re now accustomed to museum blockbusters—tentpole exhibitions with marquee loans—but this kind of show wouldn’t have existed without “Treasures of Tutankhamun.” Archaeologist Howard Carter excavated King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 to much fanfare, having invited scores of photographers, including a team from the Met, who would eventually vie with the National Gallery in D.C. to display its treasures. Artifacts from the tomb toured six cities stateside as a symbol of diplomacy between Egypt and the United States, and their arrival was met with an unprecedented enthusiasm. Millions flocked to see Tut, among them actors Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Redford and artist Andy Warhol, with some waiting up to seven hours. Museums were forced to rethink their ticketing systems as memberships soared, scalpers inflated tickets prices, and merchandising rivaled ticket sales in profits.
1. “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”
May 10–October 8, 2018
In the recent years, the Met’s Costume Institute shows have proven to be some of its most successful ventures, and the most well-attended Met show ever is a fashion survey focused on the impact of Catholicism on haute couture. Some 150 designer garments, including an ethereal Chanel wedding gown reminiscent of communion garb and a 2013 Dolce & Gabbana piece inspired by mosaics in the Cathedral of Monreale, were paired with artworks by El Greco and Francisco di Zurbarán. The largest show ever organized by the Institute, “Heavenly Bodies” took place in the first-floor hall, the Byzantine and medieval galleries, and the Lehman Wing, and even continued six miles north of the Met, at its Cloisters annex.