In a fit of self-absorption, the Met is turning inward this fall with two major shows from its own collections. One - "Depth of Field: Modern Photography at the Metropolitan" - makes full use of its location and - "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art" - is so sprawling that it swells beyond the temporary exhibition space into other corners of the museum. But both zero in on the fads of collecting, and on the way fashion shapes the contents of an institution as seemingly Olympian and unchanging as the Met.
In contemporary photography, where authorship is rarely in question, it is size that matters. Some of the works in "Depth of Field" are good, others less so, but all are big. That's partly because they show off the new real estate that the Met is devoting to recent photography, and partly because billboard-scaled prints justify the astronomical prices that these pictures fetch in the marketplace.
The show is a somewhat scattered greatest hits collection of the last 40 years, and it includes one contribution each by Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky and Richard Prince. In this context, the most trenchant work is by Thomas Struth, in which toy-sized tourists in the vast nave of the church of San Zaccaria in Venice gaze on the grand altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini, secure in the knowledge that they are looking at art that is and always will be great. But as the Rembrandt story demonstrates, and as the photographers in "Depth of Field" should remember, grandeur is fleeting. Perhaps one day, tiny photos will be considered obviously the best, and the Met will be stuck with some very large galleries and a major storage problem.
"The Age of Rembrandt" is an idiosyncratic blockbuster that packs in the crowds even as it vaguely mystifies them. Yes, there are Rembrandts, Vermeers and Frans Halses aplenty, but you have to work hard to find them. The show isn't organized thematically, chronologically, by point of origin or even according to artist. In fact, it isn't focused on artists at all, but rather on those who enriched the museum by donating their treasures for the greater good.
So "The Age of Rembrandt" would more aptly be subtitled "The Story of How We Got All Those Great Dutch Paintings - and Lots of Duds." It opens with the founding purchase of 1871, a passel of Old Master paintings procured in Paris for the brand-new museum by its first vice president, William Tilden Blodgett. Some of the 174 paintings in the original collection were Italian, French and Spanish, but the bulk were Dutch and Flemish, which were all the rage among the rich on both sides of the Atlantic. Henry James, who reviewed the museum's official opening for the Atlantic Monthly, discerned a promising mediocrity. It would do, he supposed, for those not privileged to go abroad: "If it has no gems of the first magnitude, it has few specimens that are decidedly valueless." He singled out the Dutch component as the fledgling collection's greatest strength.
Such was the faint praise that greeted the new artistic beachhead in New York, which, due to the depression of the 1870s, was slow to get started. By the 1880s, though, new wealth made possible ever more extravagant donations. The arriviste titans of industry and banking, eager to prove their sophistication, competed for European - and especially Dutch - Old Masters. The new millionaires required adornments for the walls of their summer "cottages" and palatial town homes - decor that wended its way to the Met.
Henry Marquand, a railroad financier who became the museum's president in 1889, acquired what was probably the first authentic Rembrandt to come to the United States. "Portrait of a Man" is one of the few paintings by the Dutchman that you can't see on any ordinary visit to the museum. Its abraded surface and multiple alterations consign the painting to semipermanent storage.
If Dutch art caught the fancy of America's new aristocrats and rising bourgeoisie, it's because it so accurately embodied their values. Protestant Dutch culture held that God inhered in the details, in the dust and fog, fireplaces and flowers of this world, and painters regularly took life's unremarked flickerings as their subjects. With the rise of the urban merchant class, daily routines, rather than the exploits of princes, became the painter's stock-in-trade. In 17th century Amsterdam, as in Gilded Age New York, it was the businessmen who bought paintings, so it was they, along with their wives, who sat for portraits and played the lead in subtle interior dramas. Both were eras of dramatic social mobility, and painters chronicled the hard-earned luxuries to which more and more people could now aspire.
Jewels of the Met's permanent collection
The young Met's greatest bequest came from Benjamin Altman, the retail tycoon who founded B. Altman & Co. A room contains his Vermeer, six gorgeous Rembrandts - among them the lush, melancholy "Woman With a Pink" - and a couple of Hals' best portraits. Most, if not all, of these can be seen any time you visit the Met: They are jewels of its permanent collection.
One you won't see, though, is "Old Woman Cutting Her Nails," a moody picture of a sharp-featured matriarch engaged in a humble routine of bodily maintenance. When it arrived at the Met in 1914, experts agreed that it manifested "the breadth and beauty of [Rembrandt's] painting at what seems to us today his greatest period." Later, the work's authorship was challenged and it was deleted from the master's catalog. The painting, no less piercing or virtuosic than when it was lauded, vanished into storage.
This was the fate of many "Rembrandts" for which eminent collectors laid out piles of cash. One, of a man with a plumed hat, was universally considered one of the master's most charming portraits - until it was demoted to "style of Rembrandt" and sentenced to the vaults. This shamefaced rewriting of the canon makes it clear that beauty is in the eye of the accountant. If a painting is authentic, it's worthy; if not, it's worthless.
WHEN & WHERE
"Depth of Field: Modern Photography at the Metropolitan" through March 3 and "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art" through Jan. 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street, Manhattan. For exhibition hours and admission prices, call 212-535-7710 or visit metmuseum.org.