The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the largest and most prestigious institution on the East Coast. The museum’s collection of priceless artworks from the 1600’s on, in its second-floor wing, contains works unrivalled in their expansive and ambitious colors and narratives. As artists reacted to the achievements of the 1600’s, such as the genre painters of the Netherlands, so too there was a competitive edge of deciding how to excite the viewer with new stories and innovations. This article will take a walk through some of the most interesting experiments of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Oedipus and the Sphinx,” from Gustave Moreau in 1864 is a formidable painting. On the left, the Sphinx clutches at the hero, Oedipus, and at the painting’s focal point the hero grips a red spear, with the implication that he has killed her. The painting was a reconsideration of Ingres’s 1808 version of the same story. The legend of Oedipus is he solved, “the riddle of the Sphinx,” which was the question, “what has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, three legs in the evening, and four at night?” The answer is man, because as an infant he crawls on hands and knees, and as an elderly man, he walks with a cane. Aesthetic philosopher Roland Barthes said a chimera, or a monster of many animals combined – like the Sphinx – is a symbol without a referent, and one might venture to say the sphinx in this painting represents anxiety about being alive because symbols usually portend doom as omens and harbingers, what they refer to. In effect, Oedipus solves the riddle by conceding the ultimate knowledge that people die, and he knows he will die. He solves the riddle and kills the Sphinx by taking action.
“Fishing,” from 1862-63 by Edouard Manet is a more relaxing painting in comparison. The curator’s notes for the painting tell a funny story, that Delacroix said to Manet, “Look at Rubens, draw inspiration from Rubens, copy Rubens. Rubens was God.” Manet’s subject matter of an idyllic scene of fishing and family appears in Rubens, but Rubens also used his own personal philosophy of love and family as an anchor in his paintings. It’s in this way the painting becomes a meditation on aging and getting older, because the child on the left of the painting has a symbolic relationship to the newly married bachelor on the right. The river has kinship with crossing over to death or adulthood, as in crossing the river Styxx in Dante’s Inferno, because rivers are a demarcation, and here of course the child and the man are divided by that river. No adult can become a child again. Manet’s almost-Impressionist coloring makes this a more symbolic painting, because the painting’s most realistic renderings are of the characters, whereas the woods and the river look as though they were painted from memory. Lastly, the use of the dog has special significance here. Dogs in classical times were considered scavengers, and so artists often used dogs to speak about, “scavenging” past memories, which is counterproductive rumination. The dog barks at the child here. Nevertheless, time has already moved on.
Manet’s use of color likely informed Monet’s “The Manneporte (The Etretat),” from 1883, which favors technical prowess over narrative symbolism, and this latter painting is something both conservative and radical. The possibilities of Impressionism – the very many brushstrokes of dozens of different colors – have a strange sort of recognition of the limits of consciousness and ideation. By comparison, American painter Winslow Homer painted beaches and ocean waves, and one admits that the large colors of the beaches, the deep blues of the oceans, and the blazing golds of the sands are difficult to render. Furthermore, oceans’ waves are constantly undulating, such that painting the waves is an incredible undertaking. Monet’s myriad brushstrokes and colors furthered Homer’s limits in patient consciousness. Monet’s painting captured the flickers of color shimmering off of the rock formation, which could only be available to him at that specific time. Monet’s works are like Descartes’ concept of a chiliagon in The Meditations, which is a thousand-sided polygon. Where a person might be able to imagine a triangle or a rectangle in her head, there are too many sides to a chiliagon to imagine.
Nietzsche famously wrote the best art is based on gratitude, and such a sentiment might be the basis of Pissarro’s 1880, “Washerwoman Study,” which paints Marie Larcheveque, Pissarro’s friend. Art in the Middle Ages used ideals in the sense of telling a story to show aspirations and escapisms for anyone who wasn’t rich. In the 1800’s artists questioned the previously held standards, and in this case Pissarro questions perceived wisdom that a washerwoman might not be important. Pissarro’s use of gentle blues, and warm peach, salmon, and pink flesh tones push the viewer’s eye to Larcheveque’s face in empathy and respect for the work this person had to do. Pissarro’s painting is very similar to Van Gogh’s portraits of his friends and family. Pissarro and Van Gogh kill off the impersonal duty of idealized paintings with personal sentiments about real, actual people.
Two of Pablo Picasso’s paintings from his pre-Cubist period in 1905 also have to do with fidelity to truth, and this time the realm is theater. In, “The Actor,” the eponymous figure looks down for his line to the prompter to tell him his line. This process hasn’t disappeared, and Lat Night television shows always have cue cards or at least a teleprompter. This painting is dark and the actor’s skin is almost painted gray. This speaks to a lack of insight on the part of the actor, who doesn’t realize that maybe forgetting his lines is symptomatic of not being committed to the role he’s playing on stage. Picasso’s painting here has existential overtones – that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men are actors,” to paraphrase Shakespeare. Concurrently in 1905, Picasso’s “At the Lapin Agile,” is a self-portrait of the artist as a Harlequin. The Harlequin clown is a character from Renaissance theater, specifically Commedia del’Arte, such as the play, “A Servant with Two Masters,” and this character usually makes mischief as a way to instigate the drama of the play, and they usually make mischief as a means of resolving the chaos they’ve unleashed. This painting is stunning, then, because Picasso is about to break this woman’s heart – that’s the mischief of the Harlequin. He knows it, the viewers of the painting can figure it out, and the woman in the painting is unbeknownst.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest and greatest museum in New York City, and often considered one of the greatest in the entire world. These paintings show why that is true. Painting after the Renaissance in Europe and the United States above all show a love of brilliant colors and romantic narratives. These colors and narratives show the beauty of everyday life and remind viewers to look at their own lives with these inspired perspectives.