Another thing that I did last week was to do a bit of staring at Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring, a very famous painting that I have never seen before. I found, to my disappointment, that the picture reproduces very well. There didn’t seem to be much to learn from the original. The painting has been given its own room at the Frick Collection, and not a small room, either. It has been hung rather high on the wall, so that everyone can get a look, but none, I think, a good one. It’s a trophy now, almost certainly better-known and -loved, at least in this country, than the Mona Lisa. Everyone has read Tracy Chevalier’s book, and everyone has seen Peter Webber’s movie (ten years old already!) — everyone who goes to museums, that is. I still hear people who have walked up to the similar Study of a Young Woman that hangs in the Museum (up those stairs behind me, straight back, and all the way to the left — where the explosive gift shop would have been in The Goldfinch) say to their friends, “Here she is!” But usually somebody in the party knows better. The Museum’s girl is nowhere near so fetching. She doesn’t yearn; she doesn’t tease. The girl from the Mauritshuis makes you want to crawl back through time and follow her around Delft for a while. She’s an icon, which makes it even harder to look at the actual painting with any sense.
How interesting that she should be here in town while I’ve been reading a book about loan exhibitions, Frances Haskell’s The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition. The book came out posthumously, in 2000, and I bought it then, but never got round to reading it. Which was probably just as well, as I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about museums, or even walking around in them; I should say that, in the past seven or eight, I’ve spent as much time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as I had spent in any and all museums up until that time. Also, much has changed since 2000, thanks not only to the events of the following year but also to the appointment, in 2008, of Thomas Campbell as Director of the Museum. No doubt foolishly, I attribute every slight change in the Museum’s environment to him; I suspect, on the basis of purely imaginary speculation, that he is more involved in the detailed operation of the Museum than any of his predecessors. With regard to Haskell’s book, Dr Campbell has wrought a change that amounts to a reversal of trends that Haskell feared. He has eliminated what I always thought of as the Old Master Exhibition Space in which the Vermeers and other Northern European paintings from the Museum’s permanent collection hang today. At the end of his book, Haskell predicted just the opposite: that permanent collections would be driven out of museum galleries to make room for loan shows.
Something else happened in the mean time. In the fall of 2004 — at about the time that this Web log was launched — there was a loan exhibition of paintings by Gilbert Stuart at the Museum. One of the pictures that could not be lent was the Frick’s replica (a copy painted by Stuart) of George Washington’s portrait. The exhibition catalogue doesn’t mention it, but the Frick’s painting was represented by a superlative photograph. As such, this object captured the colors of the Frick’s painting but not its dimensionality (brushstrokes, &c). It was not as good as the real thing, but it was close, and when 3-D printers came along a few years ago, it occurred to me that famous paintings might really be cloned — not just copied but reproduced in all visual particulars. Such clones, if authorized and identified as such by the paintings’ owners, would not be forgeries or counterfeits. They would be traveling copies, suitable for loan exhibitions. This prospect will horrify many readers, I’m sure — at first, anyway.
I’ll wind up this front matter with a word of thanks to Tony Bozanich, a young man who sat next to me at the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of the gentleman on the right, above, and the lady who took the picture. Tony was the best man, not just for Eric Denny, but for me to be sitting next to, because, when he heard that I was interested in museums and shifting tastes in art, and I told him that I owned The Ephemeral Museum but hadn’t read it, Tony told me to read it right away, which I did as soon as I found it. Tony was absolutely right, righter than he knew. Because it was, as I say, a good thing that I hadn’t tackled the book sooner.
The dust jacket for The Ephemeral Museum features a photograph of people lined up in the show to see the massive Vermeer show at the National Gallery in Washington, in 1995. I didn’t see the show — we might have gone, but you’ll recall the first government shutdown, in 1996 — but I have the catalogue. Some twenty-three pictures were shown, well over two-thirds of Vermeer’s total output — in adjacent galleries in one building in one national capital. Haskell does not write about the show, but it is easy to imagine that he was appalled by the sheer imprudence of such a concentration.
The Ephemeral Museum is a collection of lectures, polished up for print by Nicholas Penny, about the development of the loan exhibition, a matter about which I was quite ignorant. I had no idea that the first such exhibitions took place in Rome, in the Seventeenth Century, and that they were ostentatious if very temporary displays of rich people’s property. For a few days only, at set times of the year, convents mounted canvases attributed to all the most famous painters of the past — justifiably or otherwise. Then, in the waning days of the ancien régime, an ambitiously public-spirited minor aristocrat, Pahin de la Blancherie, organized a series of loan shows, exhibited in grand hôtels particuliers, that climaxed with what can be recognized as a precursor of the old-master exhibition as we know it. Thanks in part to the sales of the duc d’Orléans’s collection in London at the beginning of the Revolution, the center of the exhibition world moved to London, where an outfit called the British Institution presented a retrospective exhibition of the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, late president of the Royal Academy.
Only glancingly does Haskell address the kind of loan exhibition that my readers will be familiar with — shows that 9/11 may have put a stop to. What distinguishes this most recent incarnation of the genre is the predominance of loans from other museums. The early loan shows, right up to the end of the Nineteenth Century, were exhibitions of paintings in private hands. There was a distinct air of enterprise about these older shows, because there could be no better way of putting a painting on the market. It is important at this point to step back a moment to consider a world without museums as we know them — the world of 1800 and earlier. All artworks were then in private hands. Many of course, were on public display, in churches and in royal collections that opened their doors to well-dressed visitors. But institutions like the two great National Galleries and our own Museum did not exist, even in larval form. What’s more, most art exhibitions featured new paintings by living artists. The very idea of the “old master” developed in opposition to the strong presumption, common to all the arts and crafts of Europe down to the end of the ancien régime, that new things were preferable to old things.
And when the museums-as-we-know-them were established, it was understood that their collections would stay put. Lending was generally forbidden. This restriction, still observed by a few museums, was eroded slowly but steadily, at first by governments but then by the museums themselves. Haskell is unimprovably succinct.
Success in a museum is measured today both by sponsors and by governments in terms of the publicity that only the opening of new galleries or the mounting of temporary exhibitions can stimulate. Once in the business of borrowing, an institution will not find it easy to refuse to lend. More and more exceptions are made to the lists of ‘national treasures’ or absolute masterpieces never to be lent, to the limits on the amount any work can travel, to the prohibition on the lending of works painted on wood. Rules become ‘guide-lines’ and are then regularly ignored. There is considerable reluctance to admit to this or to address the way in which the trend could be halted. The pressure to lend, which in the first half of the twentieth century was political, today comes from the demands of publicity and finance from within the museums themselves. The ideal modern director is likely to be someone well connected politically, with a flair for publicity, with enthusiasm, energy and ‘vision’ — in other words, a Lady Chamberlain. Deep commitment to the welfare of the works of art in their charge is no more likely to be a precondition for this position than scholarly knowledge of them.
It is perhaps foolish of me, as I say, to do so, but I entertain an idea of Thomas Campbell that is the positive of all these negatives. Under his administration, the Museum has developed astuteness at attracting favorable attention simply by moving its possession around, as witness the current textile show (textiles are Dr Campbell’s specialty), comprised primarily of fabrics distributed among the Museum’s various departments.
The Vermeer and the Fabritius are visiting New York for a reason that doesn’t seem to have occurred in Haskell’s time. The Mauritshuis — the Royal Cabinet of Paintings — is undergoing renovation. Most of its collection remains in The Hague (I gather), but ten paintings have traveled to New York. Similarly, quite a few of the Museum’s Sargents disappeared while the new American Wing galleries were being constructed; I daresay they were shown in some other town. As long as a work of art has to leave the building, I don’t suppose that it matters much in today’s world how far it travels. But I subscribe to Haskell’s ideal: paintings ought not to be disturbed for less-than-compelling reasons.
Most the things that we do today’s civil society are of fairly recent origin, and museum-going is certainly among the most recent. Because the contents of museums tend to be old, if not ancient, this novelty is hard to bear in mind, and there is no reason for a casual visitor to concern him- or herself with the matter. Lively minds, however, will see past the grand staircases and the skylights, past the installations and the guards, and discern a dense, ever-changing web of social expectations. (Consider the sheer dowdiness of museums fifty years ago!) They will grasp that the walls are hung with the fruits of a voluntary socialism that has transferred ever more artworks from private collections to public galleries. They will notice that museums designed to safeguard the finer ornaments of domestic (including palatial) interiors have engendered the production of works that could not exist outside of a museum. Most of all, they will wonder what’s next.