Tag: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Impossible Outfit: Keeping Warm and Looking Cool

Dear Paper Doll,

The winter chill is setting in—oh, how I dread this time of year! I was raised, and spent all of my fashion-formative years, in a tropical climate. I am blessed with the gift of being able to both look and feel cool when it’s 100 degrees outside (and I can tie a sarong into no fewer than 18 stylish configurations). But now, as a recent transplant to the Northeast, I have no idea how to bundle up while still looking sleek and fashionable. Any tips on what to wear so that I can look fabulous without sacrificing warmth?


Ice Queen


Dear Ice Queen,

Ah, welcome to the annual battle between keeping warm and looking cool! You’re not alone in facing the challenge of how to bundle up without resembling a marshmallow. Fortunately, fashion from all over the world has responded to the winter weather, with glamorous results. With just a few tips, you’ll be tastefully toasty in no time!

Check out this slideshow for cold-weather ideas inspired by clothing and textiles in Yale art books!

With love and hot cocoa,

Paper Doll

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See the books below on our website for more fashion inspiration.

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
impossible_outfit_11_22_100-Shoes-jacket impossible_outfit_11_22_impressionism Impossible_outfit_11_22_interwoven impossible_outfit_11_22_JAR impossible_outfit_11_22_kantha-jacket

TEDxMet: Icons—Streaming Live Tomorrow

Where can you go tomorrow, Saturday, October 19th, to see dance legend Bill T. Jones, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and neurobiologist Eric Kandel, internationally-acclaimed illustrator Maira Kalman, distinguished critic Nicolai Ourousoff, and even more celebrated artists, dancers, architects, curators, percussionists, and writers?

You don’t have to go anywhere!


TEDxMet: Icons will stream live, here, from 10:00am until 5:00pm eastern time tomorrow.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the first art museum to receive a TEDx licence, and the result is this spectacular array of genius assembled around the open-to-interpretation theme of “Icons.”

The day will include the first “wordless” TED talk, as well as humor, science, performance, biography, and serious discussion about art.  We’re certain the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website is dead on when it asserts that the day will challenge, entertain, and surprise.

See you there!


Notes from the Field: The Medium is the Message

View the New York Times ‘Interwoven Globe’ Exhibition Slide Show

Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 tells a fascinating history of global textile design through the intertwined narratives of trade across continents, oceans, and eras.  Drawing on The Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s incredibly rich textiles collection—much of which the museum has not publicly displayed—the exhibition shows how global economic exchange, beginning in the 16th century, influenced not just fabric design and the popularity of certain materials, such as silk or cotton, and dyes, such as indigo, but served to establish certain global aesthetic codes. Curator Amelia Peck writes in her introduction to the exhibition catalog,

“Because the scope of the textile trade was so wide by the mid-17th century, the constant exchange of exotic design motifs, fibers, and dyes between these now interconnected markets brought into being, for the first time, a common visual language of design that was recognizable throughout the world.”

At the same time, the materials on display very often reveal the extent to which the cross-cultural interactions facilitated by trade appear, literally, woven into the fabrics themselves.

To visit is to tour a vast depiction of human proclivities and follies—commerce, fashion, conquest, love, marriage, warfare—rendered in painstakingly composed tableaux of thread, ink, and cloth. In purely visual terms the result is stunning; with each turn into a new gallery viewers are met with vibrant patterns whose palette and complexity are often vivid though never garish. And yet while it is easy enough to be awed by the beauty alone of the dresses and tapestries, their elaborate provenances are too intriguing to be ignored. The show progresses chronologically and geographically, with topical detours.  It begins with 15th-century Portugal, the first European nation to navigate beyond the Cape of Good Hope, whose sailors introduced Western designs to Asian craftsman, who in turn incorporated the motifs into their pre-existing designs. The incredible popularity of the resulting hybridized patterns—and the status they imbued upon their wearers—eventually led to European workshops producing their own renditions of the Asian fabrics. From here we move west to colonial Latin America where Spaniards commissioned textiles, such as wedding tapestries, from local Incan workers in Peru and formed workshops to teach Mexico’s indigenous population to produce fabrics for the Catholic Church. One especially striking example, a wedding coverlet made in the Yucatán in 1786, features couple in European dress rendered in thread made from both European and Mexican dyes and on silk that likely made its way from China by way of Acapulco on Mexico’s west coast. The exhibition then ventures into Chinese and European trade in the 16th century as well as the, perhaps lesser known, robust textile trade Japan conducted with their Asian neighbors despite legal restrictions on any Japanese actually leaving the country. Here we begin to see signs of India’s involvement with this burgeoning global exchange, for example in the stunning 18th-century example of a deep turquoise cotton with dark pink rosettes that was produced in India for the Japanese market. The following gallery looks specifically at Indian cotton, focusing closely on the hand painted cottons that became wildly popular as decorative arts—bedcovers and wall hangings—and in fashion in Europe. Because of the feared economic impact this would have on local craftsmen, laws were passed in the 18th century barring the import of Indian fabrics into France and England. Whether law-abiding or simply focused locally, Versailles, to which an entire gallery of the exhibition is devoted, commissioned locally-produced tapestries that told of global domination with depictions of Asia, Africa, and the New World at the mercy of France. Louis XVI, alas, did not live to see the finished product.

Several thematically-organized galleries round out the show. One room demonstrates the relationship of religion and textile trade—including the introduction of fabrics produced in East Asia, Iran, and Turkey into European churches and the relationship between Catholic missionaries and textile production in Latin America. A section titled “Looking East, Looking West” explores representations of foreigners in Asian and European fabrics as well as the popularity, in 18th-century Europe, of “Asian” dressing gowns and robes. A small room is dedicated to representations of conflict in textiles, an especially intriguing example being an 18th-century fabric, produced in India, that showcases two groups of men in European dress in the heat of battle. The final phase of the expansive exhibition winds into 18th-century North America where a loophole in British law meant that Chinese silks not legally purchased in the United Kingdom could be purchased (and so existed in large quantities) in the colonies. Following American independence and the rise of cotton production in the South, this once-robust market dwindled.

If this sounds exhaustive, it is. And it’s almost certainly worth more than one visit to truly take it all in. The sheer scope of information and material at hand is staggering, and the connections presented therein between cultures that were, upon first encounter, so wildly disparate is fascinating, perhaps most so because of the common visual languages that were so quickly produced and distributed. So much here can be seen as a precursor to our own commodity-saturated 21st-century global cultural landscape. Considering the expansive geography of production and distribution, and the status these disseminated objects implied, even across cultures that did not share a common spoken language or social histories, the gorgeous 18th-century white wedding quilt with its Chinese silk, Mexican and Spanish dyes, and European newlyweds festooning the middle parallels any number of modern-day commodities with complicated, diffuse manufacturing and distribution.  A connection between aesthetic appropriation and the global marketplace for status symbols is striking, and important – it is a major reason why Interwoven Globe is such a brilliant project. What is on display is not just history, but a visual narrative of globalization and global exchange in very nascent and pure forms.

One might also glean, from Peck’s lucid catalog essay on the subject, evidence of just how problematic these culturally hybrid objects can be for institutional representations of material history. Prior to Interwoven Globe, the Met, which has a long and highly regarded tradition of textile display, had not organized a cross-cultural textile exhibition since 1926. The issue could be purely organizational – to whom does a Chinese textile produced for the Portuguese market belong? Which department claims it for their show?  Is it Asian or European? This exhibition, with its answer of “neither and both,” allows for the complexity of the project, and reveals much about historic and contemporary predicaments.

Van Gogh at Work

9780300191868Van Gogh struggled with volume. When at the age of 28 he decided to become an artist, he took to copying contours of nude models from a drawing guide called Exercises au fusain (exercises in charcoal). The figures were, sadly, flat and stiffly composed. Later in his career, after a soon-to-be ex-friend harshly criticized his first large painting The potato eaters (1885) on related grounds, he picked up Jean Gigoux’s Causeries sur les artistes de mon temps (Essays on the artists of my time). Discovering there that he could use circles and ellipses to sketch the masses of a body, he used this technique to draw figures much more full and convincing than those of his earlier studies. When in 1886 his need for live models inspired him to enroll at Antwerp academy despite his detestation of academic training, he found himself unable to conform to the orthodox practice of building figures from the outline up. But, he “felt vindicated in his view by the shortcomings of his fellow students’ drawings: ‘The figures that they draw – are virtually always top-heavy and topple forwards, headlong – there’s not one that stands on its feet.’”

The painter is widely viewed as a genius in a class of his own, an exceptional self-taught artist who paid little attention to the art world around him. But, as Director of the Van Gogh museum Alex Ruger writes in his preface to Van Gogh At Work, “This could not be farther from the truth.”  This volume, coming out of the Van Gogh Museum’s long-term research project Van Gogh’s Studio Practice, traces the artist’s transformation from a relative novice to the mature artist who painted well-known compositions like Starry Night and Sunflowers. It juxtaposes his practice-sketches and paintings with detailed research into their composition, as well as information about his life and artistic development gathered from notebooks and personal correspondence with family and fellow artists. Along with Van Gogh we discover the joys of new media and techniques (upon finding several pieces of natural black chalk in his studio: “’It’s just as if there were soul and life in the stuff, and as if it understands what one intends and itself cooperates. I’d like to call it Gypsy chalk (…) It has the colour of a ploughed field on a summer evening!’”)  and experience the stresses of supporting an increasing need for materials.

And we meet the people who figured largely in his artistic coming-of-age: people like the artists of the “Petite Boulevard,” a group of avant-garde painters including Emile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, and Toulouse Lautrec for whom Van Gogh organized a Paris exhibition in 1887. There he met Paul Gauguin,with whom he formed an intense and tumultuous artistic relationship. Importantly, this book showcases the eclectic network of influence that allowed one of the most famous artists of all time to come into his own. In doing so, it topples the myth of Van Gogh as an insular artistic genius.

Of the Antwerp academy’s prescribed method of conveying volume, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “’you really should see!!! how flat, how dead and how bloody boring the results of that system are.’” We can learn something from the artist’s stubborn bucking of convention. Through a fresh approach it is possible to conjure a more three-dimensional picture of the artist and his process. Van Gogh may have been sent back to the basic course, but Van Gogh at Work and its accompanying exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum (1 May 2013 -  12 January 2014 – if you have the great fortune to be in Amsterdam, please visit it for us!) are anything but flat, dead, and bloody boring.

A Peek Inside German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600

Passing through the art section of a bookstore, you might find yourself arrested by the haughty gaze of Hermann von Wedigh III.  The young merchant sits confidently at a table against a brilliant blue background, with a small book resting by his right elbow. “Herman von Wedigh III,” a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger and the cover-image of Early German Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350-1600 reveals themes explored in this review catalog of the Met’s comprehensive collection. The small book forms the locus of a scholarly discussion about the painting’s interpretation: is the book a Protestant bible, making Von Wedigh a Protestant reformist? Or, as curator Maryan W. Ainsworth argues, is the book intended as a classical text – in which case Wedigh may have been a secular humanist along the lines of prominent 16th century figures like Erasmus and Paracelsus? Early German Paintings offers a fresh exploration of a period in German art characterized by political and artistic turbulence, when traditional devotional practices in painting coexisted with popular mythological subjects and emerging secular themes. It is the first detailed study of the largest collection of German paintings in America.

Early German Paintings is a visually lavish and absorbing volume, and one that we are incredibly excited to have on our Spring/Summer 2013 list. Here is a peek, composed by one of our colleagues at the Met, at some of the intriguing analysis found within:

Featured Publication: German Paintings
in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600

Nadja Hansen, Editorial Assistant, Editorial Department; and Hilary Becker, Administrative Assistant, Editorial Department

Just in time to celebrate the opening of the New European Paintings Galleries, Curator Maryan Ainsworth has coauthored a comprehensive guide to the Met’s German paintings. The collection, which includes pictures made in the German-speaking lands (including Austria and Switzerland) from 1350 to 1600, constitutes the largest and most comprehensive group in an American museum today. Comprising major examples by the towering figures of the German Renaissance—Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Hans Holbein the Younger—and many by lesser masters, the collection has grown slowly but steadily from the first major acquisitions in 1871 to the most recent in 2011; it now numbers seventy-two works, presented here in sixty-three entries.

Below is a sampling of the included works, with excerpts by Joshua Waterman and Ainsworth, whose previous catalogue of the 2012 exhibition Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance, the Complete Works received the prestigious Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for “an especially distinguished catalogue in the history of art.”

Hans Holbein the Younger (Augsburg 1497/98–1543 London). Benedikt von Hertenstein, 1517. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, aided by subscribers, 1906 (06.1038)

When this portrait was painted, Holbein was only about twenty years old and had not yet been admitted into the Painters’ Guild in Basel, which he paid to join in 1519. . . . Viewed straight on, Hertenstein appears noticeably broader than he perhaps should, with an oversized left arm and hand. But, as we pass from left to right before the painting, he assumes more natural proportions and seems to project in a realistic manner out of his space into ours. As he engages us with his glance and we reach an angle of forty-five degrees opposite his image, we gradually experience the full force of Hertenstein’s corporeal presence. The inscription becomes more prominent, and the authorship of the painting is featured. Holbein’s striking effect of verisimilitude, in which the ideal image of the man is recognized only “in passing,” calls attention to the transience of life—both Hertenstein’s and our own.

Lucas Cranach the Younger (Wittenberg 1515–1586 Wittenberg). Nymph of the Spring, ca. 1545–50. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.136)

This small, astonishingly well-preserved painting shows a nude woman reclining on the grassy bank of a river, near a spring that issues from a rock formation. Looking toward the viewer, she identifies herself and offers a word of caution through the first-person Latin inscription at the upper right: “I, nymph of the sacred spring, am resting; do not disturb my sleep.” The scene’s open eroticism is heightened by the nymph’s sultry, half-closed eyes; the red tinge of her cheeks, buttocks, elbows, knees, and feet; the transparent veil that meanders from head to foot, as if to guide the viewer’s gaze along her body; and the bundled red dress, which evokes the thought of her disrobing. A bow and quiver hang in a nearby tree, signaling that the nymph belongs to the entourage of the huntress goddess Diana. A green parrot perched on the bow and two rock partridges in the grass probably serve as symbols of the Luxuria (lust) that is embodied by the nymph and called forth in the male viewer.

Hans Süss von Kulmbach (?Kulmbach ca. 1485–1522 Nuremberg). Portrait of a Young Man; (verso) Girl Making a Garland, ca. 1508. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.21)

This small, double-sided panel bears a portrait of a man on one side and a depiction of a girl making a garland on the reverse. . . . This is among the relatively few extant early sixteenth-century panels that join a portrait with an emblematic or allegorical subject on the verso. . . . Wearing a dancing dress, the girl is presented as a young maiden, her loose, flowing hair adorned with a double string of pearls symbolic of her chastity. Rather than a portrait, she is a female type, symbolizing a lover or prospective bride. Although the wreath of flowers was traditionally worn by women at festivals and tournaments, it was also commonly donned without a special event in mind by girls in southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Most important for our painting was the wreath worn by the bride as a sign of her virginity on her wedding day, when it would be taken from her with certain rites and replaced with a bonnet. The cat has many connotations in the art of this period, but the most likely one here is that suggested by Sigrid and Lothar Dittrich: a symbol of the respectable, constant love for the man who appears on the other side of the panel.

Impossible Outfit: PUNK Edition

Dear Paper Doll,

My 35th high school reunion is approaching. Though you’d hardly know it to look at me now – I’m an anesthesiologist (I claim this career choice was inspired by The Ramones) living in the suburbs, happily married with three beautiful children – back in the day my friends and I were the punk scene at our small-town school. We weren’t exactly popular, and I was no prom queen, but we had a blast. We’ve decided that it would be fun to attend the reunion dressed like we did in the good old days, but I don’t have any of my safety pin-covered t-shirts anymore. Can you help me assemble an age-appropriate outfit?



impossible outfit: punk edition

Dear Once-punk,

Punk: Chaos to CoutureI love that you’ll be adopting the alternative fashion of your youth! The great news is that there are now endless possibilities that glam up the essence of all things punk. Here are some ideas from The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, on view through August 14, with an accompanying catalog distributed by Yale University Press.

  1. You mentioned safety pins – why not embrace hardware to its fullest with a look that also gives a nod to your current professional life?
  2. Will your husband be attending the reunion with you? If so, and he wants to go along with the theme, I suggest this suit, which is likely a departure from his day-to-day collared shirt.
  3. Since it is near summer, perhaps you’d like to don a skirt instead? This graffiti-inspired number has the edge you’re looking for, but will let you dance the night away without constriction!
  4. Although if you’re looking for more of a sleek rock star look, check out this leather ensemble with a maze of zippers.
  5. Also, who needs to be a prom queen when you can claim the punk throne?

Anarchically yours,


Paper Doll

Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop

Caroline Hayes—

Faking It: Manipulated Photography before PhotoshopThe widely acknowledged use of Photoshop in modern photography does not mark the emergence of manipulated photography; rather, it is a progression, or perhaps even just a technologically altered form of the medium’s original processes. Assistant Curator in the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mia Fineman, chronicles thistory of photography in her beautiful book Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop and her curated exhibition of the same name currently on view at The Met. Fineman focuses on instances of manipulation that involve images with a sense of “pictorial coherence and representational illusionism; they aim to be visually convincing…” and she unveils that the determination to modify camera images was present at the very onset of the medium itself. She demonstrates that photography’s inherent realism has “always been bolstered by techniques of artifice and illusion.”

I was lucky enough to talk to Fineman about some of the questions that occurred to me while reading the book, and she explained to me her interest in the line that (barely) separates fiction and nonfiction:

I’ve always been attracted to the murky waters between fiction and nonfiction, fact and imagination: novels that take the form of fake memoirs, memoirs that take liberties with the truth, invented histories, con games, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, literary frauds, etc., etc. I know I’m not alone in this—it’s a major part of our zeitgeist. A few years ago, in 2008, I organized an exhibition at the Met called “Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography,” which brought together photographs of staged scenarios and constructed environments that appear to be real and photographs of real scenes or landscapes that look strangely artificial. So, I had a longstanding interest in art and artifice, but the immediate impetus for Faking It was the widespread perception that digital technology and Photoshop had stripped photography of its truth value. It seemed like exactly the right moment to look back at the history of the medium and to trace the thread of image manipulation from the 1840s all the way up to the present day.

The examples throughout Faking It that accompany Fineman’s analysis are integral to the book, and of course, to the exhibit.  From staged political photographs to manipulated nudes, the book’s images are astonishing and beautiful. In conversation with Fineman, I asked if there were any images she encountered but found she could not include in the book or the exhibit:

For this project, I had the luxury of a book design that could beautifully accommodate all the images that were essential to my argument—including pictures that couldn’t be featured in the exhibition because the objects themselves were too fragile to be exhibited. For example, the book includes several “Composographs” from the notorious Jazz Age tabloid, the New York Evening Graphic. These photographs were created to illustrate scenes that were inaccessible to news cameras—society scandals, bedroom antics, grisly crime scenes. The newspaper staged the scenes using models, then the faces of the real subjects were pasted onto the models’ bodies. I was very eager to include an original copy of the Evening Graphic in the exhibition but very few survive—most libraries considered the tabloid too trashy and low-brow to preserve. Also, the Graphic was printed on the cheapest newsprint and the few surviving copies are so brittle that the pages disintegrate at the slightest touch. I tried very hard to track down an exhibitable copy with no success. Fortunately, one of the editors of the Graphic published a memoir in which he reproduced a number of Composographs, a couple of which appear in Faking It.

Fineman’s findings are impossible to deny, and lead one inevitably to ponder the effect of such discoveries. How could this understanding of photography’s origin affect the future of photography? Does contemporary photography at times respond to the medium’s manipulative roots? Perhaps attempting to escape it or perhaps attempting to embrace it? Fineman reflects:

I think it’s the prerogative of artists to take what they need from the past, to reject what they don’t need, and to engage in what Harold Bloom famously called “creative misreadings” of their predecessors. In the art world today, there’s certainly a much warmer embrace of photographic manipulation than there was in the era of “straight photography” that dominated the mid-twentieth century. Even as recently as ten years ago, I would often come across gallery press releases boasting that the photographs on view were “not digitally manipulated in any way.” In the context of photojournalism, this is a necessary claim. But in the context of fine art, it comes across as rather naïve, or maybe just nostalgic. I can’t predict what direction contemporary photography will take, and I would never presume to tell artists what to do. My main goal in organizing the exhibition and writing this book was to shed new light on an aspect of photographic history that was previously marginalized or ignored—and I look forward to seeing what kinds of readings or creative misreadings the material inspires.


Caroline Hayes is a student at New York University and former Yale University Press intern.

Matisse: In Search of True Painting


The exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting explores Matisse’s practice of producing pairs of paintings, and the ways in which this practice influenced his development as artist.  Academically trained, Matisse learned composition and technique by copying older master paintings. This practice was not considered an empty, rote exercise but rather a valuable way of analyzing another work of art. Through the rigorous, painstaking practice of copying another work of art, art students experimented with different techniques, many of which they would later appropriate and modify in the production of original works. For Matisse, however, the practice of copying proved especially important in his development as an artist because it supplied the conceptual and methodological basis for his work with repeated images.

Throughout his 50-year career, Matisse repeated images in order to compare the effects of different techniques and to measure his progress as an artist. This practice is most evident in his pairs of paintings, or “doubles,” that he began while in art school in the late 1890s. Each pair consists of two canvasses of the same dimensions depicting the same subject, but employing different techniques. At first, Matisse would produce one painting in the style of a contemporary artist—his favorites included Cezanne,  Gauguin, van Gogh, and Signac. For example, in a pair of paintings each entitled Madame Matisse in the Olive Garden, Matisse paints one landscape with broad, Expressionist strokes and the other painting with the sharp, defined brushstrokes of Divisionists.

Although lauded by some for his “chameleon-like versatility,” many critics, concerned that this new generation of French artists was merely copying previous generations in superficial and meaningless ways, criticized Matisse for his obvious indebtedness to other artists. Matisse, then and even in his old age, never shied away from acknowledging the influence of others on his own style. In an early interview, the young artist said, “I have never avoided the influence of others…I believe that the personality of the artist develops and asserts itself through the struggle it has to go through when pitted against the personalities. If the fight is fatal and the personality succumbs, it is a matter of destiny.” As Matisse’s own artistic vision developed, his early eclecticism transformed into a new, innovative style of painting.

This progression from young artist—brazenly, if purposefully, borrowing from disparate sources—to mature artist with a coherent and unique style is apparent in his later pairs, in which the styles are never entirely indebted to another artist. We see this, for example, in The Piano, which evinces a harsh geometric abstraction, and The Music Lesson, which evinces gentle and immediate naturalism. Looking back on this period, a mature Matisse spoke of this juxtaposition of geometric abstraction and naturalism as “a will to rhythmic abstraction [that] was battling with my natural innate desire for rich, warm, generous colors and forms.”

Matisse: In Search of True Painting is organized and currently on view by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit runs through March 17, 2013, and is accompanied by a catalogue distributed by Yale University Press.

Building the Cloisters

At first glance The Cloisters might be seen as an anachronism to its northern Manhattan neighborhood. Nestled within Fort Tryon Park (opened 1935), sitting above a grid of 1920s low-rise apartments, 1950s high-rise housing projects and the requisite array of fast food franchises, parking garages, and bodegas that dot the city, The Cloisters brings a decidedly Medieval feel to the neighborhood. This is not surprising; much of the building predates its neighboring structures by several centuries. A branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the renowned collection of European art and architecture, including the famed Unicorn Tapestries, is housed in an elegant stone structure that combines a little bit of 12th-century France here, a little bit of 11th-century Spain there, and some Belgian cobblestones (extracted from lower Manhattan) and Connecticut granite added during the 1930s for good measure.

The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, Revised and Updated EditionThe Cloisters is truly the sum of its parts, a series of attractions that is as likely to be a wall hanging as the wall itself. What makes this so fascinating, beyond the pleasure of proximity to so many artistic and architectural treasures, is that these paintings, tapestries, ceramics, and sculptures, not to mention arches, courtyards, and apses, tell a story not simply of the European Middle Ages, but  of the brisk trade in medieval artifacts that flourished at the turn of the 20th century. As Nancy Wu and Peter Barnet note the in their introduction to a newly revised and expanded guide to the collection, the history of The Cloisters begins with George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor who lived in rural France with his family between 1905-1913. At that time, ruins and relics of the Middle Ages were easily available to those with the interest and means to acquire them. Over centuries many of these objects had been uprooted from their original contexts by war, looting, and architectural renovations; some structures that once served ecclesiastical purposes were put to decidedly mundane use storing livestock and farming equipment. Barnard, who had a longstanding fascination with medieval stonework, was able to build an impressive collection which he shipped to New York just before the French senate passed a law impeding such exports.

Barnard’s collection, originally on display at 698 Fort Washington Avenue in Washington Heights, was purchased for The Metropolitan Museum of Art by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1925 and continued to expand through new acquisitions over the subsequent decade. In the late 1930s new galleries were built for collection in Fort Tryon Park, an Olmsted brothers-designed space commissioned by Rockefeller and donated to the city. The updated structure combined contemporary construction modeled after various European medieval monuments, with several historical elements from France, including a chapter house from an abbey in Pontaut that had most recently served as a stable, a 13th century doorway from Burgundy that had been refitted for a barn, and 12th century chapel that had been put to use during the 19th century as a stable, dance hall, theater, and finally as a storage space for tobacco. Barnet and Wu’s guide gives readers and museum-goers detailed biographies of these elements, often with images of the pieces in their original, re-purposed contexts. The result is a rich history of how a museum collection is built. Such an in-depth story of architectural refurbishment and innovation, coupled with close readings of key pieces from the collection, makes the guide an invaluable insight into the art and culture of the Middle Ages and tells a truly enchanting slice of New York City history.

The Thanksgiving (Playing) Table

After the turkey has been carved, served, and eaten with thanks and all of the sides, after the pies have been admired and devoured, Thanksgiving Day calls for an extended time of post-meal relaxation – a recuperative period after the culinary undertaking and to support the digestive efforts.  There is usually a contingent among Thanksgiving guests that is entirely satisfied by a comfortable sofa and a television tuned to the evening’s football game.  But for the guests who don’t number themselves among the avid sports fans in any crowd, other diversions come in handy.  The niece and nephew, for example, siblings whose rivalry includes fierce matches of checkers; the cousin who will challenge anyone to a game of chess; the great-aunt who loves nothing more than a cozy spot to read; and you yourself, a great fan of backgammon… it is for these guests that an ingenious table, designed by the father and son cabinetmaking team of Abraham and David Roentgen, would powerfully come in handy.  Here is a link to an animation demonstrating all that this astounding 18th century table is capable of.  The table is one of the pieces currently on display in The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens, which the New York Times recently called a “blockbuster.”  The show is truly astonishing, but if you’re unable to make it to the exhibition itself, the Museum has published a handsome exhibition catalogue, edited by William Koeppe. 


Happy Thanksgiving!