The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing reopened in 2009 as part of a $100 million dollar overhaul and renovation project that included updating gallery design and curatorial reinterpretation of the American collection. Interestingly, Morrison Hecksher, Chairman of the American Wing, said the new paintings galleries were redesigned to recall nineteenth-century European public picture galleries. When the Met first opened in 1870 it’s understandable that it attempted to legitimate itself by being just like its respected European museum predecessors. But in the twenty-first century, instead looking back, why not look forward? The gallery architecture is not the only aspect of the American Wing holding on to nineteenth- and twentieth-century ways of thinking. This post is the first in a series of Marabou’s interpretations of the American narrative as told in The Met’s American Wing.
Many Met visitors will approach The American Wing through The Charles Engelhard Court. The court is replete with elements that communicate and assert American legitimacy as a country, acknowledging how it was influenced and shaped by Europe, but also showing how it has grown into its own. Marabou notes references to finance, religion, and art reflected in the objects on display in the American Wing.
The North side of the Engelhard Court is dominated by the facade of the Branch Bank of the United States (built from 1822-4), originally located on Wall Street in Manhattan. Its symmetrical Neoclassical design with ionic columns, triangular pediment, and rusticated pilasters is frequently used for buildings that house important and powerful institutions such as banks and government offices. The design is meant to communicate strength and embody the stability and longevity of Ancient Greece and Rome, the originators of these styles and civilizations that developed the concepts of democracy and republic. The bank facade serving as the face of the American Wing implies the economic might and influence of the United States, and the desire to have a historical legacy as influential and long as Ancient Greece and Rome.
On display in front of the bank facade is a limestone pulpit and choir rail from the old All Angels’ Church in Manhattan, made in 1900. It towers around 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall. Carved high reliefs adorn the length and height of the pulpit depicting a procession of angels. A sculpture of a trumpeting angel hovers over the top section where someone would stand and deliver a sermon. What is the significance of this pulpit in the court that welcomes visitors to The American Wing? Well, a logistical and obvious response would be, where else can you put such a large object other than a church or large courtyard? Marabou thinks about what the pulpit could represent. Religion suggests presence of morality and ethics. All Angels’ Church still exists today, and describes itself as, “a theologically orthodox and socially progressive Episcopal church, committed to both sacramental worship through the Anglican liturgy and active ministry to the poor and marginalized among and around us.” Whether or not a conscious choice on behalf of Met curators, this pulpit and the type of church it came from symbolize what were seen (and still are, by a substantial number of Americans) as the correct morality and ethics of the United States. One of the elements that has been credited for the growth and success of the United States is the idea of the Protestant work ethic. The Protestant work ethic, though based in Protestant, or more specifically Calvinist religious ideologies, can be practiced by anyone. It asserts that self-sufficiency, hard work, and frugality are the means to attaining success in this life and salvation after death. Some, like sociologist Max Weber, see the Protestant work ethic as a driving force behind the success of capitalism in the Western world. The values of this work ethic, individualism and a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality, are still alive and well in the United States today. The Protestant work ethic is a foundational part of “the American Dream” that says anyone can make it in America if they work hard enough.
Where the inclusion of the All Angels’ pulpit could be an unintentional representation of the Protestant work ethic, the pulpit can also be an obvious symbol of the importance and influence of Protestantism as a religion. Protestantism was the dominant religion in the United States since the country’s founding. Although the US Bill of Rights espouses freedom of religion, it does not guarantee freedom from discrimination based on your religion. Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and other religions were and are practiced across the States, but Protestantism has been seen as the “right” religion. US history is littered with religious intolerance, from specific moments of converting Native Americans and enslaved Africans from their indigenous religions to Christianity (Protestant or Catholic), to periods of general anti-Catholic sentiment, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. These moments and periods existed, and still exist, because there is an unofficial religious norm in the United States: a non-Catholic form of Christianity, Protestantism.
Symbolizing ethics and religion, the All Angels’ pulpit is also a representation of wealth and influence. The pulpit exists because it was commissioned by a woman to commemorate her husband and sons. A walk around the Engelhard Court, shows Marabou that Americans not only have the ability to commission great art, but also create it. Aside from the bank facade and church pulpit, the other elements of the courtyard are exquisite works of glass and sculpture by the likes of Louis Comfort Tiffany and Daniel Chester French (sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial). Subject matter of these sculptures speak to two things: the European example to which American art compares itself and hopes to exceed, and a disempowering perspective on women. In fact, these two ideas are carried throughout the art and objects seen in the American Wing. The following posts will further address this. American artists trying to emulate European art is significant because it shows that, despite breaking away from Europe to be a sovereign nation, the United States still takes its cues and establishes what is valuable based on European standards. This applies to art and many other aspects of American society.
If Marabou were to simplify their interpretation and put it briefly for the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) contingent, the American Wing’s Charles Engelhard Court declares, “America’s got the money, we’re a morally sound and hardworking nation, and we too create beautiful things on par with our forebears. We are a contender on the world stage.” To think all of this can be interpreted simply from the courtyard. We haven’t even officially entered the American Wing galleries yet!