Seeing Old Masters in a Different Light

Keith Christiansen, the chairman of the European paintings department, on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, amid old skylights that will be replaced.

For museum-goers accustomed to seeing familiar paintings in familiar places at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, things are about to get confusing.

Giotto’s “The Adoration of the Magi” will move to a larger gallery on the second floor that had housed works from the Netherlands and France. It will be joined by Italian paintings from five other galleries.

Rembrandt’s “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer” will take up temporary residence near canvases by Flemish painters like Anthony van Dyck.

Vermeer’s “Young Woman With a Water Pitcher” will room with the Rembrandt for a while before it is sent downstairs — to a gallery with other Dutch paintings of women performing domestic chores. And a Goya will find a new home on the second floor, in what had been a realm of Dutch genre painters like Frans Hals.

The Met is preparing to shuffle some 700 paintings in a huge game of musical masterpieces, so it can replace the antiquated skylights above galleries in the oldest section of its complex on Fifth Avenue. The European paintings collection will be getting 30,000 square feet of new skylights, enough to cover some Walmart stores.

Officials say the $150 million project is the largest of its kind in the museum’s history, involving not just the skylights but also 10,000 feet of new ducts, pipes and cables and 50,000 square feet of masonry repairs and repointing. Some 60 percent of the paintings now on display in the European galleries will end up in 40 percent of the space.

But even they will change places as the refurbishing continues, because galleries that remain open during the first phase, starting this month, will close in 2020 during the second, and vice versa.

That approach is different from ones the Met has taken on other large projects, such as the renovation of its Greek and Roman galleries and its Islamic galleries several years ago. It closed them completely while the work was going on.

This time around, the Met says, the skylight project was high on a list of deferred maintenance and repair work it identified in a survey five years ago. Daniel H. Weiss, the museum’s president and chief executive, said in an email that the project list “for the next several decades” totals more than $800 million and is “consistent with a building of the size and complexity of the Met.”

Met officials put a priority on the skylights — large glazed panels in the greenhouselike roofs at the Met that were installed 77 years ago and were given a major overhaul in the 1950s. Some of the roof panels were replaced about 15 years ago.

Keith Christiansen, the Met’s chairman of European paintings, said that the replacement project was “like one of those house renovations you’ve known you had to face” — but have put off again and again. He added that the skylights, along with the system of louvers used to soften sunlight streaming through them and into the galleries on blindingly bright days, were “already in a downward spiral” when he joined the Met’s staff 41 years ago.

But he said the skylight project, with about $15 million of the cost coming from New York City and New York State, was about more than long-overdue repairs to the museum’s infrastructure. He said the skylight work would change the way people see the paintings in the galleries.

“This is all about the light,” Mr. Christiansen said, adding that in recent years, the light at the Met had varied from gallery to gallery — “sometimes to a frustrating degree.”

What he expects when the skylights are replaced is softer, more diffuse light that will be like the light painters painted by, before there was electricity. He said artificial light can bring out colors an artist never considered, which is why, even now, restorers normally work in natural light and museums traditionally put their painting galleries on the top floor, beneath skylights.

“The old masters would have been painted in that kind of light,” Mr. Christiansen said. “They weren’t meant to be shown heavily spotlighted. The ideal is to simulate the kind of light they were painted under.”

Between the skylights in the roof and the glazed ceilings (known as laylights) above the galleries is a world that art lovers never see. But it affects what they see in the art they love, because it affects the light that reaches the paintings.

This unseen world has wide louvers that are supposed to open and close, depending on the time of the year and the path of the sun. “Almost all of them don’t work,” Mr. Christiansen said.

It is a world with — yes — rows of spotlights that are supposed to simulate the natural light. “On a good day, you can leave them off,” Mr. Christiansen said. But not every day is that kind of day. In a typical year, Manhattan has 131 days when clouds cover 80 percent of the sky, and another 127 days that are cloudy but less so.

It is this hidden world that Mr. Christiansen is working to rebuild. It is easily the length of a couple of football fields and taller in places than the goal posts at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. It has metal columns and beams that look like components from a giant Erector Set, painted white.

Its age is showing: Some panes have leaked, staining the louvers. “Some of the louvers have deteriorated to such a point that the light is entering unfiltered,” Mr. Christiansen said. “This means that in some galleries, we get too much light; in other galleries, insufficient light.”

Mr. Christiansen said that Gallery 637, the current home of “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer,” is in the too-much-light category, with the brightness exaggerating the contrasts Rembrandt intended.

That means that seasonal variations in the sun’s path over the Met, and in the light reaching the galleries, cannot be controlled, and that during the spring and summer, “the light levels actually exceed what we would consider appropriate.” (“Aristotle” will move twice during the renovations — first to temporary quarters, then to the Robert Lehman Wing downstairs. Another 75 canvases from the European paintings galleries will go to the Lehman Wing in October for the exhibition “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met.” It will bring them together with some of the Met’s greatest paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.)

Back on the second floor, the famous Goya “Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga” will look somewhat richer and more vivid. It has been in Gallery 612, which Mr. Christiansen said receives little natural light during the winter months.

“There will be a real gain in the visibility of the picture,” he said.

Mr. Christiansen said he was treating all the moves that will put familiar paintings in unfamiliar galleries and groupings as the prelude to “an experimental period.”

“The interim hanging presents us with an opportunity to think about the collection in new configurations, with new juxtapositions,” he said. Where the arrangement of the paintings used to be “based primarily on geography and chronology, this takes us away from that. Now we’re looking for cross-national dialogues.”

And so “The Meditation on the Passion” by the Venetian Vittore Carpaccio, is going next to “Virgin and Child With Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara” by Hans Memling, who was born in Germany, died in Belgium and is remembered as an early Netherlandish painter.

“We’ve all looked at them and said there’s a kinetic energy going on that wasn’t there before,” he said. “It’s like putting two people together whom you know very well but who’ve never sat down together before, and there’s a fantastic conversation. You wish that you had done it earlier.”

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