Art historian Yassana Croizat-Glazer reflects on four favorite works in celebration of the Met’s reopening.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has reopened its doors. Of all the milestones our city has reached lately in its return toward “normalcy” (whatever creature that might turn out to be), this one is particularly meaningful to me. Like many New Yorkers, I’ve been going to the Met since I was a kid. The first object I encountered there to etch itself in my memory was a blue and white, 14th-century mihrab (prayer niche) from Isfahan, which can now be admired in the museum’s Islamic Galleries as they were reimagined a few years ago. I didn’t know at the time that I would spend much of my college and graduate school days in the Met, and later become an assistant curator in the museum’s European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Department. Even after I left the Met to build my own business as an art dealer and advisor, I still found a way to make it part of my weekly life by leading thematic tours for curious-minded people seeking a new experience or simply more time with a collection they too loved.
virtually every major event in our lives generally involves a bed—like birth and death to name a few—so there’s a lot to be learned from how this seemingly mundane item is addressed in art.
In the last six months, I have missed the Met. I have missed its crowded Great Hall and its galleries off the beaten path where some of the best treasures can be found (and good meditation to be had). I’ve missed how the building takes on a completely different character depending on the time of day. And of course, I’ve missed taking people through the museum, and forging a special bond with them through that experience. So, in honor of the Met reopening its doors and in anticipation of my first moment back, I wanted to share with you four works from its collection that reveal some interesting historical aspects about women as creators and consumers of art.
The first of these objects takes the shape of a little bed, carved, painted and covered in silk bedding embroidered with seed pearls and gold thread. The first time I saw it years ago I was entranced by its combination of ornateness and small size. And then there was the bed’s emptiness, which I found strangely moving. In fact, I have since developed a thing for beds in art, whether actual historical beds placed in museum contexts or beds represented in painting or other media, but that’s a subject for another day. Suffice it to say that virtually every major event in our lives generally involves a bed—like birth and death to name a few—so there’s a lot to be learned from how this seemingly mundane item is addressed in art.
In the case of the Met’s bed, I discovered that there would likely have been a doll to go with it, a representation of the infant Jesus, and that it came from the Grand Béguinage in Louvain, Belgium. Emerging in the late Middle Ages, a béguinage was an architectural complex designed to house lay women who lived together in a religious community but who did not take vows. Among other things, béguinages were intended to take in girls, sometimes as young as four or five, who were unmarriageable and therefore considered an economic burden to their families. Beds such as the one in the Met’s collection and their related Jesus dolls were typically given to nuns or béguines as gifts. In the past, it was argued, rather reductively, that they were meant as a sort of compensation for forsaking motherhood.
More recently, however, scholars such as Caroline Walker Bynum, have emphasized their role as devotional objects of religious empowerment. The performative act of placing the doll in its bed and otherwise caring for it would have helped their owners connect to the Virgin Mary as nurturing mother to Christ, and so too adjust to their new identity as lay sisters. That the Met’s bed looks like a miniature church and features representations of the Nativity and Adoration of the Magi reinforces its multilayered religious purpose. Soothing to babies, the little bells that line the bed’s canopy were likely also meant to ward off evil. Now housed in a freestanding case, the bed can be observed from all angles, which highlights its tactile qualities—and the fact that it has moved from the realm of functional objects to preserved work of art.
Unlike paintings, which are usually meant to be looked at, objects made of fabric are typically handled, so that the memory of myriad past touches have become an integral part of their story. It’s hard for me not to imagine young fingers deftly embroidering the 17th-century English sampler illustrated here. As their name suggests, samplers were created to demonstrate skill in a variety of stitches used in needlepoint, an art considered central to the domestic education of girls in Early Modern England. In the case of the Met’s sampler, the talent displayed can be matched to a name: Anna Buckett, which appears at the top along with the year 1656. Besides bands of different decorative motifs, Buckett, who may have been quite young at the time and guided by an instructor, included a couple separated by Cupid and a dog, symbols of love and marital fidelity respectively. I’ve always wondered how Buckett felt when rendering this courtship scene. Did it seem like just another part of her exercise? Or did it cause her to wonder about her future marriage, maybe with curiosity or apprehension? Did she feel pride in her work? I can’t help but speculate about her frame of mind, which further draws me into this work, just like its many poignant details, such as the oversized ladybug and heraldic unicorn, which also happens to be a symbol of virginity.
Like effectively wielding a needle, learning how to play musique was another activity traditionally considered appropriate for women. Both pastimes conformed to patriarchally-driven perceptions of ideal femininity by keeping women sequestered at home and encouraging them to develop skills designed to benefit their households. 18th-century Parisian artist Rose-Adelaide Ducreux (1761–1802) was not only a greatly accomplished painter but harpist as well and celebrated her talents in a self-portrait that now hangs in one of the Met’s Wrightsman period rooms. Ducreux gazes confidently at the viewer as she plucks the strings of her harp with one hand and holds a tuning fork in the other. Her connection to her instrument is accentuated by the fact that her posture echoes the curve of her harp, behind which appears sheet musique with a composition by harpist Jean Joseph Benoît Pollet. Far from a mere decorative detail, this is an instrument Ducreux intimately knows how to play, and she appears to have been doing just that before pausing to be painted. And yet, it’s not someone else picturing Ducreux but herself, and clearly the artist takes pride in demonstrating her sensibility for composition, color and light, the qualities of the latter particularly apparent in her handling of her fashionable silk gown. Ducreux has taken a popular 18th-century trope—that of the elegant woman surrounded by props suggestive of her socioeconomic value—and created an image of female agency by emphasizing both her ability to play music and paint masterfully. The artist exhibited her work on several occasions, including this portrait which was shown in 1791 at the prestigious Louvre Salon, where it was received favorably by critics.
Some 33 years before Ducreux painted her Self-Portrait with a Harp, a remarkable boat-shaped vase was being carefully removed from a kiln in a suburb of Paris, and now the two coexist in adjacent Met galleries. You might have noticed that the vase’s gilded opulence is ions away from the current dominant concept of what is tasteful (in a nutshell, it’s the antithesis of all things mid-century modern). The fact that it’s made of porcelain doesn’t help its case much since people today tend to associate the medium with their great aunt’s dust-covered tchotchkes. A closer look reveals that the vessel is perforated, meaning it’s shaped like a potpourri vase, a container for diffusing the scent of aromatic herbs and flowers, a pretty useful thing in an era when bad odors prevailed. And yet, although it has a functional form, it was much too expensive and delicate to use and so was purely ornamental.
Technically speaking, it’s an extraordinary feat to have created and successfully fired such a complex form (notice the lid’s small, tear-shaped openings and the way the banner curls). This achievement belongs to the Royal Manufactory of Sèvres, which at the time this vase was issued, had not yet the capability of making true-hard paste porcelain as was produced in China. And what about that pink? Bold and unapologetic, it too was an accomplishment—an invention of Sèvres’ chemists in 1758. It’s now known as “Pompadour pink,” after Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764), the official mistress of King Louis XV and a great patron of the Manufactory. In fact, she did much to secure the place of Sèvres porcelain as the ultimate 18th-century luxury object. Madame de Pompadour herself owned at least two examples of the potpourri vase, of which only ten are believed to survive, a testament to its high cost, challenging production and vulnerability to the passage of time.
To some modern observers, “Pompadour pink” is unappealing because it’s seen as garish, or even “girlish,” with all the connotations of subpar feminine childishness that dreaded adjective can imply. “Pompadour pink” was in reality borne as a color of power, meant in part to appeal to a particularly influential woman who was partial to pink, although at the time the hue was hardly considered exclusively feminine (by the way, the original owner of the Met’s potpourri ship was a prince). In fact, in the 18th century, pink in general was regarded as a lighter shade of fierce red and worn by both sexes. I happen to love “Pompadour pink” and all the fascinating threads to be unraveled from something as deceptively simple as this bubblegum color. I’ve also got a soft-spot for that ship-shaped vase, not so much because it appeals to my taste but because it’s one of those Met objects that is more than meets the eye yet often overlooked.
I’m glad to report I’ve booked my reservation and am looking forward to old reunions and new discoveries. My First stop: galleries of The Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Maybe I’ll see you there and we can silently stand six feet apart yet be fully united in our joy of experiencing the world without the interference of a computer screen.