I recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art with one objective in mind—19th century European (including British) painters. I even narrowed my focus down to J.M.W. Turner. Having just seen the movie, Mr. Turner, it gave me the perfect excuse to make a pilgrimage to see 3 paintings displayed there.
I made my way past stunning works of art by Monet, Renoir, Manet, Matisse, Degas, determined to stay on mission. In the last corner gallery, 804 I believe, there they were. At least, that’s what my map told me. I couldn’t get closer than 3 galleries away. Ropes barred the entrance, supervised by a well-meaning guard who rather cheerfully explained that staff shortages meant a few galleries were closed until later in the day. He then added how wonderful the paintings were, as if that would help.
I didn’t have later in the day. I had now. I sat for some time in front of the other paintings watching distracted tourists snap selfies. On my way out, I asked one of the lovely volunteers at a desk about opening gallery 804. “Why don’t you go back and try sweet talking the guard?” she advised.
I took her advice, this time with a new prospect. No luck. She did position me in a doorway where she claimed I could at least have a partial view, perhaps that was enough? But when I stopped one more time to try and gaze through the walls, a lady in a bright blue jacket politely squeezed by me into the forbidden rooms. “Oh please,” I begged, “Is there ANY way I can go in with you and take a peak? I’ve come all this way….”
I know, pathetic. But my story was true. I had come to see those paintings. The woman pursed her lips and approached both of the guards with intent. They both eyed me—perhaps with frustration but then, could have been with a good New York dose of “good for you!” Then one muttered, “She’s your responsibility then.”
The woman, one of the Met’s art historians and full time guides, gave me my very own private viewing. Whalers is featured in the movie but nothing can substitute for standing in front of the real thing. She pointed out features I wouldn’t have noticed on my own including observations about the painting next to the Turners, John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds.
I made the mistake of trying to act knowledgeable and commented that I could see why the two painters competed against one another—this was clearly not Impressionism. Calmly she pointed out the error in my thinking, how the original canvas showed through the paint like the works of Monet, how Constable also led the way for Impressionism—and never think otherwise!
Then gently (but quite firmly) she suggested it was time for me to go. With some chagrin that I’d taken up any of her time, I scooted away, not daring to look back at the guards.
But as I walked out of the front door, I was walking on clouds—those glowing yellows and red fireball red clouds of a Turner painting.
NOTE: The three paintings displayed at the Met are: Whalers; Saltash with the Water Ferry, Cornwall; and Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute. Right next to them is the fabulous Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, painted by Turner’s arch nemesis, John Constable.