American Stories features 103 outstanding paintings, including twenty-five canvases from the Met’s own collection, one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world. It is especially exciting for us to be able to show these works while the American Wing’s paintings and sculpture galleries are closed for renovation. (These galleries are scheduled to reopen in 2011. Learn more about the renovation of the American Wing and the newly reopened Charles Engelhard Court and period rooms.) We’re also thrilled to include seventy-eight paintings from fifty-three public and private lenders, which, together with our own works, offer visitors an unusually thorough overview of the development of American narrative painting from about 1765 to about 1915.
In addition to enhancing the themes of the exhibition, the loans allow us to see our own works—old friends that we and our visitors already love—in a new light. Picking up on last week’s discussion about the arrangement of the paintings in the exhibition, I’d like to focus today on one particularly engaging pairing that places a borrowed work alongside one from our collection. In the first chronological section of the exhibition—Inventing American Stories, 1765–1830—Charles Willson Peale’s Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, is installed next to Ralph Earl’s Elijah Boardman, as is shown below:
Above: Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827), Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming, 1788, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gift of Morris Schapiro (1966.10.1), Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Ralph Earl (American, 1751–1801) Elijah Boardman, 1789, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Susan W. Tyler, 1979 (1979.395).
Peale’s double portrait tells a story about the ways in which the artist and the Lamings conspired to present an unusually candid view of wedded bliss in the eighteenth century. The romantic and even carnal nature of the couple’s relationship is clearly suggested by Mr. Laming’s telescope, which points at the ripe peaches in his wife’s lap, making no secret of the portrait’s undercurrent of desire. Consider, in comparison, Earl’s portrait of the merchant Elijah Boardman. For me, at least, certain aspects of this work are obvious, like its relationship to English grand manner portraiture. (See an example from our collection.) The portrait also demonstrates Earl’s rejection of the looser, more painterly style he had cultivated during his years in London in favor of a tighter, more linear, more old-fashioned approach preferred by New England patrons. Seeing Elijah Boardman next to the Lamings, we begin to see something else as well. The elegant, silk-suited merchant offers a model of refinement and taste that his customers would have wanted to emulate. He is thus a clever businessman who creates—and is ready to fulfill—the desire for luxury goods. This pairing, then, invites us to compare the nature of two types of desire—one physical, one material—embedded within the larger narrative of each work.
I invite you to mine the exhibition for more examples of dialogues between works from the Met’s collection and works on loan. Visitors to the online feature may find additional connections, too. In all cases, I welcome you to share your observations here.