Seeing the Met’s Greatest Hits as Artists Painted Them

Antonello’s art is beyond category, stylistically and expressively. His bust-length panel painting “Christ Crowned With Thorns,” from around 1470, is both imaginatively fantastic and portrait-specific. Christ’s face has the beat-up features of a boxer who’s lost a fight and the pleading gaze of a doomed man who just fully understood his fate. One of the strangest and most moving images in the Met’s early European holdings, it’s unlocatable in every way, outside any this-leads-to-this art historical narrative.

The Met favors such narratives — most big, generalist museums do — and adheres to them in sections of the new installation. After the gallery of 15th-century portraits comes another centered on religious motifs (the Antonello is here) shared by artists across pre-Reformation Europe. And this is followed by a showcase of fancy Florentine homewares: marriage chests, maiolica jars and commemorative platters. (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s birth plate, decorated by the younger artist-brother of the great Masaccio, is a centerpiece.)

Then suddenly there’s a break in the timeline. You step from 15th-century Italy into 18th-century France and the Rococo world of Fragonard and Watteau. It’s a world of pinpoint delicacy and — in pictures like Fragonard’s “Woman with a Dog” — self-amused wit. And, as distilled here, it feels, for all its urbanity, vacuum-packed: all French, all the time. (A gallery of 18th-century British art has a similar feel of being a culturally closed system, an island art.)

Emerging from it, you make another leap, this one a back flip to a Pan-European Baroque. And at this point that the curators spotlight the issue of race in a two-paragraph wall text titled “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in Seventeenth Century Europe.” This is by no means the only mention. Texts in the Renaissance galleries refer to enslaved Africans in 15th-century Antwerp and Florence. Individual labels here and there flag the appearance of Black figures in paintings, cast as Magi in Nativity scenes, or as servants in upscale portraits.

In the context of the intense Black Lives Matter consciousness-raising of recent years, this all feels like a mild, late-coming gesture. But in a museum that has, in its permanent collection displays, been all but mute on the subject of racism, it at least starts a conversation. So does a gallery focused on women artists, or on a handful who established careers in Paris after the French Revolution. Their careers had built-in boundaries. Men made “important” art: history painting. Women were confined to lesser genres like still life and portraiture.