Two days before the official beginning of spring 2021, I decided to leave my lockdown quarters in Brooklyn Heights and visit my home away from home: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I took a taxi and was shocked along the way by Manhattan’s many vacant stores. Finally I disembarked at my museum. I found the Met much the same as it’s always been—except now it was so empty. I was relieved and delighted to be back.
Actually, Covid-19 has not deprived me of art. Long before it started, I had embarked on writing Plunder and Survival, my book that deals with the after-effects of the war against art unleashed by Hitler. Artworks that originated in Europe and are now exhibited in U.S. museums are a special focus of the book. These include modern, especially German Expressionist, pictures as well as traditional art confiscated from eclectic collections.
Closed museums and libraries hampered progress. Nevertheless, thanks to a combination of my notes and technology, I became familiar with the victims, perpetrators, art dealers, politicians, profiteers, and rescuers who participated in this dark phase of art history. Returning to the Met, whose library had been one of my main sources, seemed like the conclusion of the nightmare of the past year—though I knew that this feeling was, as Churchill put it, at best “the beginning of the end.”
My expedition to the Met was solitary; I had come to commune with art. Except for two Klimts (see below) it was unstructured. I took the elevator to the second floor, planning to look at the Impressionists and early modern European art, but before I got there my attention was captured by the 19th century European painters—Eugene Delacroix, Jean François Millet, Théodore Géricault, Jean August Dominique Ingres, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, and JMW Turner. As a group they were never my favorites; though I love some of their works dearly, I find their complexity and surfeit of emotions often overwhelming. During this visit, however, my antennae were tuned differently. The grandeur of Monsieur et Madame Jacques Louis Leblanc by Jean August Dominique Ingres from 1823 impressed me. The portraits managed to be majestic, calm and friendly. The couple wore black, but a carefully folded patterned shawl relieved the solemnity of the paintings. They are long-gone, but their likenesses survive with grace on the walls of a great museum. I learned that Edgar Degas, the painter of tutu-clad ballerinas, purchased the portraits at the Hôtel Druot auction house in Paris—an institute that plays an important role in my current project. The Met bought them from the Degas estate in 1918.
Next I lingered in front of Jean Baptiste Camille Corot’s Hagar in the Wilderness, an enormous realistic landscape filled with rocks and leafy French trees, despite the fact that the painting is set in Iran. Looking at the peaceful site, I could not help thinking of that war-torn country. Two small figures—Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, and her son Ishmael—hover in the foreground while a helpful angel flies to their rescue. Turner’s Whalers, whose outlines are barely visible in a foggy impressionistic view, is a harbinger of things to come. It hangs next to a more traditional painting of his, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute. Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair, an enormous canvas filled with rambunctious horses, was next. The rare woman painter created the work from 1852-55 while visiting the equine market, dressed as a man to deflect attention.
Within easy striking distance of the Rosa Bonheur, I came across the two Gustav Klimt paintings that were my day’s only professional obligation: the portraits of Serena Lederer and Mäda Primavesi. Looted art’s most iconic painting, Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, hangs at the Neue Galerie across the street from the Met. The Nazis looted all three paintings in Vienna. Adele’s restitution to her niece, retold in the box-office success The Lady in Gold, made headlines. By comparison, the restitution of the Met’s masterpieces was quiet.
Serena Lederer’s portrait predates Adele’s by a few years. It is a traditional image à la Sargent. Her cloud-like white gown is barely visible; her well-defined face, crowned by a mane of curly hair, dominates the canvas. Mäda’s image is more classically Klimt-like. Her dress is also white and diaphanous, but it is decorated with blossoms, some of which also appear throughout the painting. In spite of these romantic surroundings, the young girl’s stance is resolute, foretelling that as a grownup she will be able to fend for herself. Both pictures were restituted to Serena’s son, who survived in Switzerland. Eventually the two paintings ended up at the Met, a pair of turn-of-the-century witnesses to Plunder and Survival.
For me, beloved paintings are like old friends. After all this time I wanted to call on Hans Memling’s portraits of Tommaso and Maria Maddalena Portinari, so different from those Ingres painted of the Leblancs 350 years later.
In spite of a major rehanging, the Met’s early Dutch art can still be found near the top of the museum’s grand stairs. I encountered Maria with her hands demurely folded in front of her, her hair covered by tight cone-shaped headwear, and her remarkable necklace enclosing her flawless throat. She was still as lovely and innocent as when I saw her last. The painting is of a girl on the brink of womanhood and childbearing; a portrait of youth before innumerable children and caring for others wore her down. Years after I fell in love with her at the Met, I met her and her daughters at the Uffizi in Florence, where Hugo van der Goes painted her as part of the Portinari Altarpiece. She looked the same and wore the same clothes; the painter had obviously copied the earlier image.
Before leaving, I lingered before one of the museum’s great views of Central Park. The image was framed as if it was a painting, and I admired still-bare trees, faded grass, and bright sunlight. A few walkers, encumbered by dogs and baby carriages, were savoring the awakening of the earth. It had been a great day. My soul was filled with beauty. Why, I wonder, is life often so hard? May all our futures be filled with more good days than bad. Amen.