I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art today for the opening of the third and final phase in the renovation of the American Wing. Today the new Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts were opened to the public for the first time. The project was ten years in the making and began with rededications of the museum’s collection of American classical arts (2007) and period rooms (2009). It is a new era for one of the world’s great museums and you owe it to yourself to go if you are able.

Holiday Mondays, especially in the winter, are a great time to visit the museum. I thought it was going to be extremely crowded today. New Yorkers often leave the museums to the out-of-towners during the holiday season. I figured that the reopening, coinciding with a day off and a cold but otherwise fine day would have New Yorkers lining up to see the Gilbert Stuarts and Rembrandt Peales in their new surroundings. Surprisingly, this was not the case. Attendance was brisk but not unmanageable.

I intend to write more about art and history over the course of the year and so today will give only a brief overview:

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware has again taken its proper place as the centerpiece of the American Wing. In the old gallery Washington was cramped in a small space unworthy of the masterpiece. Forced to compete with lesser works, the painting’s grandeur was diminished. This is no longer a problem. Entering the space one first sees a gallery of eighteenth century portraits. Turning down the hall to enter the next gallery one gets a partial, teasing glimpse of Washington several rooms down that just builds the excitement and expectation. Let’s just say there is a big wow factor when you finally get to it. I always tell people “Look at the frame. The frame is part of the story.” Here the Met has outdone itself. Washington is in a new frame based on a recently found Matthew Brady photograph of the painting taken during the 1864 Sanitary Fair that raised funds for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. A great touch.

The Met has always had an extensive collection of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and they have employed the sculptor’s works throughout the new galleries to great effect. Ones I noticed included a study for his David Farragut statue that sits in Madison Square Park, a Standing Lincoln like the one in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, a sculpture of Victory as also depicted atop the Sherman statue in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, and the Lincoln that Saint-Gaudens created using the Volk life mask. A half hour later I saw the death mask of Lorenzo de’Medici from 1492 in an exhibit of Renaissance portraiture. It was one of those moments of serendipity and inspiration that can only happen in Met, the Louvre, and a handful of other institutions.

There are twenty-six rooms in the new space, each filled with little surprises that reward the close observer. When a person gets to the end he will have a good understanding of American history and society as depicted by its artists. The only thing missing today was the Hayfoot, who had to work. I am already counting down to President’s Day when we can go together.

Central Park from the Metropolitan Museum of Art