Keith Christiansen is the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

What’s happening in your department at the Metropolitan Museum at the moment? 

In the European Paintings department there is a very big project coming up, which will be a replacement of our skylights.

“Nowhere else in America is there a collection of  19th century French impressionists with the extraordinary depth that is found at the Metropolitan”

Press viewing of Caravaggio’s Last Two Paintings, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 13, 2017. (Milene Fernandez/The Epoch Times)


The galleries of European paintings are in the original museum building dating back to1880. The present skylights were built in 1939, and their lifespan ran out years ago; they will have to be entirely removed.   In the coming four years we will close 60 percent of the Old Master galleries, and we will leave the remaining 40 percent open with masterworks. After two years, we will reverse the process and replace the skylights in the remaining 40 percent; all the galleries will reopen with optimal natural light conditions after four and a half years.

Is daylight very important for a museum? 

For Old Master paintings they are crucial.  Imagine, before electricity artists worked by natural light; and it was under these conditions that the color and value relationships were established. As soon as you throw on strong artificial light you disturb those relationships – even allowing for natural changes over time. It is a great irony that people frequently pay to go into churches in Italy to see paintings and frescoes that were made for specific sites with a consideration for the natural light conditions and see them in a way the artist never imagined. Old guide books invariably gave the optimal time of day when the natural light was best.

Which are the best known masterpieces in the Metropolitan? 

I have no doubt that in the 1950s El Greco’s ‘View of Toledo’ was one of most famous Old Master pictures in the Museum, and in the 1960s it would have been Rembrandt’s ‘Aristotle with a Bust of Homer’. Today it would probably be either Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman with a Water Pitcher’ or Velazquez’s ‘Juan de Pareja’.

Among your masterpieces do you have an icon at the Metropolitan? 

We are slightly different from a place like the Louvre, there’s not one icon that identifies the collection; there is a large number of great paintings. For instance, we own 40 paintings by Monet from which it would be very difficult to indicate just one. We don’t have one obvious masterpiece like ‘La Grande Jatte’ by Seurat in Chicago. Two paintings do stand out as utterly unique in this hemisphere: Bruegel’s ‘The Harvesters’ and ‘The Death of Socrates’ by Jacques-Louis David.

What do the crowds come for at this museum? 

The nineteenth century for sure.  But as at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, people want to see the collections as a whole—not merely one picture.  Nowhere else in America is there a collection of  19th century French impressionists with the extraordinary depth that is found at the Metropolitan, thanks to the Havemeyers and other benefactors.

Have you been working here for 40 years? 

Yes, I just finished my 40th year this last August. I came here with John Pope-Hennessy; he hired me when I was in the process of finishing my thesis on Gentile da Fabriano.

Which was your first big exhibition? 

‘The Age of Caravaggio’ in 1985, working with Nicola Spinosa and Mariella Utili, my colleagues in Naples. Since then I have worked on many, many exhibitions. The great pleasure is that every exhibition has required me to stretch my knowledge. Whether it was ‘Painting in Renaissance Siena’, or ‘Giambattista Tiepolo’, or ‘El Greco’, or ‘Jusepe de Ribera’, or ‘The Genius of Andrea Mantegna’, or ‘Valentin de Boulogne’, or ‘Poussin and Nature’, or ‘The Renaissance Portrait’, it has been a variety of larger exhibitions.  We have also done smaller exhibitions, as for instance the devotional paintings of Piero della Francesca, which we did with the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture (FIAC); and the Antonella da Messina exhibition that we also did with FIAC.

“It’s a challenge for all museums to make historical collections vibrant to a new generation.”

Do exhibitions bring more people to the museum? 

In my own field there are a very few that are a magnet, like Caravaggio or El Greco. The main point is to engage people with a theme or an artist in a way they otherwise could not. I think the number of people who might be interested has to be secondary. When I did ‘Valentin de Boulogne’ with my colleagues at the Louvre, we felt it needed to be done. He’s a major painter about whom no exhibition had ever been done and from which we would learn a great deal. I hope it contributed to our understanding of the early seventeenth century in Rome; and this previously sidetracked figure was placed back in the central position which he deserved.

Are Old Masters still much visited? 

Everyone who works in areas of any kind of art that preceded the nineteenth century has an obligation to find ways to engage a new generation of scholars. There is no question that young audiences feel more and more detached from the distant past. But those of us who have worked on historical subjects know that the past is not only where we came from, but also who we are. Conversations need to take place, and it’s a challenge for all museums to make historical collections vibrant to a new generation. You can make information available, but you can’t make people look.

What do exhibitions do to help this? 

Exhibitions take up themes in a more vibrant and dynamic fashion than the conventional gallery experience.

Are your visitors old or young? 

We have 6.5 to 6.7 million visitors a year and we cross all lines and ages. We have Chinese, Asians, Europeans, Americans. One of the changes, that has also happened in many places around the world, is that our largest percentage of foreign visitors is now Chinese. The challenge for us is that even if they have a culture with very little in common with western cultures they have a right to expect us to meet them, and to help them gain a footing in the different cultures.

Are they interested? 

At this stage they come here in groups and with guides, and they seem so.

Is the European paintings collection at the Metropolitan Museum’s paintings comparable to what is found in a European museum? 

Yes, but it depends on what you mean by comparable.  Many European museums are the product of a particular moment of time and a certain taste – usually royal. Our collection set out to be all encompassing, from the 13th century to the present. We can say that in paintings the Louvre is a universal museum like us, and it is the most similar. Another one that is quite similar in our field of Old Masters is the National Gallery in London. But as a universal museum there is no museum in the world that represents human cultures like the Metropolitan.

What is the role of the Metropolitan in New York or in America today? 

Our role has not changed, it has only been magnified. The Met has always been the institution to visit if you want to connect with world culture. It gives you a wealth of potential experiences. No other museum has attempted to connect to people using the possibilities of the modern digital experience like the Metropolitan, which was conceived as the glory of the city, then it became the glory of the nation, and now it has a global presence. There are 30 million visitors to our website, and any student in any place in the world can find basic information for paintings in the collections, their provenance, reconstruction, conservation and so on.

Is your job very rewarding at The Metropolitan? 

It is an amazing place. My colleagues in Europe who have had the privilege of a fellowship here say it is an amazing place because you have specialists in virtually everything, and whether it is Islamic ceramics, contemporary textiles, European paintings, Egyptian beads or African masks, there is someone who knows about these things. It is an amazing place which has become more diverse with the city and now reflects the diversity of the nation.

Do you still buy art? 

We buy a lot. Among the most important recent acquisitions is a painting by Charles LeBrun, the most important painter of the second half of the 17th century in France. It is a portrait of the German banker Everhard Jabach with his family. It is a landmark of French painting, of baroque painting, and of European portraiture.

Do you have the money to buy works of art? 

This was bought for us by Mrs. Wrightsman. We have pictures given by donors, and lately there are dealers who have given us paintings: Carlo Orsi, Fabrizio Moretti, Patrick Matthiesen, Marco Voena, Giovanni Sarti.  It is true that great Old Master paintings -for example Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Danae’ bought by the Getty Museum – cost as much as they ever did, but what has disappeared are collectors of middle range pictures.

You think that the contemporary art market is too high? 

All markets are driven by competition and fashion, this has always been the case. Remember that a sculpture by the young Michelangelo cost less than an antiquity. The transformation in the contemporary field is that collectors are now paying speculative prices for art that does not yet have an established position in a historical narrative. Who will we look upon as the great contemporary figures fifty years from now? Picassos didn’t sell at the level of Old Masters until the 1980s; now he has become a firmly established ‘Old Master’.

Keith Christiansen standing in front of Velazquez Francesco d’Este from Modena

Monsignor Giuseppe Spina (1756–1828)  Angelica Kauffmann (Swiss, Chur 1741–1807 Rome)  Date:  1798  Medium:  Oil on canvas

Keith Christiansen

The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David (French, Paris 1748–1825 Brussels), 1787

Rubens, His Wife Helena Fourment (1614–1673), and Their Son Frans (1633–1678)  Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, Siegen 1577–1640 Antwerp)

Sir John Pope-Hennessy

Jan van Eyck Virgin in the Church, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin

Poussin’s Inspiration of the Poet at the Louvre

“As a universal museum there is no museum in the world that represents human cultures like the Metropolitan.”

When will you have a new director and CEO at the Metropolitan, since Thomas Campbell has resigned? 

They are about to release the job description, and then they will start the selection process; but I am not part of that.

Is it true that over the years you became particularly keen on Nicolas Poussin? 

Whenever I go to the Louvre, I spend one or two hours in the Poussin galleries. They give me huge pleasure. Poussin calms me and gives me a feeling of serenity, as Cezanne does for some people. His is a completely ordered world. There is the sensation of a calibrated space with figures acting out life in an orderly fashion; and then there are moments of complete unexpected rapture that appear in his pictures. He is one of my favourite painters.

Which are your most loved? 

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Fra Angelico, Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca, and Poussin.

Do you consider Poussin an Italian painter, as he lived most of his life in Rome? 

He is a hybrid. He’s Italian with French gravity, a nice combination. In his art there is control, but with emotional warmth and unpredictability. I also love German baroque. I love Rembrandt and Rubens, and my first love was early Netherlandish painters like Jan van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes.

What do you teach at the moment? 

I have not been teaching for a number of years; I didn’t have the time since I became the head of the department.

Do you still like to learn? 

Isn’t that what life is about? I like to learn as one project leads to another. Each question leads to another. It reminds me of Michel de Montaigne: “Que sais-je?” His was a process of self-examination, and each answer always led to another question. Knowledge goes on like that and in the case of art there is always a return in the pleasure it gives you, the deeper and deeper pleasure that comes as you learn; and with that pleasure there is an emotional engagement that gets richer over time.

New York, 17 September 2017

Enjoy this interview? Share it with a friend.