Making The Met

Celebrating over 150 years of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Celebrating 150 Years of The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded on April 13, 1870 and celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2020.

In a flush of optimism following the American Civil War, a group of civic leaders, businessmen, and artists banded together to establish an art museum for New York City. They began with a grand idea but without art, a building, or professional staff.

Today, The Met holds more than 1.5 million objects spread over 2 million square feet and cared for by 1,600 staff members. 7 million visitors from around the world visit the Museum each year and over 30 million explore its offerings online.

Visitors viewing Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) (1910/2019) by Roderick Aichinger (right). Composite image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Making The Met traces the institution’s history through ten transformative episodes when the Museum’s course changed, evolving in tandem with world events and broader shifts in taste and society.

The content for this online feature is drawn from The Met’s 150th anniversary exhibition, Making The Met, 1870-2020, which was on view from August 29, 2020–January 3, 2021.

The exhibition is made possible by the
Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

Lead corporate sponsorship is provided by
Bank of America.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opening reception in Dodworth Mansion (1872) by Harper's WeeklyThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition starts at the beginning with the founding of The Met. This print illustrates the Museum’s first opening reception on February 20, 1872.

“We had a fine turnout of ladies and gentlemen and all were highly pleased. The pictures looked splendid, and compliments were so plenty and strong that I was afraid the mouths of the Trustees would become chronically and permanently fixed in a broad grin...We may now consider the Museum fairly launched and under favorable auspices.” – Museum President John Taylor Johnston

Interior View of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when in Fourteenth Street (1881) by Frank WallerThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Founding Decades

The Met’s first trustees had to build a collection from scratch. Early acquisitions ranged from Cypriot antiquities to American paintings, Precolumbian sculpture, and musical instruments and armor from around the world, reflecting aspirations to become a global collection. The Museum occupied two temporary buildings before opening its permanent location in Central Park in 1880. The first was seen in the previous image. This painting offers a glimpse into the Douglas Mansion, The Met’s second home from 1873 to 1879, situated farther downtown on West 14th Street.

Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo (1624) by Anthony van DyckThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Van Dyck painted this work (visible in the previous painting by Frank Waller) while quarantined in Palermo, Sicily, due to an outbreak of the plague. The remains of Saint Rosalie, patroness and protector of the city, had recently been discovered nearby. One of the first objects in The Met collection, it was purchased along with 173 other European old master paintings in 1871. The subject has taken on renewed significance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Salver (19th century, after 1558–59 original) by Franchi and SonThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

This tray (visible in the painting by Frank Waller) is an electrotype, a form of replica, made in London based on a Flemish original. In its early years, The Met collected reproductions because trustees were skeptical they could acquire great works of art equal to those in European museums, and they believed in the educational value of copies.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art on 14th Street (1875) by James RenwickThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Douglas Mansion, The Met’s second location, is the setting of Frank Waller’s painting.

Frances Morris in Textile Study Room (1918) by The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Art for All

The year 1905 launched a new era for The Met. The incoming leaders emphasized the educational mission of the Museum. They opened study rooms to encourage access for students, artists, and designers to collections that contained not only masterworks but also more ephemeral and utilitarian objects, with the intention to inspire learning and creation. Frances Morris, the Museum’s first woman professional (pictured here, second from right), was a trailblazing figure in this movement. She was curator first of musical instruments and then textiles, two of the early collections with a global reach.

Tunic with Confronting Mythical Serpents Tunic with Confronting Mythical Serpents (800–850)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Museum avidly collected ancient Andean textiles early in its history, including this men’s tunic.

Noh Costume (Karaori) with Cherry Blossoms and Fretwork Noh Costume (Karaori) with Cherry Blossoms and Fretwork (first half of the 18th century)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This exquisite Japanese Noh costume was purchased for a 1920 exhibition about Japanese and Chinese brocades, which was organized “to show the designers and silk workers, at a moment when rich gold and silver brocades are in such great demand, the finest Chinese and Japanese examples.”

Chair seat cover (1725–50)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This chair-seat cover was made in India for the European market. Curator Frances Morris purchased it for The Met.

Chasuble (Opus Anglicanum) Chasuble (Opus Anglicanum) (ca. 1330–50)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the great treasures of the Museum’s textile collection, this medieval chasuble exhibits the richness and skill of opus anglicanum (English work) embroidery, renowned throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.

Young Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662–63) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Princely Aspirations

During the Gilded Age, The Met elevated its ambitions to rival the great collections in Europe, such as the Louvre and the Prado. Benefactors including financier J. Pierpont Morgan and railroad tycoon Collis Huntington devoted vast fortunes to acquiring rare and precious works of art, from prized paintings to ornate objects made for royalty. They left their treasures to the Museum as an act of civic pride and in the belief that the public should have access to art of enduring value. At the same time, they embodied the contradictions of New York society in an era when wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small elite, and fortunes were often built on labor conditions now regarded as intolerable. 

Vermeer's paintings were some of the most highly coveted trophies of the Gilded Age. Five of his 36 surviving works are now in The Met collection, including Young Woman with a Lute, bequeathed by Collis Huntington.

"It is this picture, without provenance and without history, until now uncatalogued and undescribed, which is that pearl of price, a perfect work in perfect condition of the most perfect painter that ever lived." – Critic Kenyon Cox, commenting on this painting in The Met's landmark 1909 exhibition The Hudson-Fulton Celebration

Excavation at Deir el-Bahri (1928-02-01) by Harry BurtonThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Collecting through Excavation

The Met launched its first excavation in 1906 and developed an intensive archaeological program in the next several decades that allowed it to build remarkable collections of ancient art. Objects ranging from monumental sculpture to fragments of architecture and domestic ware were brought to the Museum through a division of finds with host countries called “partage.” One of the most thrilling discoveries was the statue of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, Egypt (pictured here). By the 1970s and 1980s, changes in laws largely ended the practice of partage, which is still a subject of discourse today. Excavations have continued but focus on gathering knowledge rather than artifacts. The Met no longer acquires through partage.

Seated Statue of Hatshepsut Seated Statue of Hatshepsut (ca. 1479–1458 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hatshepsut ruled Egypt as king for more than twenty years. After her death, her coruler and successor, Thutmose III, destroyed her statues to obliterate her memory. This sculpture was found in fragments at her funerary temple.

Seated Statue of Hatshepsut (details of head after conservation treatments)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The statue has undergone a series of restorations that illustrates changing philosophies of conservation in the Museum.

From left to right: Head of the statue of Hatshepsut in 1929; after 1930 restoration; after 1979 restoration; after 1993 restoration.

Read the story of Hatshepsut's conservation at The Met

The American Wing with facade of the Second Branch Bank of the United States (1924)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Creating a National Narrative

The Met’s American identity traces back to its founding in the aftermath of the Civil War with guidance from leading American artists. But the first director had mixed feelings about the national school, even calling New York artists “humbugs.” American art only entered the collection intermittently, usually through gifts. It took until the early years of the twentieth century for the institution to make a concerted effort to acquire American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts. This coincided with the height of European immigration and the country’s ascendance to global power. Motivated by both a progressive spirit and underlying nationalism, the collection was developed to promote a vision of what it meant to be American. The Met’s American Wing opened in 1924 as an embodiment of these ideals.

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883–84) by John Singer SargentThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met has one of the most comprehensive collections of John Singer Sargent’s work, in part due to his close relationships with trustees and staff. In 1916 he sold this iconic portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau to The Met, prompting him to reflect, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

Victory Victory (1892–1903; this cast, 1914 or after (by 1916)) by Augustus Saint-GaudensThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

An American success story, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Ireland but raised by immigrant parents in New York City. Daniel Chester French, another major American sculptor who was also a Met trustee, advocated for Saint-Gaudens at the Museum and worked hard to secure this statuette, adapted from the artist’s equestrian monument to Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman in Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan.

Paul Revere Teapot Paul Revere Teapot (1796) by Paul Revere Jr.The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Revere—immortalized for his “midnight ride” to warn American colonists about the advancing British Army during the Revolutionary War—was an esteemed silversmith by trade. The elegant, restrained design of this teapot reflects Neoclassical taste of the day. When the American Wing opened, it featured a gallery devoted to silver, including this work.

Basin (ca. 1650) by Master Potter AThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Emily de Forest, who along with her husband, Robert de Forest, funded the 1924 American Wing, believed that Puebla ceramics like this basin should anchor "a part of a collection representing the arts of Mexico, which I hope will at some time be represented in the Museum, as an American Museum." One hundred years passed before The Met took her inclusionary vision to heart.

Behind the Scenes clip for Making The Met GA&C ExhibitionThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

These vignettes offer a glimpse into the hidden workings of the Museum nearly a century ago.

Woman Having Her Hair Combed (ca. 1886–88) by Edgar DegasThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Visions of Collecting

In 1929 The Met received a transformative gift of 2,000 works of art from the bequest of Louisine Havemeyer. She and her husband, Henry Osborne Havemeyer (known as the “Sugar King” for his dominance of the sugar refining industry), were tastemakers who brought clarity of vision to collecting in new fields, largely inspired by artist-advisors. Thanks to Mary Cassatt, they were the first and most prolific American collectors of Impressionism, and their bequest instantly elevated The Met’s holdings to world-class status.

Louisine Havemeyer speaking at a suffrage rally in New York (1915)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Louisine Havemeyer was an outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage. She was even arrested for burning an effigy of President Woodrow Wilson at a protest outside the White House in 1919 and spent three nights in jail. She also deployed her art collection for the cause by organizing a benefit exhibition, Masterpieces by Old and Modern Masters, at the New York gallery M. Knoedler and Co. in 1915, which included Degas’s Woman Having Her Hair Combed.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1918) by Alfred StieglitzThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Reckoning with Modernism

Throughout the early twentieth century, The Met engaged with modern art warily and unevenly, most famously turning down Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s collection (which became the foundation of the Whitney Museum of American Art) in 1929. Photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz and his wife, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, made pivotal contributions to expand the Museum’s horizons. Stieglitz began lobbying for the Museum to recognize photography as fine art in 1902. He finally succeeded when The Met accepted donations of more than 400 photographs in 1928 and 1933, including his work and that of other artists he exhibited and collected. After his death in 1946, O’Keeffe gave many important paintings, sculpture, and works on paper he owned to The Met.

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931) by Georgia O'KeeffeThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Georgia O’Keeffe’s first trip to the American Southwest in 1929 may have inspired this painting, one of her most recognizable and reproduced compositions, which she gave to The Met as part of the Alfred Stieglitz collection. The next two paintings, by American Charles Demuth and Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky, were also among the modern masterworks that entered the Museum through the Stieglitz bequest.

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928) by Charles DemuthThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is a reinterpretation of a poem about the raucous energy and echoing clang of a fire engine careening down a New York street.

Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) (1912) by Vasily KandinskyThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

This spiritually infused and utopian abstract composition was the first major painting by Kandinsky in The Met collection.

Rorimer at Neuschwanstein Castle (May 1945) by Photograph by U.S. Signal CorpsThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fragmented Histories

World War II had a greater impact on The Met than any other conflict in the twentieth century. The Museum evacuated works of art, organized programming to bolster morale, and helped design military equipment. Several members of the staff, most notably future director James Rorimer (pictured here at left), contributed to the efforts of the group known as the monuments men, who worked tirelessly to preserve damaged monuments across Europe and restitute works of art looted by the Nazis from private and public collections.

The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, Queen of France The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, Queen of France (ca. 1324–28) by Jean PucelleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rorimer found this celebrated prayer book—which still bears a Nazi inventory number—at Neuschwanstein Castle, where it was reportedly concealed in a wastepaper basket by fleeing German troops. It was then restituted to its former owner, Parisian financier Maurice de Rothschild. Six years later, in 1954, Rorimer convinced the Museum to acquire it for The Met Cloisters, its branch in upper Manhattan devoted to medieval art. The manuscript is less than 4 inches (10 cm) tall.

Eisenhower at The Met (1946) by The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Listen to an excerpt from General Dwight Eisenhower’s address, “Art in Peace and War."
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As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, The Met honored General Dwight Eisenhower (future President of the United States) for his oversight of the protection of monuments and repatriation of objects stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

The Met during the centennial year (1970)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Centennial Era

The Met’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in 1970 with great fanfare and an extensive building campaign to accommodate the growing collection. The Museum sought to fulfill its encyclopedic aspirations to illustrate 5,000 years of civilization, especially by expanding its non-Western and contemporary holdings. This outlook reflected a cultural shift after World War II as the nexus of the art world gravitated to New York and a more international, less Eurocentric perspective on the history of art developed.

The Koç Family Gallery (1975) by The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1975 The Met unveiled a powerful and substantially enlarged set of galleries dedicated to Islamic Art. This landmark display captivated the public’s imagination and cemented the institution’s endorsement of a burgeoning field of art history. While the Museum had already taken steps in this direction by establishing a department and spaces for Islamic art in 1963, it became a pioneer ahead of every other Western museum with the expansion.

唐 韓幹 照夜白圖 卷|Night-Shining White 唐 韓幹 照夜白圖 卷|Night-Shining White (ca. 750) by Han GanThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Asian art has been part of The Met collection since its earliest years, but in the centennial era, especially as the Vietnam War heightened awareness of cultures to the east, the Museum rededicated resources to transformative acquisitions and expanded galleries.

"It was not long ago that the average museum visitor saw the world of art divided between fine art—which referred to European and American art—and archaeology, which encompassed the vanished ancient worlds. Then there was ethnography, or anthropology, which dealt with the material cultures and artifacts of non-Western peoples of East Asia and the rest of the world." – Wen Fong, Met Asian Art curator (1971–2000), 2009

Body Mask by Asmat peopleThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

For most of its first century, The Met largely ignored the arts of Africa, Oceania, and Native America. It was ultimately the advocacy of businessman and politician Nelson Rockefeller that pushed the institution to fully embrace the arts of these regions, culminating in the opening of a new wing in 1982 named in honor of Rockefeller’s son, Michael.

“It was the strength and excitement of the art of these less-known civilizations, created by peoples and cultures removed from our own, that fascinated me. You become aware of the unlimited imagination, quality, and simplicity inherent in these objects. The force and creativity of the individual artist can be felt immediately.” – Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York (1959–73), Vice President of the United States (1974–77), 1969

View of “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970” (1969-1970)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met established its Department of Contemporary Arts in 1967, at the behest of charismatic curator Henry Geldzahler, who argued to Director James Rorimer that “the discontinuity and isolation of modern art at the other New York museums create an inbred and essentially artificial separation between our art and the art of even the recent past.” He believed that The Met was uniquely positioned to rectify this problem due to the historical and international breadth of its collection. Geldzahler transformed the holdings of contemporary art and organized the highly influential exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970 for the Museum’s centennial celebration.

Parapivot Installation Photography (June 2019) by Alicja KwadeThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Broadening Perspectives

In recent decades, The Met has sought to expand the canon by pushing the boundaries of traditionally recognized categories of art. To that end, the Museum has acquired outstanding works of art from previously underrepresented regions and cultures both around the world and throughout the Americas. The growing collection of contemporary art embraces multiplicity in cultures and media, shown in the context of art from all times and places. Together with related programming and digital content, these efforts enrich The Met’s ability to present global visual culture as a web of intersecting narratives told through multiple voices.

Ensemble (fall/winter 2011–12) by Iris Van HerpenThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met has expanded its collections of contemporary art with new media, like this dress, which is the first 3D-printed garment acquired by the Museum's Costume Institute. The designer blurs distinctions between ready-to-wear and haute couture by fusing the machine-made and handmade.

Set of Saddle Plates Set of Saddle Plates (ca. 1409)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

While the study of Asian art has traditionally centered on China, Japan, and India, The Met has acquired exquisite objects from other regions, like Tibet, mirroring the greater recognition in society at large of Asia’s dynamic and varied economy.

Crown of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, known as the Crown of the Andes Crown of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, known as the Crown of the Andes (Ca. 1660 (diadem) and ca. 1770 (arches))The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The acquisition of this spectacular crown in 2015 inaugurated a major initiative to develop the collection of colonial Latin American art as part of a more holistic approach to representing the multifaceted artistic traditions of the Americas.

Street Story Quilt (1985) by Faith RinggoldThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met purchased this quilt, which presents a narrative of survival and redemption in Harlem, just five years after it was created by the artist and activist Faith Ringgold.

Yotam Ottolenghi, Asim Rehman, and Lowery Stokes Sims l Breaking down barriers l Met StoriesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Independent Curator and Art Historian Lowery Sims talks about her role in bringing diversity to The Met collection of contemporary art in the video series Met Stories.

Making The Met, 1870-2020 catalogue cover (2019) by Rebecca Sylvers, Miko McGinty Inc.The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The 150th anniversary offered an opportunity to reflect on The Met’s history since 1870, seen through the lens of 2020, and knowing that our perspectives will continue to expand into the future.

Read about these stories and more in the exhibition catalogue.

Credits: Story

"Making The Met, 1870-2020" was organized by Andrea Bayer, Deputy Director for Collections and Administration, with Laura D. Corey, Senior Research Associate, and represents the collaborative efforts of more than 200 dedicated members of the staff. Special thanks to Sofie Anderson, Interim Head of Digital, Skyla Choi, Studio Manager, and Christopher Alessandrini, Producer and Editor, for their support of this project.

Visit metmuseum.org/Making-The-Met for information about the exhibition and to explore more digital features about The Met’s history, collections, buildings, and visionary figures.

The exhibition is made possible by the
Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.

Lead corporate sponsorship is provided by
Bank of America.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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