Rendez-vous with Art
by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford.
Thames & Hudson, 2014.
Hardcover, 248 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Stephen Schmalhofer


While his cause lingers, if Dante were to be canonized, museum patrons will have a patron saint. As tourists approach their local guide, Dante beseeched Virgil to take him to “the portal of Saint Peter … Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.” If he has now taken his place in Paradiso where “I, though I call on genius, art, and practice / Cannot so tell that it could be imagined,” he may intercede and bring relief to thousands of sunburned and rain-soaked visitors in purgatorial lines outside the Louvre, Prado, Met, and Vatican Museums. Those pilgrims of art have the sympathy of Philippe de Montebello, Director Emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Rendez-vous with Art, the Met’s longest-serving director meets his friend and art critic Martin Gayford at art museums and collections around the world to discuss what they see together. They begin in front of yellow jasper lips, part of a fragment of an Egyptian queen’s face, and de Montebello shocks his friend. “This is one of the greatest works of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, indeed in the world, of any civilization!” This is not loose hyperbole but adoration. In the words of Dante’s Beatrice, “Love moved me, which compelleth me to speak” and de Montebello’s life in art began in love:

“She was Marchioness Uta in Naumburg Cathedral and I loved her as a woman. When I was maybe fifteen years old my father brought home a book called Les Voix du Silence by Andre Malraux. I leafed through it, looking at its great four-tone black-and-white illustrations. And suddenly there was Uta, with her wonderful high collar, and her puffed eyelids, as though after a night of lovemaking. She stands there perhaps up twenty feet in the west choir of the building so you could never see her so close in reality. But then I was seeing her in a book, held in my hand. I still think she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world.”

In 1966, while de Montebello was visiting on a travel grant, the Arno overflowed its banks and flooded Florence. “This maledict and misadventurous ditch” (Purgatorio, Canto XIV) sent rushing water through the streets and into the Baptistery of St. John in the Piazza del Duomo. When the floodwaters calmed, de Montebello rushed down to the piazza. Standing in mud, he noticed two of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise panels face down in the filth. No Italian civil authorities were present, so he flashed his Met ID badge and walked past stunned museum officials. He saw Donatello’s Magdalene in knee-deep mud before he remembered that he was late for lunch at La Pietra, the villa owned by aesthete Harold Acton. After walking four kilometers through the flooded town, he was met at the door by a skeptical footman: “Aren’t you coming to have lunch with Sir Harold?” “Yes.” “Looking like this?” Acton entered the room and noticed his muddy boots. “Young man, I was about to say one dresses up to come and see me.” Acton’s chauffeur drove them back to the Baptistery and when “Sir Harold saw the Magdalene, the Donatello, he just stood there and wept.”

Acton was at Oxford with Evelyn Waugh and he added to Waugh’s great advantage as an author: plagiarizing the lives of his friends. Acton was the character study for Brideshead Revisited’s Anthony Blanche, who would make an amusing museum companion: “‘My dear, I could hardly keep still in my chair. I wanted to dash out of the house and leap in a taxi and say, ‘Take me to Charles’s unhealthy pictures.’ Well, I went, but the gallery after luncheon was so full of absurd women in the sort of hats they should be made to eat, that I rested a little.” Waugh first met Acton during a G. K. Chesterton lecture hosted by the Oxford Newman Society. “When all is said the main fact that the record of the reindeer men attests, along with all other records, is that the reindeer man could draw and the reindeer could not.… Art is the signature of man,” wrote Chesterton, who never required encouragement to share his opinions.

But on the subject of art it is more interesting to learn why de Montebello loses his voice in front of The Surrender of Breda: “I find it very hard to talk about Velasquez; he strikes me dumb—because he was a painter of miracles, the miracle of converting paint into life, into truth.” Fortunately, he recovers his speech in time for Velázquez’s Sebastian de Morra: “The humanity, the dignity of this man! Also, show me a flaw, a stroke of paint, a highlight that’s in the wrong place. You can’t. Velázquez was a god.” He is more loquacious with other great painters, avoiding jargon yet always searching for the right words: “Among other things, [Philip II and Philip IV] loved the pulchritude of Titian’s and Rubens’s women. The figures in The Three Graces are as earthy as any goddesses can allow themselves to be … I just love the opalescent flesh tones of these luxuriant nudes, the nacreous reflections on the skin …”

Acton bequeathed La Pietra to New York University, where de Montebello attended “the gold standard Institute of Fine Arts.” His professor Charles Sterling received a call from the Met Curator in Chief Theodore Rousseau inquiring about candidates for a new curator of early French paintings. Rousseau interviewed de Montebello during a walk through the galleries. While de Montebello enjoyed their conversation, Rousseau was an intimidating interviewer. During the Second World War, he served in the Office of Strategic Service art investigation unit, where he arrested and questioned Nazis suspected of stealing art from occupied countries. (He baited Hermann Goering’s banker with brandy and extracted several valuable leads.) In the middle of their gallery walk, Rousseau turned and asked, “What is quality?” De Montebello admits “That’s a tough one. But I am still of the generation that grew up with formalist art history and for whom qualitative judgments come naturally.” Throughout his conversations in the book, he never stops making judgments. At the Wallace Collection in London, he stops at Fragonard’s The Swing: “Well, you know my proclivities for hierarchies, so I’ll say right off that this Fragonard is one step up from a Boucher.” His evaluation runs from the formalistic to the domestic: “this is a gorgeous painting about having a good time and about which one does not have to think very hard, just abandon oneself to the sheer pleasure it provides: a picture I’d have no trouble at all living with.”

When a senior faculty member at the Institute of Fine Arts heard that de Montebello was joining the Met, he sighed, “Oh, what a waste.” While de Montebello rejects this academic snobbery, he is unafraid to critique museums and public collections. When the Mauritshuis announced an exhibit of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring by hanging enormous banners of the picture inside and outside of the gallery, de Montebello recoiled: “Now I don’t even want to see the actual painting; they’ve ruined it for me. I’ve seen her image ten times before and after entering the museum. It’s really a travesty to do that … It kills the freshness of the experience … ‘Oh there she is’ and I’d hardly afford her a second glance.” He agrees with Leo von Klenze, the architect of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and the New Hermitage in St. Petersburg, who believed grand art deserves grand decor. That is why he pronounces of the poorly lit, postmodern Musée du quai Branly: “I hate this place.”

While he celebrated the Met’s impressive annual attendance, de Montebello worries that the crush of the crowds prevents real art appreciation and education. You take your place in the queue and shuffle past a work after twenty seconds to avoid feeling hot breath on the back of your neck. “There is no way in which I can listen to one of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets in the equivalent of the glance I might afford a Baroque altarpiece. I am compelled—joyfully—to stay in my seat for all four movements, played seriatim. But the trap, and it is a trap, is that I can look at a Titian and in a blink of an eye take in its superficial aspects … But how much am I really seeing?”

As the arms race of museum amenities escalates, we have reached diminishing returns beyond convenient restrooms and well-placed benches. A museum “must somehow convey, by the attitude of its staff, the mood, the tone set by the presentation, that a deeply rewarding experience awaits visitors if they are willing to look searchingly at the works on view.” De Montebello is fond of Rome’s Doria Pamphilj, where pictures are “cheek by jowl” and one can come close to his experience sipping tea in the living room of the heirs of the Condesa de Chinchón, admiring her portrait by Goya: “There was all the time in the world to absorb every nuance in the portrait and allow oneself to be guiltlessly seduced—and how seductive it is!” At the Galleria Borghese, he imagines that Cardinal Borghese must have “passed his hands over Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne to feel its different textures virtually every time he walked past it.” Before de Montebello and the Met purchased the Duccio Madonna and Child for $45 million in 2004, he savored his privilege of holding the painting, turning it in his hands, touching the votive candle burns at the bottom of the frame, and—like Dante at the end of his tour—“From that time forward what I saw was greater / Than our discourse, that to such vision yields, / And yields the memory unto such excess.”  

Stephen Schmalhofer is a graduate of Yale College. He writes from Connecticut.