An Acquiring Mind: Philippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The extraordinary legacy of Philippe de Montebello, who served for 31 years as Director of The Metropolitan Museum Art, is chronicled in this one-hour documentary. During his tenure, Mr. de Montebello guided the acquisition of more than 84,000 works of art from around the globe, demanded innovation in conservation techniques and oversaw the doubling of the physical size of this world-renowned cultural institution

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Mangaaka Power FigureView larger

Mangaaka Power Figure

Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola; 19th century
Wood, paint, metal, resin, ceramic

A century ago, African art was collected by anthropologists but rarely by art museums. Acquired in 2008, this Kongo power figure now fronts the Met’s African art collection, daring the viewer to delve deeper into the African aesthetic. Kongo power figures are meant to awe and intimidate.

Wheat Field with CypressesView larger

Wheat Field with Cypresses

Vincent van Gogh; 1889; Oil on canvas

Wheat Field with Cypresses painted in 1889 by Vincent van Gogh was purchased for the Met in 1993 by publishing magnate Walter Annenberg and his wife Lee at a cost of $57 million. De Montebello declared, “This is a picture that is really canonical in the life of Van Gogh …it has everything.”

Striding Horned DemonView larger

Striding Horned Demon

Mesopotamia or Iran; ca. 3000 B.C.; Copper

Acquired in 2007, this demon with its horned head, bird of prey cape, muscular limbs and confident stride is barely seven inches tall. It was created 5,000 years ago just as the first cities in the world were emerging in the “cradle of civilization,” today’s southern Iraq. De Montebello recalls, “We saw this coming up at auction and we just pounced on this one.”

Wall PanelsView larger

Wall Panels

Lyon, France; ca. 1799; Woven silk and metal thread

For more than 200 years, this extraordinary French panel – one of a pair -- languished behind the scenes in a king’s pleasure palace outside of Madrid. Purchased by the Met in 2006, “The two panels have never been used,” says curator Melinda Watt. “They’re in practically pristine condition.”

Bust of Alexander MenshikovView larger

Bust of Alexander Menshikov

Unknown Swiss, Austrian, or German; ca. 1703; Red pine

Sometimes the only reason to acquire a work of art is the eye of the beholder. In 1996, de Montebello urged the purchase of this magnificent wooden bust even though no one knew the artist, the subject, the country or the date. Fiver years later, the Met's scholars identified the sitter as Alexander Menshikov, a major Russian statesman and close friend of Peter the Great.

Female DancerView larger

Female Dancer

China Earthenware; Western Han dynasty, 2nd century B.C.

Acquired in 1992, this figure from the 2d century B.C. is a quintessential example of early Chinese sculpture. Unlike the Greeks, who adopted a geometric approach, the Chinese sculptors sought to capture the "life spirit" of the human subject

Madonna and ChildView larger

Madonna and Child

Duccio di Buoninsegna; ca. 1295–1300; Tempera and gold on wood

This tiny gem, Duccio’s Madonna and Child, was purchased in 2004 for $45 million. Here Duccio explores the psychological relationship between Mother and Child, representing a transforming moment in Western art. Few of Duccio's paintings survive. The damage along the bottom of the original frame is from candles lit for private devotion.

Rubens, His Wife, Helena Fourment, and One of Their Children
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Rubens, His Wife, Helena Fourment, and One of Their Children

Peter Paul Rubens; ca. 1635
Oil on wood

Acquired in 1981, this large and imposing painting by the great Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens in 1635 is at the same time a very intimate portrait, showing the artist, his young wife Helena, and one of their children.

Leaves from a Beatus Manuscript Spain View larger

Leaves from a Beatus Manuscript Spain

ca. 1180
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment

These leaves from an illustrated Spanish manuscript dating to ca. 1180 struck de Montebello “as a work of huge importance and manifest beauty.” They were added to the collection in 1991.

The Metropolitan Museum of ArtView larger

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 2007, the year before de Montebello announced his departure, he oversaw the opening of a bevy of new and expanded galleries and the refurbishing of the museum’s 1895 Beaux-Arts façade. The director declared that the museum was “invigorated” by the cleaning and “aglow” as never before in our lifetimes.

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