Art nouveau at Sevres & the craftsman tradition in America: in the early 1900s, American writers and designers took a close interest in the remarkable art-nouveau designs that were being produced at Sevres. Gabriel P. Weisberg explores the impact of the firm's methods and achievements on American crafts.
When Gustav Stickley, editor of The Craftsman, one of the premier American magazine art magazines of its age, published an article entitled 'Latest Ceramic Products of Sevres' in January 1904, he helped to introduce contemporary Sevres ceramics and the large network of young designers who were creating them to a large public audience in America (Figs 3 and 4). (1) Sevres was a foremost centre for design reform; the manufactory was producing a version of art nouveau that, while stylised, remained extremely progressive. (2) Stickley hoped that its ceramics could influence American ceramicists as well as American collectors, equalling the impact that Sevres was having throughout Europe by 1900.
Stickley was making American readers aware of larger issues in the design reform movement by printing in The Craftsman English translations of articles, in whole or in part, that had first appeared in France. Between 1902 and 1904 he published several articles translated from Art et Decoration, a leading French magazine of design reform, on art nouveau and its French inventor Siegfried Bing, and on Rene Lalique. During and after the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, art magazines such as Art et Decoration reported on progressive artistic achievement. For example, among the articles it published was one by E. Baumgart on Sevres. (3) Excellently illustrated with photographs, it revealed the importance of the manufactory's art-nouveau designs and of the young creators who worked there. These included Eugenie Bethmont, Henri Lasserre, Gebleux and Jeanne Bogureau--young ceramicists who were just beginning their careers, unfettered by traditional styles. (4) This and other articles attracted the attention of an international readership, including the perspicacious Stickley, who would have seen the display of Sevres at the Exposition Universelle.
In his 1904 article--which in part reproduced in English material from the pages of Art et Decoration--Stickley continued his support of Sevres. He wanted to document how the 'force and pervasiveness of the new art movement' was affecting the strongest, and often the most conservative, of traditional areas such as the Sevres ceramic manufactory. (5) The article set out to show that since the Exposition Universelle, Sevres had set its sights on becoming a centre of new artistic production; to some it appeared that the manufactory had entered a 'second youth', an idea that meshed perfectly with the theories of art nouveau, which stressed rebirth in the visual arts.
These ideas were shared by Stickley. By publishing the article on Sevres he hoped to suggest that it was imperative that American readers understand that Sevres was being revitalised on every level: that in order to achieve a rebirth, visualise new forms and designs, and thus produce new objects, it was necessary to organise new laboratories and workshops that would attract younger designers willing to follow a new orientation. Within the Sevres workshops, designers were producing innumerable drawings for vases--some of which were produced--which demonstrated that a reinvigorated range of shapes, new colours and an enthusiastic vigour pervaded the works that the manufactory was producing.
Although this initial article in The Craftsman did not reproduce design drawings--this happened later--the fact that there was an allusion to the availability of drawings being produced at Sevres was of major significance. A selection of some of the drawings preserved in the archives and library at Sevres are reproduced here as examples of the direction that the manufactory had taken to upgrade its production in order to remain competitive. It still remains to be ascertained whether the drawings were made at Sevres or are by designers working elsewhere who brought the drawings to the manufactory for approval. (6)
The January 1904 Craftsman article voiced considerable support for the art-nouvean porcelains produced under the supervision of Alexandre Sandier and Georges Vogt, noting that 'under [their new leadership] the improvements already so marked in 1900 continue to progress'. The Sevres designers had taken to heart criticisms made in 1900 that their colours were too pale, 'so that richer and more vigorous tones appear ... upon its vases'. (7) Sandier, who advocated experimentation during his 20-year period as Director of Works of Art- an era marked by new forms, colours and technical achievements 'must be given considerable credit for bringing Sevres into the art nouveau movement'. Stickley hoped that potential purchasers might obtain pieces from Sevres to go with the furniture and interiors that he was promoting in the United States. Such pieces were also going to have an impact on American ceramic design.
At the time that Stickley was publishing articles on Sevres, he was influenced by the French displays at the St Louis Louisiana Purchase exhibition of 1904. The broad range of new porcelain from Sevres exhibited at this world exposition continued to challenge preconceptions with new designs and varied colours. The American press was very appreciative, (8) An article, 'Fine and Applied Arts in St Louis' in Brush and Pencil, a well-known and sophisticated American art magazine, emphasised the 'effectiveness' of the applied art pieces. (9) It was illustrated by photographs of three Sevres vases designed by Gebleux, Fournier and Louis Pihan; at the end of the essay, a photograph showed Sevres decorators at work on very large pieces in the midst of preparatory drawings (Fig. 1). Stickley visited the Fair in June 1904, giving him ample opportunity to study the pieces in situ, to draw comparisons with other French ceramics and with what he had seen in the past, perhaps even in 1900. There is little doubt that the Sevres on display confirmed his admiration for the manufactory. (10)
Stickley's personal interest in the newest types of ceramic production is evident in another article on Sevres, 'A Comparative Study of Sevres Methods' by the soon-to-be-famous architect Paul Cret, which appeared in The Craftsman in July 1904. (11) A history of the firm from the 18th century onward, it discussed the way that the firm worked with industrialists, how new pieces were commissioned, and the techniques for producing them, thus providing a valuable background for American readers unfamiliar with Sevres. The fact that it was illustrated with drawings by young designers, who produced pieces under the art-nouveau banner, increased its significance.
In a sensitive examination of the design drawings for porcelain, Cret wrote: 'We first notice the great importance given to the background, which is white or but slightly tinted.' (12) The intense white background, he explained, was a way for Sevres designers to display the beauty of the material, of which the firm was particularly proud, and also allowed the design to be clearly seen. Cret also emphasised that modelling was being eliminated, again to aid clarity of design. He rightly cited two important sources for art-nouveau designs: nature and Japanese art.
Cret explained that as designers fired of working with classical themes, they turned to nature from which they abstracted motifs. They especially investigated how plants and their different parts, such as leaves and tendrils, could be adapted to the shape of a ceramic. He explained that the way in which the Japanese visualised flowers, with their interest in simplification, provided a fruitful 'field of study' for further abstraction from nature. Wanting his enumeration of influences to be complete, Cret also mentioned the Arts and Crafts tradition. He ended by noting that 'Sevres was now completely under the influence of L'Art Nouveau, but an art nouveau, after all, which is very conservative.' (13) This demonstrated a perceptive awareness of the Sevres tradition: although dependent on a solid and time-tested history of design, the firm's ceramicists could indulge their creativity, and stray from the more sedate geometric patterns of earlier times.
Besides a desire to draw attention to the best of what was being done and shown on an international level, why did Stickley publish articles such as these in the first place? Did he have an ulterior motive? Part of an answer lies in earlier articles by him, in which he tried to find a proper definition for art nouveau, making use, for example, of a piece by Siegfried Bing. Yet, aside from an aesthetic, or even a semantic, debate over terminology, Stickley was concerned that the future of ceramics in the United States be properly guided and orientated.
To this end, in February 1905 he published an article by the noted ceramicist Charles F. Binns, 'The Future of American Ceramics', which outlined the crisis in American crafts in considerable detail. (14) Binns was concerned that American ceramic firms were only producing pieces if they had guaranteed sales; there was little of the spirit of inventiveness and creativity that remained dominant in Europe. In the process, American ceramics--both porcelain and faience--had stagnated; American objects could not compete internationally. Binns asked whether 'anything really artistic' could be produced in the United States because of its unhealthy, capitalistic system. (15) The future, according to Binns, looked bleak.
The essay- more an editorial than an article--was rather pessimistic, except when Binns suggested that the future might improve if American firms spent more 'freely upon the ... designing room'. (16) This was a very significant comment. Sevres had done this most ably by hiring designers from outside, and encouraging others to offer their designs for production there. Stickley, and others in the American press, repeatedly stressed the role of new design, and the value of drawings as working tools to encourage invention. New shapes, new decorative schemes had to be developed; and only then would dignity and beauty return to American ceramic design. This ideal is apparent in the photograph of unidentified decorators at work at Sevres reproduced in the journal Brush and Pencil (Fig. 1). (17) They look through a portfolio of drawings, and large-scale drawings adorn the walls. One designer-craftsman is working on a model, suggesting the transference of the drawing to a model for the piece that will be fired later. Although a staged photograph, it does provide important clues as to the way in which drawings were valued at Sevres.
It is clear from the texts published in The Craftsman that Stickley had a mission. He wanted to see change, and the authors that he published were influenced by his personal attitudes. Through a partial reconstruction of art-nouveau design at Sevres and an examination of specific works in the Sevres archives and private collections, we can understand the deeper implications of what Sevres art nouveau had achieved and why Stickley had given the firm, and its imagery, his backing in so forceful a manner.
Tracking down actual pieces of art-nouveau Sevres is a formidable task. They are widely dispersed among museum collections, such as those in Nancy, and in private collections that are often inaccessible. Happily for researchers, numerous drawings are housed in the Sevres archives and library. They demonstrate the broad range of pieces, the colours employed and the integration of tendril patterns with the shape of the ceramic in pieces that may have been actually produced from the late 1890s until about 1910.
Just before the arrival of Sandier, and later under his direct inspiration, designers produced a wide range of drawings for vases. Among them was Henri Lasserre, whose reliance on natural motifs, used creatively in new configurations, greatly contributed to the way in which Sevres designers were breaking away from historical styles. His Vase with Dragonflies and Frogs (c. 1896; Fig. 5), also known as Iris in the Water, provides a good introduction to the Sevres decorators' responses to the strong interest in nature and to the impact of Japanese art, derived in part from albums of prints acquired by the manufactory. (18) The use of the frogs as a decorative band adds humour to the design while also demonstrating how nature could be abstracted to fit the shape of a specific ceramic. Lasserre continued his use of nature in the asymmetrically arranged motifs of his Vase d'Igny (Fig. 6), produced in November 1897. In other works, such as a tall cylindrical shape, made in several variants, the Vase Aulnay, Lasserre paid greater attention to floral decoration while allowing the white background of the ceramic more visibility. It is apparent that Lasserre was a major designer, but whether all these pieces were actually produced is unknown, since there is no fully documented record of all the pieces fired at Sevres.
The drawings catalogued at Sevres reveal that two artists signed a specific piece on most occasions: the designer who created the shape of the work, and the one who did the painted decoration. This is the case with the Vase de Chagny, or The Christmas Roses (Fig. 7), which was prepared in January 1897. Here both designers were women: Mile Eugenie Guillaume and Mme Suzanne Eugenie Bethmont. (19) Like private ceramic manufactories, Sevres was interested in enlisting the creative work of women, allowing them free rein for their imaginations and revealing that they could make assertive creative statements equal to men.
Also in 1897, Genevieve Rault designed the Vase Sceaux, executed by Charles Pihan, a work that was advanced for the time (Fig. 8). (20) The transparent wave patterns at the base suggest the further abstraction from nature that would later become the hallmark of Sevres designs. Rault must have worked extensively with Sevres judging by the large number of her drawings preserved in the archives. In June 1902 L'Art Decoratif reproduced some of her pieces, giving her full credit for her association with the manufacture in a publication that was widely perceived as an avant-garde periodical for design issues.
Up to this point, the names of many of the designers mentioned have little resonance for us today; this changes when the name of the Symbolist painter Lucien Levy-Dhurmer is introduced as a designer working with Sevres. (19) He made two drawings (Figs. 9 and 10) for vases that may never have been produced. These works are a decidedly novel exploration, as both their shapes--which are more sculptural than any others of this era at Sevres--and the intensity of the colouration mark a very forward-looking, personal development. One of the pieces gives the impression almost of molten lava. However, when compared with all the other designs these two drawings seem incongruous in the development of Sevres ceramic production. The only other designer of great renown outside the ceramic world is the architect Hector Guimard, who created a few unusual designs for vases, revealing that Sevres creativity was attracting designers from outside pure ceramic production.
By 1900, the year of the Exposition Universelle, a large number of designs were being produced, often by women, such as Mme Eugenie Bethmont. (20) One of her drawings, for the Vase Montchanin (Fig. 11), not only points to a move toward abstract floral patterns, but also a willingness by the designers at Sevres to create a more delicate, coloured background for the patterns. In her Vase de Chelles (1900; Fig. 12), the same designer also created a good model of what could be achieved through the use of rhythmic, curling and spiralling tendrils. Also in 1900, she developed the Vase Angers (Fig. 13), which is reminiscent of porcelain vases designed by Edward Colonna for Siegfried Bing. We know that this vase was put into production and sold, as its price, 40 francs, is documented.
As well as table services and small decorative vases, Sevres also manufactured decorative 'presentation pieces'. These were very large vases that could be used, like sculptures, to decorate rooms, notably in French embassies, where they advertised not only the Sevres manufactory, but also French art and the country itself. In 1900, Mlle Jeaune Bogureau, who was associated with the firm for a long time, completed a design for such a vase, known as the Vase Varennes (Fig. 14), which was to be sold for 50 francs. This example, with leaves at the top of the vase, and supportive vines along either side, is an original, asymmetrical design utilising striking colour tones.
A vase by Genevieve Rault (Fig. 15) reveals a very delicate colour sense combined with an asymmetrical pattern, underscoring the limitless possibilities offered by floral patterns emphasising the stem and the leaf. Rault's sought-after pieces were illustrated in L'Art Decoratif in December 1902. (21) She maintained her originality with the Vase Auxerre (Fig. 2), a piece that suggests human blood vessels as much as plant vines. This vase, one of the most abstract designs seen at Sevres, is extraordinarily original in terms of sources for abstract design.
From this small sample of preliminary drawings for projected ceramics, it is dear that something of real significance was happening at Sevres. Designers and administrators worked closely together to achieve a rare sense of originality that fostered a creative use of colour combined with the fundamental shift toward abstraction that was so important for the best art-nouveau pieces. Yet what was the impact of Sevres design on American craftsman? Was the manufactory itself only to be used as a model for stimulation or were the pieces being produced, as well as the drawings for them, of significance for the future?
Although the specific influence of art-nouveau Sevres pieces on American ceramicists is difficult to assess, the standards Sevres set for training and working with young designers was exemplary. Charles Binns, both in his own work and his writings, was complimentary about Sevres. (22) As the teacher of Adelaide Robineau, he helped to pass onto her the need to understand the wide variety of techniques available at Sevres as she changed directions from a decorator of plates toward becoming, by 1901-04, a craftsman of significant talent. Possibly thanks to Binns, she also became well versed in the writings of Taxlle Doat, one of the main theoreticians and designers at Sevres and, through the assistance of her wealthy husband, was able to see to it that Doat's writings were translated and published in Keramic Art, a key magazine edited by the Robineaus. As a result, Sevres' principles of technique and decoration were made available in the United States.
Her mastery of a wide variety of techniques, including the incising of porcelain (a very demanding process) led Robineau to create inventive ceramics by 1905. (23) At the moment when Binns and The Craftsman were calling for more original, artistic ceramics in America, she was answering the challenge. Her work was different from most other ceramicists of the time, and she did not heavily borrow from Sevres. She tried to combine what she learned from France with achievements from the Far Eastern ceramics that she also studied. By 1908, she was using her overall incising process on a wide range of pieces made at University City, just outside St Louis, Missouri. As University City emerged as a location where young ceramicists could be trained, Doat was persuaded to teach there after he retired from Sevres. Robineau and Doat became guiding lights of the studio ceramic movement, relying on much that they had learned from Sevres to train a new generation of ceramicists in America. (24)
The works that Robineau produced in Missouri combined incised designs with a conventional floral and foliate pattern that suggests the earlier works done at Sevres by French craftsmen in the late 1890s. Although there are subtle differences in the colouration, achieved through stained washes applied to the vase, the basic decoration is derived from Sevres. Doat's own works reflect the mottled glaze patterns that were found on Sevres pieces at the time.
Even though the number of works produced at University City in its years of activity between 1905 and 1911 was not extensive, and the number of students enrolled in the programme was never large, the studios played an active role in moving American ceramics toward the modern era. When in 1911 Robineau returned to Syracuse and Doat went back to France, the University City experiment came to an abrupt end. Its history was lost until it was partially reconstructed in an exhibition at the St Louis Art Museum in 2004. What is now needed is a closer look at the parallels with France, the impact of the Sevres manufactory on other ceramic centres, and an examination of the intertwined ideas from the studio ceramic movement in both countries.
In revisiting the ideas fostered by the articles in the pages of The Craftsman, one is encouraged to reconstruct many of the major trends in American ceramics in the first decade of the 20th century. But even without doing this, it is possible to judge what Stickley accomplished to heighten an American awareness of ceramic production in France, at least through its most visible and renowned official centre. An examination of the context of Stickley's essays underlines the sense of urgency that prompted him to publish them. In using art-nouveau Sevres as a model, American creators and writers were able to show how a traditional, well-established manufactory was able to change its emphasis and thereby save itself from extinction. With this example to follow, American ceramic companies could hope to create an advanced style that would be seen as progressive as art-nouveau Sevres.
In studying the impact of Sevres in America, some fundamental issues remain to be clarified. Sevres was not only a model of revivified design. The methods it employed in training young designers were destined to have an impact on the way in which American ceramics were made. With Sevres properly understood, American craftsmen would have before them the best examples of modern creativity. If they could emulate French teaching methods by using Sevres as a model of efficiency and clarity, it was possible that American ceramics could continue to mature. The fact that this did not happen remains one of the major tragedies of American crafts design.
The designs illustrating this article are from the collection of the Manufacture Nationale de Sevres, Paris, and are all watercolour on paper.
A version of this paper was presented at an international conference, 'Crafting Community: Complexity and Contradiction in the Arts and Crafts Movement', in Buffalo, New York on June 16-19, 2005. The author thanks Lisa Koenigsberg, the organiser of the conference, for asking him to present this paper. Additional support in completing this article was provided by Sarah Sik (PhD student, University of Minnesota) and Yvonne M.L. Weisberg. The assistance of the Sevres Manufactory and specifically Mrne Preaud, Archivist and Librarian, is deeply appreciated.
(1) Gustav Stickley, "Latest Ceramic Products of Sevres', "The Craftsman, vol. v, no. 4, January 1904, pp. 378-85. Stickley's interest in what was happening at Sevres, and elsewhere in ceramics, reveals the internationalism of his viewpoint that was integral to the philosophy of The Craftsman magazine.
(2) Interest in the Sevres manufactory was also emphasised in some of the other forward looking magazines of the era. See Gustave Soulier, 'Travaux et projets de la Manufacture de Sevres', L'Art Decoratif, vol. IV, April-December, 1902, pp. 124-28. This well illustrated article reveals the more progressive pieces made by Sevres of interest to an international audience.
(3) E. Baumgart, 'La Manufacture Nationale de Sevres en 1900', Art et Decoration, vol. VII, January-June, 1900, pp. 179-88. Baumgart noted that 'dans la decoration de la porcelaine dute, les progres sont encore plus marques que dans la fabrication'. It is apparent that Baumgart was working very hard on promoting the new designs that were being produced at Sevres as other articles by him on Sevres appeared in newspapers and journals at this time.
(4) Soulier, op. cit., pp. 126-27.
(5) Stickley, op. cit., p. 378.
(6) Sevres in the 19th century, according to a well-established tradition, often considered drawings by designers that were not produced at the manufactory. This was a way to encourage a more independent creative approach from designers who were not controlled by what was produced in the Sevres workshops. Exactly who passed judgment on which pieces were to be produced awaits further examination of how the Sevres manufactory worked with individual designers.
(7) Stickley, op. cir. p. 384.
(8) See Charles E. Fraser, 'Sevres Porcelain- Its Past and Present', Brush and Pencil, vol. XII, 1904, pp. 40-54.
(9) William D. Gates, 'Fine and Applied Art at St Louis Exposition', Brush and Pencil, vol. XIII, 1904, pp. 55-62.
(10) On Stickley in St Louis, see David Cathers, Gustav Stickley, London and New York, 2003, p. 222. Although Cathers does not go into full discussion on St Louis, the fact that tins fair was so commanding and so strongly interested in the applied arts needs to be reiterated.
(11) Paul Cret, 'A Comparative Study of Sevres Methods', The Craftsman, vol VI, July 1904, pp. 354-68. Stickley's interest in avant-garde ceramics included an appreciation of the well-known Canton Service designed by Edward Colonna for Siegfried Bing, the major art-nouveau impresario. See Gabriel P. Weisberg, 'Bing Porcelain in America', The Connoisseur, vol. CLXXVIII, November 1971, pp. 200-203.
(12) Cret, op. tit., p. 364.
(13) Ibid., p. 365.
(14) Charles F. Binns, The Future of Ceramics in America', The Craftsman, vol. VII, October 1904-March 1905, pp. 563-66. Also see Charles F. Binns, 'The Art of the Fire', The Craftsman, vol. VIII, April-September, 1905, pp. 205-210, with illustrations of the work of Robineau, who was the model American ceramicist for Binns. See Charles F. Binns, 'The Craft of the Potter', The Craftsman, vol. IX, October 1905-March 1906, pp. 854-36.
(15) Binns, 'The Future of Ceramics...', op. cit., p. 564.
(16) Ibid., p. 366.
(17) 'A Studio at Sevres', in Gates, op. cit., p. 62.
(18) Sevres was deeply interested in Japanese art and secured a series of Japanese print albums that are now housed in the library there. These albums were not, one would think, the only examples of Japanese art that decorators had access to, as they must have also developed collections of Japanese art on their own. For reference to this phenomenon, see Gabriel P. Weisberg, 'Japanese Art on a Plate: An Unknown Masterpiece of French Ceramic Design', APOLLO, vol. CLXIV, no. 535, September 2006, pp. 36-43.
(19) The nature of Levy-Dhurmer's interest in the applied arts still awaits detailed discussion. For his work for the Gobelins Tapestry Manufactory, see Jean Guiffrey, 'La Manufacture des Gobelins a. l'Exposition de 1900', Art et Decoration, vol VII, 1900, p. 153. This article gives rise to the idea that Levy-Dhurmer was given an opportunity to design decorative arts pieces for the leading applied arts manufactories in France. See also Antoinette Fay, Autour de Levy-Dhurmer, Visionnaires el Intimistes en 1900, exh. cat., Grand-Palais, Editions des Musees Nationaux, Paris, 1973.
(20) Eugenie Bethmont studied at the Academie Julian in Paris in the 1890s. See 'Catalogue general des eleves dames depths 1868-Renseignements', where she is listed a student of Mme Thore and Mr Baschet. In a separate catalogue, 'Dames eleves groupees par villes', Bethmont appears under Paris, p. 76. There, she is listed as having been a student in 1897, 98, 99, and 1900. She also appears in the catalogue 'Eleves dames groupees pax nation et villes', under France-Paris, p. 61, for the years 1893, 94, 95, 96, and 97 as a student of Mr. Baschet. The author is grateful to M. Andre Del Debbio, Paris for his willingness to share his archives on the Academie Julian's female students. On the Academie Julian and its female students, see Gabriel P. Weisberg and Jane R. Becker, eds, Overcoming All Obstacles. The Women of the Academie Julian, exh. cat., Dahesh Museum, New York, 1999.
(21) Emile Sedeyn, 'Les Principes de decoration a Sevres', L'Art Decoratif vol. IV, December 1902, p. 368. Genevieve Rault also studied at the Academie Julian. She is listed in 'Catalogue general des eleves dames depths 1868-Renseignements', as a student in 1898, and as having being introduced to the school by Mile Lemoigne. She also appears in 'Dames eleves groupees par villes', p. 77: Rault, G. In addition to the name of the person who introduced her to the Academie, it is noted that she received a gold medal at the Ecole des Arts decoratifs.
(22) See Binns, 'The Art of the Fire', op. cir., pp. 206-207.
(23) Ibid., p. 207. Binns also talks about Robineau's work in porcelain and how 'she does not paint porcelain'. She does it all through glazes.
(24) On Taxile Doat's importance in the United States and the role that he played at University City in St Louis, see the excellent catalogue, David Conradsen and Ellen Paul Denker, University City Ceramics, Art Pottery of the American Women's League, exh. cat., St Louis Art Museum, 2004. The text by David Conradsen on University City Ceramics is especially enlightening. The question of Doat's larger importance can be ably assisted by documentation in the archives and library of the Sevres manufactory in Paris.
Gabriel P. Weisberg is guest curator for 'Illusions of Reality: Naturalist Painting, Photography and Early Cinema' at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, opening in September 2010. He was co-curator of 'Paris: 1900' at the Oklahoma City Art Museum in 2007.
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|Author:||Weisberg, Gabriel P.|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
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