New Skylights for The Met

Posted in museums by Editor on April 5, 2018

As Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at The Met, explains in a blog posting for The Met from 7 December 2017, the museum has embarked on a four-year-long project to replace the building’s skylights, which were originally constructed in 1939. Coverage by James Barron for The New York Times is available here. From Christiansen’s blog posting

One of my favorite documents (yes, it is possible to have favorite historical documents!) was only discovered in Rome’s dusty state archives five years ago. It notes how the brilliant young Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, having found lodgings in which he could paint, received permission from his landlord to create a window in the ceiling of his apartment. The purpose was, he said, “to facilitate painting.” Caravaggio had done the same in his lodgings in 1605.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Allegory of the Planets and Continents, 1752, oil on canvas, 185 × 139 cm (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1977.1.3).

You see, artists can’t paint without good light—and not just any light, but sunlight (ideally with a northern orientation). Just try to imagine Jan van Eyck trying to paint the minute details of the distant cityscape and mountains in his phenomenal Crucifixion without adequate lighting—which, believe me, could not be obtained with candles.

In an age dominated by the drama of artificial light, it’s all too easy to forget how important daylight has always been to artists: natural light possessing the full color spectrum; light that falls evenly across the surface of the panel or canvas. A beautiful illustration of this is Vermeer’s famous Allegory of Painting in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where we see the well-dressed artist sitting on his stool in front of his easel while a woman poses, dressed as Clio, the muse of history. The natural light from an unseen but clearly present window falls across her figure and gives an evenly balanced light to the artist’s canvas.

It follows that you cannot judge a painting without good light either. Not surprisingly, the optimal light in which to view a painting is dispersed and even daylight—which is why The Met is embarking on a four-year-long project to replace the skylights in the European Paintings galleries—originally constructed in 1939—and replace them with an up-to-date system; one that will significantly improve the way visitors experience the collection.

On our new web feature, Met Masterpieces in a New Light, you’ll be able to follow the project’s progress over the next four years and discover new ways to engage with our European paintings collection online while the galleries are closed. Be sure to bookmark the page and check in with us every month.


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