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After a four-year fundraising effort, a group of influential businessmen and artists led by diplomat John Jay incorporated the Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 13, 1870. Literally built from nothing, “the Met” has become a 2-million-piece collection that is a must-see for visitors of New York City -- and second only to the Louvre Museum in Paris for the number of annual guests among art museums.
Jay, who grew up in New York City and received his law degree from Columbia College, was living in Paris during the mid-1860s. Convinced the United States suffered from a culture gap without a “national institution and gallery of art,” he discussed the idea with a group of expatriates in the French capital. Through a series of conversations, it became clear America needed a world-class museum to elevate the arts nationwide. Without exposure to paintings and sculpture from the masters, Jay and his friends wondered, how could artists blossom in the rapidly-growing country?
When he returned to the US at the end of his diplomatic mission, Jay immediately connected with some of the most influential leaders in New York City -- captains of industry, collectors, artists and city officials -- in order to secure financial backing for the project. Passionate and persuasive, he sold the necessity of a cultural landmark to a wide range of people, including wealthy philanthropists eager to see the Big Apple gain a reputation beyond its burgeoning trade centers.
Finally, on April 13, 1870, Jay received word from the New York State Legislature that the Metropolitan Museum of Art could be incorporated. Though excited by the prospect of seeing his dream come to fruition, Jay realized there was one major problem: there was nothing to put on display. In mid-November, the Met acquired a Roman sarcophagus. Two years later, when the museum officially opened in the Dodworth Building at 681 Fifth Avenue, Jay had negotiated the addition of 174 paintings from European masters -- Anthony van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin and many others.
Over the next eight years, the Met’s collection grew at breakneck pace. Before long, the museum needed more space to accommodate the various artwork and antiquities donated. In 1873, the Douglas Mansion on West 14th Street became the new location, but this would be a temporary arrangement until the foundation backing the museum could make use of a six-block land grant from the City of New York on Central Park East between 79th and 85th Streets.
Just shy of a decade after the articles of incorporation were approved, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its own building at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, a 100,000-square-foot red brick and stone Victorian edifice roundly criticized by architects for its dated exterior. (Even the Met’s president called the design “a mistake.”)
People still arrived in droves, curious about the growing number of ancient Greek and Roman artifacts on display, not to mention the expanded collection of paintings from Europe and the US. With new gifts arriving annually, the museum first approved additional square footage in 1888. At the turn of the 20th century, the Board of Trustees laid out a plan for a new facade and Great Hall. When construction finished and the remodeled Met opened in December 1902, the Evening Post called the Beaux-Arts structure “one of the finest in the world, and the only public building which approaches in dignity and grandeur the museums of the old world.” At long last, the museum had an exterior befitting its prestige as a world-renowned bastion of culture.
During the course of the 1900s, the Met grew to be a quarter-mile complex with more than 2 million square feet of space. Within its walls, there are some 2,500 European paintings, approximately 26,000 pieces of Egyptian art -- the largest collection outside of Cairo -- and one of the best displays on the evolution of American artworks in a variety of media.
With more than 140 years under its belt, the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows no signs of slowing down. When its most recent renovation was completed in January 2012, there were 20 permanent collections available for the 5.68 million visitors expected in the coming year.
Also On This Day:
1598 - King Henry IV of France issues the Edict of Nantes, allowing freedom of religion to the Huguenots
1743 - Thomas Jefferson, American politician and statesman, is born in Virginia Colony
1829 - Roman Catholics receive the vote in the United Kingdom following the Roman Catholic Relief Act
1919 - British soldiers kill 379 people at the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amristar, India
1960 - The United States launches the world’s first satellite navigation system, Transit 1-B