When The Metropolitan Museum of Art first opened its doors in 1871, visitors could admire 17th-century paintings, Cypriot antiquities, and reproductions of European pieces galore. (The first trustees believed in the educational value of such facsimiles, while fearing they could never afford to acquire a collection of original works that could compete with great European institutions. Little did they know.) What visitors would not see: contemporary artworks, including any by the innovative French painters then taking the Paris art world by storm.
Yet the Museum grew quickly in scope and ambition. In 1889, dealer and collector Erwin Davis donated two paintings by Edouard Manet to The Met—almost certainly the first works by an Impressionist to enter an American museum, and the first works by Manet to enter any museum collection. Young Lady in 1866 and Boy with a Sword exemplify Manet’s fresh and direct approach to painting, even as both pay homage to predecessor painters such as Velázquez and David. (Fun fact: Young Lady depicts the model Victorine Meurent, indelibly familiar from her appearances in Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia.)
The 1907 acquisition of Renoir’s majestic Madame Charpentier and Her Children announced the Museum’s commitment to collecting Impressionist art. Yet it was the extraordinary gift of one major Met patron that turned the Museum into a repository of late-19th-century French painting to rival any collection in Europe.
Louisine Havemeyer was a collector of unusually refined taste and forward thinking. With her husband H.O. Havemeyer, a sugar magnate, she amassed a collection that ranged from paintings by Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, and Bronzino, to superb American furniture, to Japanese lacquers and more. Under the guidance of Mary Cassatt during her trips to Paris, she acquired major works by Degas, Manet, Cézanne, and other leading contemporary painters of the day. When most of the Havemeyer collection entered The Met following Louisine’s death, in 1929, the gift catalyzed the growth of one of the most extensive assortment of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings found anywhere.
As the 20th century progressed, gifts from such collectors William Church Osborn, Samuel and Margaret Lewisohn, and Stephen C. Clark further enriched these galleries—while the collection of Robert Lehman, with splendid works by Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and other Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, went on display in a wing of its own.
The most transformative addition to these holdings since the 1929 Havemeyer bequest, the Annenberg gift further deepened The Met’s account of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Publishing mogul and former ambassador Walter H. Annenberg and his wife Leonore had built a famous collection of works—by Picasso, Cézanne, and just about every other famous French artist of the late 19th and early 20th century—and their decision to leave these peerless holdings to The Met made the front page of The New York Times in 1991. On loan to the Museum for six months of every year following that announcement, the paintings and drawings entered the Museum’s collection for good in 2002, following Walter’s passing.
The Met’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries are today a magnet for visitors, as well as a rich starting point for major exhibitions that have explored new facets of these familiar works. They remain a source of fascination for The Met Store, as well, which offers a variety of gifts inspired by these beloved paintings.