Ariella Budick on New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art

This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to New York

The Met is the world’s greatest museum — prove me wrong! — and each visit makes the place seem vaster, deeper and more bounteous. Picking 10 of its 1.5 million pieces is like choosing your favourite ripples in the ocean. The museum may seem immutable in its loyalty to the past, but it is always tinkering, eking more gallery space out of its footprint, balancing history with the need to serve ever-refreshing crowds. (Right now, the galleries devoted to the Ancient Near East, Africa, Oceania and the pre-Columbian Americas are closed for refurbishment.)

Map showing the locations of highlighted works in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art

This, then, is a highly personal, maybe even eccentric list of masterworks that omits the usual greatest hits. If there’s a thread that links the choices, it’s the sense of past and present merging into a sudden, immediate relationship with a work of art. The museum becomes a magical landscape in which people don’t get older, cities don’t dim, civilisations don’t end and humans can connect across the ages. 

1. Portrait of a Young Woman in Red, cAD90-120, Egyptian, Roman period (Gallery 137)

Portrait of a Young Woman in Red, Egyptian, Roman period, cAD90–120
Portrait of a Young Woman in Red, cAD90–120, Egyptian, Roman period, © Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mummy portraits allowed the dead to enter the afterlife looking well rested and aglow. This 2,000-year-old, forever-young woman peers out into our time with a level gaze and a lively vibe. The gulf between her age and ours is easy to bridge, thanks to those large, attentive eyes. You might glimpse her sipping matcha latte at a sidewalk café or coolly taking in a fashion show. Maybe that sense of urbanity comes from the fact that her portrait is a magical hybrid, at once Roman and Egyptian, encapsulating the kismet of ancient cosmopolitanism. 

2. Marble Statue of a Lion, c400–390BC, Greek (Gallery 156)

The Met’s 2,400-year-old Greek statue of a lion
The Met’s 2,400-year-old Greek statue of a lion © Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This large and fearsome cat greets us with a snarl and a show of teeth so vivid you can practically smell its meaty breath. The 2,400-year-old beast’s creator had probably never seen the real thing — lions had long been extinct in mainland Greece — but he had no trouble capturing the sinew and tensile skin, the feline playfulness and menace.

3. ‘The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise’, c1400-1482, by Giovanni di Paolo (Gallery 956)

The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise’, ca. 1400-1482, by Giovanni di Paolo: God in the sky rolls a rainbow-hued sphere with rocks depicted in its centre towards Adam and Eve as they are evicted from Eden
‘Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo’s depiction of God banishing Adam and Eve from Eden is ‘a double whammy of splendour and loss both thrilling and tragic’ © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Artv

Back beyond the Medieval Art galleries, through double doors and around a wall, lies the Lehman Collection, a semi-secret oasis that mimics the opulence of a banking magnate’s lair. This hidden museum within a museum was built to house the bequest of Robert Lehman, which included one of the greatest assemblies of 15th-century Sienese paintings. In the most theatrically radiant of these wooden panels, God rolls a rainbow-hued doughnut with our rocky planet in the centre, and Adam and Eve get evicted from their aureate orchards bejewelled in lilies, carnations, and roses. The double whammy of splendour and loss is both thrilling and tragic.

4. Studiolo from the Palace of Duke Federico da Montefeltro at Gubbio, c1477-82, Italian (Gallery 501)

A wood-panelled studio from an Umbrian ducal palace featuring trompe l’oeil depictions of slatted book cupboards with open doors
A trompe l’oeil studio from an Umbrian ducal palace is among the Met’s Renaissance masterpieces © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the museum equivalent of a speakeasy: you have to know it’s there to find it. Pried from a ducal palace in the Umbrian hilltop town of Gubbio, this exquisite wood-panelled chamber served as a private retreat for Federico da Montefeltro. It resembles the contents of a brilliant but scattered brain: volumes tumble from open cabinets, scientific instruments tilt off shelves and fiddles lean haphazardly. Except it’s all an illusion, an astounding feat of inlay and carpentry, courtesy of Florentine master craftsmen. Only two of the original five studioli (little studios) survive — the other is in Federico’s original palace in Urbino — so this corner of the Met offers a rare chance to experience a room that stimulates the mind but banishes distractions.

5. ‘Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife’, 1788, by Jacques-Louis David (Gallery 633)

‘Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife’, 1788, by Jacques-Louis David: a couple in late-18th-century upper-class clothing, with a bewigged man sitting at a red-velvet-covered table with a quill and paper, looking up at his wife standing beside him, who is gazing towards the viewer
One of the subjects of this portrait, chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, was executed during the French Revolution © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph: Trujillo Juan

In a poignant double portrait, painted by an already radicalised artist in the year before the French Revolution, we get a surprisingly tender view of two stalwarts of the old regime. The couple, both chemists, worked as a team, and David recognised the intimacy of a close, 24-hour-a-day partnership devoted to science and the public good. Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier fixes the viewer with dark eyes and rests a hand gently on her husband’s shoulder; he gazes at her with affection emulsified with respect. At the base of the double diagonal delineated by his stockinged leg and a fold in the velvet tablecloth, David painted an astonishing still life: a round-bottom flask, like a giant bubble, catching the reflection of her gossamer dress. The painting is suffused with sympathy, love, and accomplishment, but none of that counted for much during the Terror. Six years after sitting for this portrait, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was guillotined.

6. ‘The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog’, c1884-89, by Thomas Eakins (Gallery 773)

‘The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog’, 1884-89, by Thomas Eakins: a woman in a pale blue dress sitting on a chair with a book in her lap, looking towards the viewer. A dog is lying by the chair
Thomas Eakins painted this portrait of his wife shortly after being sacked by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

My eye lands first on the red socks, slides to the light glinting off a black slipper, then to Harry the dog’s dark nose haloed by white fur, up to Susan Eakins’ delicate white hands resting in her lap and finally to her thin, tired face. Head bent slightly forward, illuminated from above, she returns her husband’s glance, and probably some of his unhappiness. Eakins had just been dismissed from his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for removing the loincloth of a male model in a co-ed class. In the wake of that career disaster, he stayed home and conjured one of the great double portraits, rich with tenderness, trust and consolation. 

7. ‘Fur Traders Descending the Missouri’, 1845, by George Caleb Bingham (Gallery 758)

‘Fur Traders Descending the Missouri’, 1845, by George Caleb Bingham: an older and younger man on a canoe with a black cat-like figure on the prow, on a  stretch of golden water with trees in the background and a luminous sky
George Caleb Bingham’s ‘frontier fantasy’ is an idealised take on mid-19th-century life on the Missouri © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Missouri-bred Bingham packed this golden scene with the kind of frontier fantasy that easterners lapped up — and we still do. The silently meandering river mirroring a luminous sky, the lavish generosity of the wilderness, the harmonious coexistence of races (Bingham originally titled this painting “French Trader and Half-Breed Son”) and close contact with other species (that could be a cat or a bear cub on the canoe’s prow) —who wouldn’t want to believe in all that? In the real-life version of the mid 19th century, steamships noisily plied the Missouri, carrying machinery, grain, cattle and other necessities of modern life; beavers and otters were on their way to extinction; and race relations were brutal and about to become cataclysmic. As reporting, this picture fails, but it as a statement of timeless aspirations, it’s sublime.

8. ‘The Artist’s Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse’, 1851, by Adolph Menzel (Gallery 807)

‘The Artist’s Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse’, 1851, by Adolph Menzel: a shadowed, dappled mid-19th-century German living room with long red curtains drawn
‘A place of contemplative withdrawal’: Adolph Menzel’s painting of his room in mid-19th-century Berlin © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This modest little portrait of absence might be my favourite object in the Met. We meet the artist through the warmly shadowed space he inhabits and pick up the traces of his contentment. I want to join him in that dappled interior, the outdoors’ brightness sneaking past the drawn curtains, leaving glossy streaks on the wooden floor. Like the Gubbio Studiolo, this is a place of contemplative withdrawal, made still more inviting by the knowledge that Berlin’s din and sparkle awaits outside. 

9. Arhat (Luohan), c1000, China (Gallery 208)

Life-sized ceramic of a c1000 Chinese religious figure sitting cross-legged on a plinth, wearing a green and orange robe
This life-sized ceramic of a c1000 Chinese religious figure could today be ‘a regular guy on the subway, exhausted after a long day squinting at spreadsheets’ © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

More than 1,000 years ago, an old man sat for an unflattering but dazzlingly real, life-sized portrait in ceramic. His skin sags; veins bulge on his bony hands. Lines and wrinkles score his face. In 10th-century China, an arhat, or luohan, was a person who had achieved an advanced state of spiritual evolution, someone worthy of veneration. Today he looks like a regular guy on the subway, exhausted after a long day squinting at spreadsheets, made immortal by an artist’s enlightened eye. 

10. Damascus Room, 1707 (Gallery 461)

A winter reception chamber from a wealthy Damascene home in the early 18th century, with ornate tiled flooring and dark-wood-panelled walls
A reception chamber from an early-18th- century Damascene house in the Met © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The chamber’s ornate wooden ceiling photographed from below, with strips of stained glass in the walls surrounding it
The chamber’s ornate wooden ceiling © Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Follow the sound of trickling water, and you reach the marble fountain that sits in one the Met’s secluded treasures: an interior constructed in the 18th century, when Damascus was a cosmopolitan station along the pilgrimage route to Mecca. Period rooms invite domestic fantasy and nostalgia for lives we know little about. If you were lucky to be a guest in this Ottoman-era household, you’d leave your shoes in the small antechamber before stepping into an elaborately wood-panelled salon with an even more ornate wooden ceiling. Getting properly into the spirit would require Turkish coffee, a hookah and a dish of dates. In their absence, we have the invigorating power of imagination.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10028. Open Sunday–Thursday, 10am–5pm; Friday–Saturday, 10am–9pm. Website; Directions

What are your favourite pieces and galleries in the Met? Tell us in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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