The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a veritable universe of treasures, from tiny golden pins to an entire Egyptian temple. But the heart of its collection remains the Old Master paintings located in the 32 rooms at the top of the Grand Staircase. Spanning five centuries of European art history, roughly 1300 to 1800, they represent the years leading up to the Renaissance, the great flowering itself and its aftermath, when artists had to contend with a legacy that included pictorial perspective and the naturalistic depiction of the human figure. It was a template that remained unchallenged until the advent of modern art. These works still have a lot to say to contemporary viewers, about the human condition and the meaning of art. With that in mind, here's our countdown of the top 20 Old Master paintings currently on view at the Met.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Triumph of Marius (1729)
What better way to kick off our countdown than with one of the paintings that greet visitors as they enter the Old Master galleries, just under the lintel inscribed painting? This tall, vertical composition, along with two squarer examples owned by the Met, was originally part of an enormous cycle of ten, created to decorate the grand reception room of the Palazzo Dolfin in Venice. Each depicted a moment in antiquity, and here we see the victory of Roman general Gaius Marius (shown in the back of his chariot) over the African king Jugurtha (seen center left, in chains). Tiepolo masterfully squeezes a lot of narrative into a constrained format. And while the painting seems unabashed in its triumphalism, it does appear to side with the underdog, portraying Jugurtha as defeated but unbowed, while Marius's expression is left indistinct. Plus, the triangular play of the primary colors red, yellow and blue in the center offers a startlingly modern formalist touch.
Georges de La Tour, The Fortune Teller (ca. 1630)
In its style and lowlife subject matter, The Fortune Teller is deeply indebted to the work of Caravaggio, but as one of art history's great crowd-pleasers, it's worth including here. A young dandy is having his palm read by the old woman on the right while his pocket is being picked by the comely woman on the left. We can just make out the drawstring of his purse as it's being teased out of his pantaloons by her skillful fingers. To his immediate right, another young woman uses a knife cut off a gold locket or medallion at the end of a ridiculously long chain. (Which practically screams, "Take me!") The second female thief's expression is particularly priceless: a sidelong glance set in an otherwise stoney countenance. She looks like one of those haunted-house portraits in Scooby-Doo, the kind with eyes that follow you. These details add up to spot-on, humorous portrayal of gullibility having an unfortunate encounter with guile.
Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628)
If you need a reminder of your own mortality---and who doesn't now and then?---you couldn't do better than this gem of a memento mori by Claesz, a member of Haarlem, Holland's still-life school. Here, the knocked-over inkstand, the closed book and the burnt-out lamp reinforce the message that, indeed, la commedia e finita. The nicest touch is the glass leaning against the side of the skull; it provides a bravura showcase for the artist's skill at painting reflections, and also a suggestion that the cranium's owner may have been a busybody, eavesdropping on other people's conversations.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Honorable Henry Fane with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair (1761-66)
Fans of Downton Abbey may find something to like in this paean to Britain's landed gentry, though these stately young aristocrats existed numerous generations before the show's early-20th-century milieu. That accounts, no doubt, for their serene air of privilege, unassailed by the same forces of modernity besieging the Earl of Grantham's clan. Reynolds does a bit of discreet envelope-pushing here. Though he was one of 18th-century England's greatest portrait painters, he considered history painting---narrative depictions of classical allegories or other themes---the superior genre. So he's created a group portrait on the scale of a history painting. The composition is not without an intriguing story line, as the two figures on the left throw meaningful glances at the one in the center. What's really going on we'll never know: Unlike Downton Abbey, there is no next episode.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Saint Christopher and the Infant Christ (1472-75)
This work is the only example in the Met's collection of an Italian Renaissance fresco, a method in which pigments mixed with water were applied to fresh plaster (in Italian, fresco) that hadn't completely dried. Masonry walls were the usual support, making this piece---which was once part of a Florentine chapel, though which one, exactly, is not known---all the more remarkable. Plaster dries completely in one day, so a fresco this size had to be done in sections. Technique alone, however, doesn't account for its appeal. Rather, it's the vivid color of the patron saint of travelers confidently striding across a river with the infant Christ on his shoulder, who is seen carrying the orbis mundi. St. Christopher hikes up his tunic, the better to show off the artist's command of classical anatomy, while shooting his passenger a look that appears to say, "Don't worry, I've got your back." The baby Jesus's expression, meanwhile, seems to reply, "That's cool, I'm just chilling, holding up the world."
Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family (1532)
One of the masters of the Northern Renaissance and perhaps the greatest portraitist of the 16th century, Holbein was born in Germany. A printmaker as well as a painter, he was acquainted with the great humanist and freethinker Erasmus. Holbein is probably best known for the work he executed in England for the court of Henry VIII, and also clients like the one here, a German merchant based in London. The tightly rendered strokes and adamantine color used to depict him are typical for Holbein, and his fine applications of paint as well as the small scale (it measures roughly 17 x 13 inches) give the piece the reverential feel of an icon, albeit a secular one. The blue of the background with the gold inscription denoting the year and age of the sitter (29), and the green of the baize covering the table on which he's placed his arm, have an otherworldly luster. If you look closely enough at his face, your can see that Holbein has painted a light stubble, hair by hair. The small volume on the table is bookmarked with a slip of paper on which is written a line from the Roman writer Terence: "Truth breeds hatred." Though the words might allude to the book's content, its sentiment seems apt for a work whose wondrous verisimilitude must have prompted envy in a few lesser talents.
Frans Hals, Young Man and Woman in an Inn ("Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart") (1623)
Frivolous youth meets fancy brushwork in this genre scene by Hals, the great Dutch limner of the everyday. For a long time, the gemtlich gent in the picture was confused for an actual person, one Pieter Ramp, who appeared in a later group portrait by Hals (hence the secondary title with its anglicized version of the Dutch word for "young gentleman"). As for his sweetheart, it's more likely that she's a prostitute, and that the two are standing in the doorway of a brothel instead of the tavern most people consider the setting for the painting. In any case, both subjects are evidently having a blast, as did Hals himself, perhaps, in creating the moment with his characteristic flurry of color strokes. Speaking of which, the creamy gray expanses defining the young man's coat and hat are nicely offset by the teal in his sleeve and in the feather draping in louche fashion onto the woman's head.
Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man (c.1530)
Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano was nicknamed Bronzino, purportedly because of his dark complexion. True or not, his subject is as smooth, hard and implacable as bronze, even if his skin is the cold, luminous color of porcelain. Both painter and painting were exemplars of Mannerism, the movement that messed with the Renaissance conventions of naturalism and ideal proportion. The impossibly large if delicate hands of the sitter, for instance, are meant as both a joke and a way of echoing the figure's languid pose. He's about as realistic as a male model in a heavily photoshopped fashion spread, but that was the point: Court life in Bronzino's day was a kind of performance art, which required hiding one's true self behind a behavioral mask. This idea is reflected not only in the sitter's indecipherable expression, but also in the surreal facelike flourishes hidden in the furniture and in the fabric of his pantaloons.
Peter Paul Rubens and workshop, Wolf and Fox Hunt (c. 1615-21)
A Flemish master of Baroque coloristic and compositional fireworks, Rubens was also a scholar, art collector and diplomat. These activities helped him secure numerous commissions, but so did betting on the Catholic Church during the Protestant upheaval; he created the greatest altarpieces of the Counter-Reformation. He was the art superstar of his era---Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Damien Hirst rolled into one. He was also a something like a movie director, orchestrating a stunning output of artworks from an atelier swarming with assistants. You might say his mtier was action pictures, though while there are no Transformers in Wolf and Fox Hunt, it's packed with a Michael Bay punch: At 8 x 12 feet, it doesn't just depict beasts, it is one. Scholars argue over what if any part of the painting displays Rubens's own hand. But the design and style is purely his, as is the unerring knowledge of what his customer base wanted: As a celebratory snapshot of the nobility doing what they do best (killing), it's as perfect as it is grand.
Jean-Baptiste-Simon Chardin, Soap Bubbles (c. 1733-34)
Chardin was something of an anomaly among mid-18th-century French artists: He was largely self-taught at a time when academic training was de rigueur, created modest still lifes and domestic scenes when grand history paintings were in demand, and eschewed the florid pirouettes of the period's Rococo for a sober style reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch art. He also worked very slowly, which probably limited his income. For years, he avoided figure studies because he thought he wasn't very good at them; Soap Bubbles, one of his first, proved him wrong. He depicts children at play, a subject he returned to probably because he shared youngsters' wonder at contemplating the world. But their innocent frolic is weighed down by a suggestion of life's transience, found in the eponymous orb trembling at the tip of the boy's pipe. The painting is almost a memento mori, except that instead of a moral lesson, it projects Chardin's hope that art can vanquish time.
Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter (date unknown)
Hell-raiser, murderer, gay icon: Separating fact from legend has long been a problem for Caravaggio's biographers, though there's no doubting the revolutionary nature of his art. He used beggars and prostitutes as models for religious subjects, and recruited beautiful, pouty-lipped rent-boys to fill genre scenes. While this often got him in trouble with Church fathers, they had drafted Caravaggio into their culture war against Protestantism precisely because of his combination of dramatic lighting and radical naturalism. The Denial of Saint Peter, completed near the end of his life, is both Counter-Reformation propaganda and an uncompromising distillation of style. The piece relates the New Testament tale of the apostle's denial of Jesus in a way its original audience could easily relate to. But to modern eyes, it seems almost film noir, with its trio of dimly lit figures in a tightly framed confrontation. While its religious message may have been obscured by the centuries, its buzzing, electrifying theatricality still enthralls.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565)
Bruegel's fanfare for the common man is considered one of the defining works of Western art, but it wasn't always so. Sought out by patrons in his own lifetime, Bruegel emphasized the ordinary in a way that made him seem old-fashioned in the years following his death; his reputation remained in eclipse until 20th-century tastes revived his quotidian subject matter and vast, cinematic vistas. This composition was one of six created on the theme of the seasons. The time is probably early September: A group of peasants on the left cut and bundle ripened wheat, while the ones on the right take their midday meal. They're eating bread and drinking bowls of milk; one guy is sacked out with the top of his pants unbuttoned. This attention to detail continues throughout the painting, a procession of ever-granular observations receding into space. It was extraordinary for a time when landscapes served mostly as backdrops for religious paintings. Instead, Bruegel articulates a humanistic vision in which the ordinary outshines the divine.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Judgment of Paris (c. 1528)
Cranach the Elder---court painter to the Electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, Germany---was an enthusiastic supporter of Martin Luther, but Protestant rectitude did not preclude him from painting female nudes. In fact, he limned nine versions of The Judgment of Paris. The story relates history's first beauty pageant, with a golden apple figuring as the prize contested by Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Asked to be judge, Zeus, knowing a no-win situation when he saw one, dumps the job on Paris, Prince of Troy. The lovelies wind up disrobing for Paris's inspection, and offer bribes. Aphrodite's tender of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, wins out, but it pisses off the Greeks, who launch the Trojan War. In Cranach's rendering, a crystal globe substitutes for the golden apple, while a tree on the left offers a nice compositional counterpoint to the three goddesses clustered on the right. They look so much alike, one can surmise that they're the same model---suggesting that Cranach's naked aim is an examination of female anatomy, front, rear and side.
Velzquez, Juan de Pareja (1650)
Velzquez's portrait of his slave---that's right, he owned the guy---is striking today, not only because it's a rare Old Master depiction of a person of color, but also because of what it suggests about their relationship. De Pareja was of Moorish descent; a trained painter, he was Velzquez's assistant. The steady gaze with which he holds the viewer, and his general comportment---which could almost be called noble---indicates a partnership of equals, though his old patched clothing says otherwise. The painting was done during a two-year sojourn in Italy, begun in 1649. Velzquez, along with De Pareja, traveled there to buy works for King Philip IV of Spain, and also to fulfill a commission to do the likeness of Pope Innocent X in Rome. Both portraits---of the pontiff and the manservant---evince a starker, more incisive approach to the genre on the artist's part, but the image of De Pareja, especially, wowed his Italian hosts. Velzquez hung the work in the Pantheon as part of a prestigious invitational exhibit. He eventually set De Pareja free, though the latter would remain with his former master until the artist's death. That choice only underscores the ambiguity surrounding this painting.
Goya, Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuiga (date unknown)
The work of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, to give his full name, marks the transition from Old Master tradition to the birth of modern art. Beginning in the 1790s, his work shifted from bright, colorful depictions of peasants at play to much darker subjects: lunatic asylums, nightmares and the horrors of war. It's easy to suppose that this stylistic change was prompted by events. Goya became court painter to a Spanish dynasty in deep decline, and watched from afar as the French Revolution unfolded. He personally experienced one result: Napoleon's 1808 invasion of Spain. This image of an aristocratic child was probably painted after the boy's death at age eight in 1792. A postmortem provenance would explain the elegiac tone. Only his finery gives us an indication of his status; otherwise, he stands in a shallow space empty of everything except his pets: a cage of finches, a magpie on a string and a pair of evidently hungry cats. Though his face is wreathed in a penumbra of light, the rest of the composition is plunged into a brown murk that throws his red outfit into sharp relief. In this play of contrasts---light and dark, color and its relative absence, life and death---the painting evokes epochal transformations and Goya's reaction to them.
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787)
This painting is often cited as the opening salvo of the modern era in art; it certainly represents the terminus of the Old Master tradition, and its final condensation as Neoclassicism, of which David was the undisputed master. The Death of Socrates is part of a trilogy that includes Oath of the Horatii (1784) and The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789), all three paeans to republican virtue at a time when France was about to cast off the monarchy and the corruptions of the past. Socrates is the best of the lot, showing the philosopher at the moment he's about to drink hemlock rather than renounce his beliefs. Its flattening of pictorial space and pared-down forms certainly set the dominoes tumbling to the eventual rise of abstract art. But what truly makes Socrates modern is the way in which it links art to ideology. David was a supporter of the French Revolution, including the Terror, and just as quickly switched his allegiance to Napoleon's imperial ambitions as events warranted. But in doing so, he broke art free of having to serve the philosophical needs of institutions, whether that meant the church or the throne. After David, art would serve only the dogma of the artist.
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child (ca. 1300)
The small painting made news in 2004, when the Met bought it for a sum in the $45--$50 million range. But the museum needed a work to serve as the beginning of its story about Western art history, and this devotional piece, created by the founder of the Sienese school of painting, does so magnificently. The Old Master tradition emerged in Italy, which means it sprouted from the soil of Byzantine art, a legacy of the Eastern Roman Empire. And this painting is loaded with Byzantine tropes: the heavily stylized figuration (especially the way the baby Jesus looks more like a balding middle-aged man than a child) and the gold-leaf background symbolizing the sacred, inviolate space of heaven. But what's important are the touches that break with that style, and take the first steps toward the humanistic vision that would define the Renaissance. There is, for one thing, the palpable emotional exchange between mother and child: The tender trading of glances, the infant Christ pushing back Mary's cowl to get a better look at her. Then there is the parapet running along the bottom, rendered in an illusionistic perspective that while crude, still pulls you through the picture plane. This work, then, is no longer an abstract symbol of the divine, but rather an attempt to connect its theme to the real-world experience of the viewer.
El Greco, View of Toledo (date unknown)
Domenikos Theotokopoulos---known more familiarly as El Greco ("The Greek"), a name he picked up after moving to Toledo, Spain, in 1577---was a major influence on 20th-century Cubism and Expressionism. It's plain to see why from this landscape of the city in which he created his greatest works: It looks like it was made in the 1900s, not the 1600s. Actually, its date is a mystery; it was listed on an inventory of works found in his studio after he died in 1614, but that is all that's known. In any case, this brooding depiction captures the city's eastern half as seen from the north, but El Greco takes a number of liberties with both the terrain and the architecture. The cathedral and its spire, center right, couldn't have been seen from this vantage point, so it's placed just to the left of the hulking Alczar, the royal palace. More astonishing is the nearly abstract quality of the composition overall---the furious storm of green, brown and black describing the hills in the foreground, with a similar frenzy of brushstrokes limning the sky. Both are stitched together by the meandering line of buildings. With his suggestion of a divine light breaking through the clouds, El Greco's treatment is a spiritual evocation of Toledo, Spain's religious capital in his day.
Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)
Aristotle with a Bust of Homer is one of the greatest paintings by one the greatest artists in history, and shows the greatest hallmark of his style: the interplay of light and dark (or chiaroscuro, as Italians call it) inherited from Caravaggio through his followers in Holland---a technique that in Rembrandt's hands becomes far subtler. He eschews Caravaggio's harsh and stagy effect for one that makes figures seem as if they are illuminated from within. Then there is Rembrandt's uncanny ability to evoke the innermost thoughts of his subjects through the play of facial expression, or the fall of light across someone's features. These qualities are put in the service of a debate, which the artist may to be having with himself: What has more value, integrity and the life of the mind, or the material rewards of success? The latter is represented by the gold chain with a medallion featuring Aristotle's pupil Alexander the Great. It resembles the kind of awards given as an honorarium by a patron to an artist for services rendered. As for the former, it's symbolized by the bust of Homer on which Homer rests his hand, as if by doing so, he can divine an answer to the question. There is none, for what Rembrandt aims for is a revelation of the human spirit as an incandescent form, alive with the struggles of thought.
Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662)
There can be only one numero uno, and while fans of Rembrandt may argue that he deserves the top slot, Vermeer achieves something astounding here: representing light as something tangible---a medium in which we swim like fish. Many have argued the Vermeer used a camera obscura, and certainly the soft blur he employs foreshadows photorealism. More importantly, each of the elements---the window on the left, the map on the wall, the chair underneath, the table in the foreground and the lady of the house herself---are locked in exquisite equipoise, as are the colors and textures describing them. Within that scheme, the women stands with one hand opening the window, the scene's source of light, and the other hand on the silver pitcher, the item most able to reflect it. She spans the conceptual space between illumination and illuminated, and in that respect, the painting depicts more than just a domestic idyll: It describes a state of grace.