It’s no secret, of course, that museums carefully regulate their temperatures to protect their treasures. This climate control makes museums an excellent option for escaping New York City’s heat and humidity. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can get even cooler by seeking out its bluest, chilliest paintings. By Jessica Allen.
Although the sun is shining, the movement of the wind rustles the wheat, the cypresses, and even the clouds in the sky. Vincent van Gogh painted this landscape in the last year of his life, using a technique known as “impasto,” in which the paint is thickly applied. The resulting great gobs give “Wheat Field with Cypresses” (1889) a distinct texture, like concrete that’s been torn up and allowed to harden. This three-dimensionality is a further element of its pleasure. The paint looks frigid to the touch.
Painted about the same time as van Gogh’s “Wheat Field,” Claude Monet’s “The Four Trees” (1891) relies on a very different technique. Whereas van Gogh gobbed the paint onto the canvas, Monet has more gently daubed on his color, like his fellow Impressionists, giving his work an airiness. Here, the heat of the day has passed (or hasn’t yet started) and a serenity has settling over the land. Monet puts us in the middle of a river, with the four trees rising up out of the top of the painting and their reflection extending out of its bottom. Can you feel the water on your toes?
Any warmth coming off the tea in Mary Cassatt’s 1883-85 painting is immediately cooled by the icy stare of the sitter, a Mrs. Robert Moore Riddle. For many years, “Lady at the Tea Table” was kept hidden, because Mrs. Riddle’s daughter thought Cassatt had made her mother’s nose too big. Cassatt started showing the portrait in 1914, and donated it to the Met in 1923. These days, the effect on the viewer is similar to standing in front of an open refrigerator.
“The Blind Man’s Meal” (1903) is the bluest of Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period paintings, executed from 1902 to 1904. Here, Picasso has heightened the light on the man’s ears and hands, emphasizing the way in which his other senses compensate for the lost sight. Evening has come. Sadness radiates from the canvas. Wine and bread may be the stuff of life, but there’s no joy at this meal.
Stand in front of Winslow Homer’s “Cannon Rock” (1895), and you can practically hear the surf breaking. The white-walled gallery slips away until you’re standing on the rocky coast of Maine, salt spray on your face, perhaps about to have a lobster for lunch. Many of the Met’s Homer holdings similarly demonstrate such admiration for nature’s awesome power.
Say what you will about abstract expressionism, but paintings in this genre often do what they’re supposed to do: raise an emotion in the viewer. Mark Rothko’s “No. 16” (1960) just about mimics the light coming in through shut shades, when you find respite from afternoon heat through sleep. The angry red bleeds into the more soothing brown, and together they result in an almost copper color. By then, however, you’re far away, floating into the bluish-purple ether of a siesta, where no heat can touch you.