More than twenty galleries in the Museum’s East Wing, including period rooms from 18th-century France, Italy and England, were completed redesigned and reinstalled in 2005 and 2006. A key innovation in the new “360-degree view” of the Nelson-Atkins’ European collection is the integration of decorative arts into the gallery display. Silver, furniture and jewelry are featured as well as paintings and sculpture, posing intriguing connections and counterpoints.
Except for a handful of permanently installed stained-glass windows, no work on the first floor of the Nelson-Atkins is located in the same place under the new plan. The transformation of East Wing spaces first installed in the 1930s and ‘40s is the first in 25 years, when the popular Impressionist painting galleries got a colorful makeover. Viewers will experience the Museum more fully as they encounter art in a way that emphasizes the relationships among works of art.
Spacious galleries flanking the Sculpture Hall in former Special Exhibitions space entice visitors with views into an array of smaller galleries on the perimeter of the Nelson-Atkins. From a large Northern Baroque gallery showing Rembrandt, Dutch florals and a French ebony cabinet between two domestic scenes, visitors can proceed directly across the hall or stitch back-and-forth among intimate Baroque and Rococo rooms. A cluster of four galleries in the southeastern corner works together as crosses or diagonals, offering many combinations of possibilities.
The greater space required to display decorative arts also has freed curators to present painting masterworks in different ways. Once restricted to central placement on the wall of a small “cabinet gallery,” Caravaggio’s dramatic St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness now has prominent and uncramped presentation in a new Italian Baroque gallery, surrounded by figural works influenced by the artist baptized Michelangelo Merisi.
Besides new wall colors and textures, the reinstalled European galleries feature new cases, new lighting and, in many rooms, new flooring. Familiar painting masterpieces anchor key points in the floorplan: a portrait of a duchess in rustic dress by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun on view beyond the Atkins Staircase; John Hoppner’s Portrait of Emily St. Clare as a Baccante stationed at the east end of the northeastern hallway; and so on.
Likewise, famous Museum collections including the Burnap Collection of English Pottery have a fresh presentation. Housed in the same space but with new case fabric and lighting, objects are arranged by ceramic type or themes such as animals, politics and an entire wall devoted to the history of drinks from tea to posset, a spiced concoction of hot sweetened milk curdled with wine or ale.
Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, Italian (Lombard), (1571-1610). Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604-1605. Oil on canvas. Purchase: Nelson Trust, 52-25.