MRC x THE MET by Zoë Zaneteas
Hi all! My name is Zoë Zaneteas, and I’m an art historian currently based at The Met. If I haven’t met you on an MRC ride, you might recognize me as the girl in the polo video who swung and completely missed the ball. Luckily, I’m much more adept around the museum than in the polo arena.
I was walking through our galleries a few months ago and saw an incredible saddle, a 15th-century German piece from the Tyrol that was not only covered in intricate carvings but was also made almost completely out of bone. I was stunned by the craftsmanship and the realization that it would be terribly uncomfortable to ride in, and I immediately wondered what other equestrian pieces we might have in the collection. Once back in my office, I had a look through our database and couldn’t believe how many wonderful objects I’d never come across before, though in all honesty, I hadn’t really thought to look until now. I promptly emailed Melissa and Alana about my discovery, and just like that, the MET x MRC tour was born.
Parade saddle, German or Tyrolean, ca. 1450, one, polychromy, wood, leather, iron alloy, 04.3.250, Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At The Met, I conduct provenance research for the Robert Lehman Collection, which essentially means I investigate the ownership histories of its objects, beginning with the circumstances surrounding an artwork’s creation all the way up to the day it entered the collection. With an extremely varied taste for art by the Old Masters, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Fauves, just to name a few, Robert Lehman amassed what is widely considered the most important private art collection ever held in America, which he then donated to The Met upon his death. However, especially with pieces of Impressionist and Modern art or works by the Old Masters, there is always a concern that during World War II, an object had been unjustly taken from its owner and could thus present the museum with possible legal challenges now or in the future. It’s therefore extremely important that we piece together its path into the collection as thoroughly as we can, both to better understand the life cycle of the object and to make informed choices about its loan and display.
It could be that the object was actively looted by the Nazis, who set up a specific taskforce, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), to systematically plunder all the important Jewish art collections in Europe. The plan was to fill a new Führermuseum, to be built in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria, with the greatest pieces they could find while simultaneously eradicating what they called entartete kunst, or degenerate art, from the Reich. What we now consider some of the most important genres of painting— Surrealism, Dada, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism—all of these were considered depraved and suspiciously ‘Jewish’ and therefore had to be destroyed. In fact, most early supporters of the avant-garde, to which these ‘degenerate’ genres belonged, were themselves Jewish, and many were forced to sell their collections at ridiculously low prices in order to pay the fluchtgut, or flight tax, which would allegedly allow them to flee the country to safety. And while the Nazi regime would not approve of degenerate art remaining within Germany’s borders, they had no qualms about selling to foreign collectors what they had seized for a few Reichsmarks, almost always making enormous profits that still affect the art market today.
If you have a picture in your mind’s eye of me, sitting at a desk covered in documents and files, in a room filled floor to ceiling with dusty books, examining a mark on the back of a painting through a magnifying glass, you’re actually not far off from my usual day to day. But with COVID, as you might expect, there has been extremely limited access to the resources necessary to conduct my work, and it can at times feel frustrating not to make as much progress as I would like. That, coupled with the loss of most of my social life and my inability to find an emotionally mature man under the age of 40 (anyone else?), has really made me think about what makes me happy when I’m by myself. In short: it’s James Norton as Prince Andrei in War and Peace, my cat birdwatching while sitting like a rotisserie chicken, successfully financing my life around my addiction to Diptyque candles, and riding horses (particularly if they are named Winston).
Photo by Devin Jacobs of Sir Winston of Penwick, 1st Baron Sporthorse and rider (me), iPhone 8, 2021.
Growing up in the Midwest, I rode regularly for years, but with two majors in college, a year abroad in London, and then a trip back across the pond for a Master’s, I fell out of it like so many do when life starts to change. That said, discovering MRC, as well as the amazing community of equestrians it’s brought together, was exactly what I needed at a time when the world collectively pressed pause. For better or for worse, I’m now back in my riding boots and spending all my spare time and money in the saddle (minus one or two “unscheduled dismounts” which some of you may have witnessed). From the first ride I joined, MRC became such a wonderful outlet for me during this past year, not only as an escape from the city and excuse to buy more tweed clothing, but also as a way for me to get back in touch with the (dare I say it) ‘horse girl’ I used to be.
Now that the museum is open again, I have that part of my life back, though it is not without a new perspective. After the initial ‘wow’ moment the first time one sees the galleries empty after closing time, it can be easy to start seeing the museum as one’s office, rather than one of the most culturally significant buildings in the world; I personally began to explore the collection less and less as time went on. So, after switching it up and heading to the American Wing for my mid-morning caffeine boost instead of my usual stroll to the coffee cart outside on 5th Avenue (excellent lattes, FYI), I saw the Tyrolean saddle and it all clicked. As New Yorkers, The Met is such an incredible institution that we’re so lucky to have in our backyard, and we often forget it’s there. In terms of encyclopedic museums, I would say only the British Museum and the Louvre have comparable collections, but even then, I would be granting them better selections of 19th and 20th-century art than they actually have (enter, Musée d’Orsay). The Met is truly singular in its geographic breadth and chronology, all under one roof no less, and I’ve tried to reflect that in this tour.
Other than the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas department, which is currently being renovated, I’ve selected pieces from each of our departments that I think are interesting from an equestrian perspective as well as art historically significant (though my shortlist is by no means exhaustive). We’ve got pieces of tack from the ancient world, a phenomenal series of bronze horses by Edgar Degas, one of the only George Stubbs paintings in New York, and even an American foxhunting scene set not far from where we ride today. On the website, I also include general introductions to each department and a quick overview of the pieces chosen, as well as maps of the museum with the relevant galleries marked so you can create an itinerary. I hope you get a chance to visit the museum soon, and if anyone is there on a Friday, feel free to shoot me an email and I’ll come say hi. Finally, if there’s anything else you see and think I should include—please let me know! Happy perusing.
MRC x The Met Guide Links:
Our April 18 MRC group who toured The Met using Zoë's fantastic guide