It was a tiny room in the middle of the vast museum. An intimate space.
We had already paid obeisance to the Neapolitan Christmas Tree, the eighteenth-century confection that materializes each year in the courtyard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
We had admired the intricate architecture of huts and sheepfolds leading up to the manger, finding ourselves in the swim of holiday museumgoers, amid the echo of chirping camera shutters under the towering ceiling. This was, as usual, an event – for forty years the terra cotta creche figurines have been set up here around the spruce, the gift of one collector, Loretta Hines Howard, who worked on assembling new configurations each year along with her daughter, who since her mother’s death prepares the tree with her own daughter. It’s the world’s most heavenly dollhouse.
Now we were drifting. It was Boxing Day, and I felt I’d been whisked away on vacation to a foreign country, there was so little English being spoken by the crowds all around.
Wandering at the Met without a timetable, without any responsibilities. What will you discover?
This time, a tiny room, one filled with an exhibit devoted to our devotion to our good looks. Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table told the story of how we’ve organized the notion of the toilette over the many thousands of centuries, beginning, long before dressing tables proper, with ancient boxes. One, here, fashioned of terra cotta, one of ivory, one woven of basket reeds.
Most amazing, the Egyptian Middle Kingdom box of cedar and ebony – survived, I guess, in the dryness of the desert – the Cosmetic Box of the Cupbearer Kemeni, embellished by a picture of Kemeni himself presenting ointment to the Pharaoh Amenemhat IV. Twenty thousand years old.
Inside were the cosmetics and salves and balms and oils the king would lavish on himself before heading out into the world to lead his people.
The exhibit featured a faded drawing by Chippendale himself of a Chippendale piece, from when the toilette evolved from a box to a table. Then it evolved again, to a table with a box, preferably a golden, bejeweled necessaire filled with miniature, personal grooming tools.
We saw a young lady, one Mademoisellle Marsollier, holding such a box, getting ready to employ its implements – or perhaps she had just employed them, she looked so freshened up. That she and her mother were draped in fabric has something to do with the fact that the man of the household was an important textile merchant.
Another kind of box entirely, a wig cabinet from 1685, had been crafted of oak, walnut, ebony, pewter, mother of pearl, horn, paint, and silver, with parts simulated to resemble tortoiseshell.
A gentleman would stash his brushes, combs, perfumed powder and pins inside. Other containers, works of art in themselves, held makeup – a lot of thought went into the packaging of kohl, which diluted with water was also used as a bug repellent.
What I felt most drawn to were the mirrors. The idea that we were looking into a mirror looked into by so many other faces over the centuries.
Historic personages, like Madame de Pompadour, presiding over her deluxe expandable vanity. Madame de Pompadour’s servants, looking over her shoulders as they styled her fantastic locks. Or mirrored furniture that is really sculpture, designed by artists such as Armand-Albert Rateau in 1925.
Or Duncan Phyfe at the turn of the nineteenth century. Even the names of the woods he used are beautiful: satinwood, kingwood, mahogany, yellow poplar.
Or representing all of modernity, with the mirror tucked away neatly inside, like Raymond Lowey did it in 1969.
But the more discreet hand mirrors impressed me more. Ancient, carved, heavy. Before silvered glass, mirrors were made of polished bronze, silver and iron. The one displayed from twelfth-century China could double as a serious doorstop.
I’ve always found it magical, the idea of life before mirrors as we know them now. Peering into a pool of water and seeing a rippling reflection, like Narcissus. Gazing into the eyes of Cupbearer Kemeni to powder your nose. The surfaces of hanging mirrors that have crackled are beautiful to me. As is the idea of having nothing to see of yourself but a faint, soft-focus, burnished image in metal. When I was growing up, my family had an ancient hand mirror in the house, a 300 year old Japanese work of art, bronze with a bamboo-bound handle.
You could see your image exactly as you wished to appear. There was a lot of that in a tiny room yesterday in a vast museum.