20 June 2014
Philippe de Montebello: ‘Voice of the Met’
and the descendant of a Comerford poet
I was writing only yesterday about a descendant of the Comerford family of Cork and Co Wexford, Hedwige Marie Renée Lannes de Montebello (1881-1944), who died in a Nazi concentration camp close to the end of World War II. Hedwige was involved in the French resistance. She was captured, and on 7 April 1944, named simply as Hedwig Ax, she was sent on a train from Gare de l’Est in Paris to the transit camp at Neue Bremm in Saarbrücken, Germany. From there, she was transferred to the women’s concentration camp in Ravensbrück, where her unique number was 47135, and she died in Ravensbrück on 19 November 1944.
Her husband, Louis d’Ax de Vaudricourt (1879-1945), of the Château Vaudricourt, was named simply in his deportation papers as Louis Ax, and died in the concentration camp in Dachau in January 1945.
Hedwige’s brother, Count André Roger Lannes de Montebello (1908-1986), was involved in the French resistance during World War II also. I mentioned that he was the father of Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello, who, as plain Philippe de Montebello, was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 2008. But I should have said a little more about Philippe, for he too is an interesting descendant of the Comerford family of Co Wexford and Cork.
One journalist described Philippe de Montebello as “the velvet-voiced, impeccably patrician director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” He is often reminded that he is descended through his father from one of Napoleon’s great generals, Jean Lannes (1769-1809), Duke of Montebello and Marshal of France, and through his mother, Germaine Wiener de Croisset (1913-1975) he is a descendant of the Marquis de Sade.
Other relatives are thought to have been models for characters in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). Members of his family include Marie Anatole Louise Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe (1860-1952), who served as the model for Proust’s character, the Duchesse de Guermantes, and the man who was the inspiration for the Jewish playwright Albert Bloch.
However, Philippe de Montebello is also a direct descendant of the Comerford family of Co Wexford and Cork. His grandfather, Baron René Lannes de Montebello (1845-1925) was the grandson of Mary Teresa Comerford (1776-1840), the Cork-born poet and travel writer who moved to London and married Thomas Boddington. Mary Teresa’s father, Patrick Comerford (d. 1796) was a freeman of Cork and a wine merchant, and she was also related to the Hennessy family of Cognac fame.
Philippe de Montebello was born Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello in Paris on 16 May 1936, the second of four sons. His father, Count André Roger Lannes de Montebello, was born in Biarritz on 6 July 1908 and died in New York on 2 December 1986. His mother, Germaine Wiener de Croisset, was born in Paris on 26 October 1913 and died in Brookline, Norfolk, Massachusetts, on 31 July 1975. She was the daughter of the playwright Francis de Croisset, and a half-sister of the arts patron Marie-Laure de Noailles.
André Roger Lannes de Montebello was a portrait painter and art critic. Like his sister, Hedwige, who died in Ravensbrück, he was also a member of the French Resistance during World War II, when the family lived in Grasse. Germaine Wiener de Croisset was a daughter of the French playwright Francis de Croisset, and a half-sister of the arts patron Marie-Laure de Noailles. The couple married in Paris on 30 November 1933.
As a boy, Philippe’s aunt, the Surrealism patron Marie-Laures Noailles (1902-1970), introduced him to Picasso.
André and Germaine were involved in a project to develop a form of three-dimensional photography, and in their search for venture capital for this enterprise they moved with their family to New York in 1951, when Philippe was age 14, and in New York he went to school at the Lycée Français de New York (LFNY).
Although his brothers would all eventually return to France to take up jobs in banking, Philippe stayed in the US. He became a naturalised US citizen in 1955 and entered the US army (1956-1958), becoming a second lieutenant.
In 1958, he began studying art history at Harvard University, and he graduated magna cum laude in 1961, with a thesis on Delacroix for his BA. He married Edith Bradford Myles that same year and began graduate studies at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1961 on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship where he focused on French painting under Charles Sterling, an expert in French Renaissance art.
In 1963, before completing any degree, he was interviewed for a curatorial assistant position with Theodore “Ted” Rousseau in the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Rousseau hired him immediately as a curatorial assistant at “the Met” and he eventually became a full curator.
So began a career at the Met that engaged his entire professional life, apart from a 4½-year period (1969-1974) as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.
From 1969, he called himself by his second name Philippe rather than his first name Guy. He returned to New York in 1974, as vice director for curatorial and educational affairs at the Met. He completed his MA from NYU in 1976, and was appointed director of the Met in 1977. He soon became the public face of the museum, and was known widely as the “Voice of the Met.”
Under his directorship, the Metropolitan Museum almost doubled in size to two million square feet. Notable changes included the opening of the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court (1990), new galleries for Greek and Roman art, the Ruth and Harold D Uris Center for Education, remodelled and reinstalled galleries for Oceanic and Native North American art, and expanded galleries for Chinese, Cypriot, Ancient Near Eastern, and Korean art.
In 2007, the Metropolitan re-opened its expanded galleries for 19th- and early 20th-century century European paintings and decorative arts, formerly Modernist, in a Beaux-Arts style, and a new high-ceiling gallery to display Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s paintings to their best advantage.
Under his directorship, the Met acquired many major private collections and individual masterpieces, including Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman, Caravaggio’s The Denial of Saint Peter, and works by Rubens, Guercino, and Nikolaus Gerhaert von Leyden. Among his other celebrated acquisitions are the 11th-century gilt-bronze Cambodian deified king known as the “Golden Boy” (in 1988); Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Cypresses (in 1993), Jasper Johns’s White Flag (in 1998), and the Madonna and Child by the Renaissance master Duccio di Buoninsegna (in 2004).
At times, Philippe de Montebello was criticised for his alleged conservatism when it comes to modern and contemporary art. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times in 1999, he praised the city’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, for rubbishing Chris Ofili’s infamous painting Holy Virgin Mary, which used elephant dung as one of its materials.
On the other hand, in his time the Met acquired iconic works by Jasper Johns, Damien Hirst, and Robert Rauschenberg, and mounted exhibitions by contemporary artists such as Johns, Rauschenberg, Tara Donovan, Sean Scully, and Kara Walker.
He was at the centre of an international scandal surrounding looted antiquities, finally reaching a precedent-setting agreement with the Italian government in August 2006, to return 21 classical works of questionable provenance – including the Euphronios krater, a 2,500-year-old Greek bowl that was a centrepiece of the Met’s classical collection – to the Italian government in exchange for long-term loans. The agreement brought to an end many years of disputes over the legal ownership of several works in its Greek and Roman collections.
During his time, the Met became the leading art book publisher in the US, issuing up to 30 lavishly illustrated volumes each year, most carrying an introduction by the director. But he was not regarded as a scholar, and he published little outside the introductions to those exhibition catalogues.
He once told an interviewer: “Most people walking into a room of Buddhist art have no clue who is the god or goddess or what is the difference between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. They stand in front of a baroque painting that represents Hercules and his labours, and they barely know what it is. Hercules is a cleaning product, probably, to most of them. With modern and contemporary art, you don’t have to have too much knowledge of mythology or of the Bible or of the Koran or of whatever else, which, frankly, is sad to say.”
He has accepted the label “elitist” but has been quick too to defend his definition of “elite,” saying: “Elite refers to a category of people who have made a conscious decision to improve themselves. We all respect people who do the best they can and who want to lift themselves up, and we tend to not respect people who don’t care. They have a slovenly behaviour, a slovenly mind, so be it. They’ll not make a very great contribution to mankind.”
For him, the very act of stepping inside a museum makes one an elitist because it represents a choice to become educated. When he was addressing a group of summer interns some ago, one asked what the museum was doing to combat elitism. He recalls responding: “Where are your friends? They’re hanging around outside the drugstore in your neighbourhood, wherever that is. You chose to come indoors in the summer and learn about great works of art. That makes you an elitist. You have come to better yourself. That is what elitism is. Do I have to apologise for that?”
He stepped down from the Met in 2008 after more than 31 years at his post. On his retirement, he was both the longest-serving director in the history of the Met, and the longest-serving director of any major art museum in the world. He was succeeded by Thomas Campbell in September 2008.
In January 2009, he was appointed the first Fiske Kimball Professor in the History and Culture of Museums at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. In 2009, he became the first scholar in residence at the Prado Museum in Madrid and he was recently named to the Board of Trustees of the Musée d'Orsay. In 2012-2013, he was the Humanitas Visiting Professor in the History of Art at the University of Cambridge.
Along with his new academic duties, he continues to serve on several non-voting committees at the Met and is on the board of the Prado Museum in Madrid, and recently finished a four-year term on the board at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. With Paula Zahn, he hosts a weekly show on WNET-Channel 13 about the arts in New York.
On 24 June 1961 in New York, Philippe de Montebello married Edith Myles (born in New York, 20 October 1939), financial-aid director of the Trinity School in New York City. They have three children:
1, Count Marc André Marie (born in New York, 11 October 1964), married 28 November 1986 and divorced Laure Marie Dauphine de Sabran-Pontèves (born Neuilly, 26 February 1966). They have a son Alexandre (born New York, 9 May 1987).
2, Laure (born New York, 5 May 1968), married Robert Bernstein, MD; they have two children, Claire and Maximilian (Max).
3, Charles (born Houston, Texas, 16 January 1971), married Raasa Leela Shields (born Richmond, Virginia); they have two children, Kivlighan Finch and Everest Leo Myles.
Among his numerous accolades, Philippe de Montebello is a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1991 and an office (2007), and a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Order of Saint Gregory the Great. In the US, he has been honoured with the National Medal of Arts (2002), the National Humanities Medal (2010), and the Mayor’s Arts Award in 2007. He has also received the Order of Isabel la Catolica, Encomienda de Numero; the Spanish Institute Gold Medal Award; the 2002 Blerancourt Prize; the 2004 Amigos del Museo del Prado Prize; and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, from the Government of Japan (2002). He has received honorary degrees from New York University, Dartmouth College, Lafayette College, Bard College, Iona College, the Savannah College of Art and Design, and his alma mater, Harvard.