In his job, Keith Christiansen comes face to face with some of the most magnificent art in the world. A staff member at the Met for the past 33 years, Christiansen, as the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman, oversees the Metropolitan Museum's world-renowned collection of Old Master European paintings. This gives him a full palette of job duties–from examining paintings with infrared equipment, to matching a masterpiece to a period frame, to installing exhibitions at the Met using art from around the world, and more.
Christiansen's detailed grasp of art history is essential in curating a show, but so is a certain pragmatism. "Exhibitions take place in a negotiable realm between the ideal and the practical," he says. "You get in your mind the works of art you need to carry out your concept, and then the negotiating and bartering begins: You learn that a work that would perfectly exemplify a certain period or style is never put on loan, that another has all the right components but is in terrible condition, and yet another belongs to a museum that is already lending you two paintings and won't be thrilled about making a third loan."
Christiansen not only decides what the public will see, but also what the museum will buy– heart-pounding decisions that can carry price tags into the millions. "If you're laying down $2-5 million on an acquisition, it's vital to have a clean, unbiased reaction to the piece," he says. "We all have these ingrained responses that, when you're making this kind of a purchase, you can't afford to follow uncritically. You have to stretch your expectations and ask, 'What am I looking at? How does this compare to works from a similar period? What will it add to the collection? Does it represent a historically pivotal moment?' You have to be absolutely certain– intellectually and intuitively."
In his years at the Metropolitan, Mr. Christiansen has coordinated a long roster of renowned exhibitions, including: The Age of Caravaggio (1985), The Age of Correggio and the Carracci(1986-87), Caravaggio's Cardsharps Rediscovered (1987), Andrea Mantegna's Descent into Limbo (1988), Painting in Renaissance Siena: 1420-1500 (1988-89), A Caravaggio Rediscovered: The Lute Player (1990), Andrea Mantegna (1992), Jusepe de Ribera (1992),Giambattista Tiepolo (1996-97), From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1998-99), Donato Creti: Melancholy and Perfection(1998), Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi (2001-2002), El Greco (2003-2004), From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master(2005), Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece (2006), Poussin and Nature(2008), and Michelangelo's First Painting (2009).
He has been behind the acquisition of numerous paintings that have greatly enhanced the collection. Among these are important works by Duccio, Pietro Lorenzetti, Romanino, the Carracci, Caravaggio, Domenichino, Valentin de Boulogne, Corrado Giaquinto, Philippe de Champagne, and Pierre Subleyras.
He is also a prolific writer who has authored numerous books, exhibition catalogues, articles, essays, and reviews.