Princeton University Art Museum Review (the old building)

Update 1/11/2021: Late last year, Princeton University unveiled plans for a completely new museum building. It looks like it’s going to be awesome! The museum has been closed since the spring of 2020, and it won’t reopen again until the new building is complete. I don’t know if Princeton has plans to display any of the collection elsewhere in the meantime. I look forward to reviewing the new experience in a few years’ time. I guess this review of the old building, which is going to be completely demolished, is just a fun throwback now, though it will give you an idea of the museum’s collection.

A gallery at the Princeton University Art Museum
The gallery containing medieval, Byzantine, and Islamic art at the Princeton University Art Museum. This was one of my favorite galleries. There are actual medieval stained glass pieces mounted in those pointed-arch windows. All photos in this post are by A Scholarly Skater.

Hi there everyone! I hope all of my American readers had a nice Thanksgiving. While lots of people hit the malls on Black Friday, I decided to go someplace with a lower risk of getting trampled by crowds – the Princeton University Art Museum. This museum has been on my list for some time. I had high expectations, and I wasn’t the least bit disappointed.

Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue by Childe Hassam
Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue, Childe Hassam, 1916.

Here is what I liked about the museum

  •  The museum is very manageable in size. I saw the entire place (minus special exhibitions) comfortably in about two hours.
  • It’s possible to get a broad sampling of world art history in a short period of time. The permanent collection is wide, but narrow. Almost every major geographic area and time period is represented, but only by a few pieces each. Beginning museum visitors will see enough to help them determine what areas they want to see more of elsewhere.
  • The collection is very high in quality. I’m not sure I would go so far as to call it uniformly world class – though some pieces are – but there isn’t a bad work of art in the place.
  • The wall texts are well-written and informative.
  • It’s always free to visit, and it’s wheelchair accessible.
  • At least in my experience, it isn’t very crowded, so it was easy to look at the art up close and for extended periods of time. Only a few times did I have to share my viewing space with someone else. Therefore, this is a good museum to practice your looking skills.
staircase grotesque
This fierce little creature is part of a 16th-century Spanish stone stairway in the museum’s collections. Thanks to some modern treads, you can actually walk up and down the staircase!

In my opinion, the collection is strongest in Renaissance, Baroque, and Impressionist paintings. Highlights (at least for me) include two paintings by Angelica Kauffmann, two or three Monets, two Cezannes, and John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. Henry G. (Elizabeth Allen) Marquand. I was also impressed by the ancient Mesoamerican holdings, since that’s not a big collecting area for many museums. The American wing is only one room plus a few paintings shown elsewhere, but all the works are by significant artists. Childe Hassam’s Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue, a George Inness, a female portrait by Robert Henri, and several Hudson River School paintings were my favorites here.

Elizabeth Allen Marquand by John Singer Sargent
Elizabeth Allen Marquand by John Singer Sargent, 1887. Apparently, Mrs. Marquand’s son was the museum’s first director.

I picked up a pamphlet called “The Director’s Dozen: A Self-Guided Tour”. The objects featured are great, but the director and I have exactly zero favorites in common.

The Princeton Vase
The Princeton Vase, a Mayan “Codex style” vase dating approximately 650-750 AD.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you visit

  • The museum map is not great. It shows where all the different departments are but gives no indication of the layout within each department. It also makes it look like there are two levels, while there are actually more like three. The map isn’t impossible to figure out, but it doesn’t help all that much, either.
  • Parking can be a problem. According to the website, museum visitors cannot park anywhere on the university’s campus. However, there’s at least one visitor lot on the campus map, so I don’t know that the deal is with that. I parked on Nassau Street, which is just outside of the campus gates; it was probably a shorter walk from there to the museum than it would have been from the parking lots, anyway. I would suggest setting your GPS for the Panera Bread on Nassau Street and then parking as close to it as possible. If you cross the street near Panera and then basically walk straight, you’ll find the museum in no time. I also suggest printing out a campus map to help you find your way back.
  • You both enter and exit through the gift shop. Even if you don’t see anything you want to buy (I didn’t!), consider leaving a dollar or two in the donation bin in the center of the gift shop.
  • For more information and to plan your visit, click here.
Princeton Museum stained glass
Take a moment during your visit to enjoy the beautiful stained glass installation outside the museum. It’s called “(Any) Body Oddly Propped” by Doug and Mike Starn, 2015.

The Verdict

If you can find a place to park, you can spend a few relaxing hours enjoying high-quality art for free and without tons of people around. No matter what your artistic preferences are, you will probably find a few things to appreciate. If you’re a beginner, this is a great place to practice your museum-visiting and close-looking skills as well as to determine what sort of art you’d like to see more of. If you’re an experienced art lover, you will enjoy a light afternoon of quality artwork without endless walking or tons of tourists. Highly recommended and highly recommended for beginners.

Chinese tomb figures
A group of early-6th century Chinese tomb figures.

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