Born to a French aristocratic family, de Montebello immigrated to the United States of America in the 1950s, and became a naturalized citizen of the US in 1955. He was educated in New York City at the Lycée Français, graduated from Harvard University with a degree in art history, and earned an MA from New York University, after which he embarked on a career in Fine Arts. He became the Director of the Metropolitan Museum in 1977 and has become widely known as the public face of the museum.
He announced his retirement on 8 January 2008, stating that he intended to step down by the end of 2008 after more than 31 years at his post.
Born Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello in Paris in 1936 to a family descended from the Napoleonic aristocracy, de Montebello was the second of four sons. His father, Count André Roger Lannes de Montebello (Biarritz, July 6, 1908 - New York City, December 2, 1986), was a portrait painter, art critic, and a member of the French Resistance during World War II. His mother, Germaine Wiener de Croisset (born in Paris, October 26, 1913 and married in Paris, November 30, 1933), was a descendant of the Marquis de Sade, a daughter of the playwright Francis de Croisset, and a half-sister of the arts patron Marie-Laure de Noailles. One of de Montebello's great-great-great-grandfathers was Jean Lannes, Duke of Montebello and Marshal of France.
Both parents were involved in a project to develop a form of three-dimensional photography, and it was in search of venture capital for this enterprise that the family came to New York in 1951. Whereas his brothers would all eventually return to France to take up jobs in banking, Philippe stayed in the United States and became an American citizen in 1955.
De Montebello was educated at the Lycée Français in New York, where he received his baccalauréat in 1958. He then went on to study art history at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude, before continuing his studies at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts under Charles Sterling, an expert in French Renaissance art.
In 1963, he began work for the Met as a curatorial assistant in the Department of European Paintings, rising to full curator. He then spent four-and-a-half-years (1969–1974) as Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, returning to the Met as vice director for curatorial and educational affairs. He became director in 1977.
On June 24, 1961 in New York, he married Edith Myles (born in New York, October 20, 1939), who is the financial-aid director of the Trinity School in New York City. They have three children: Count Marc André Marie (born in New York, October 11, 1964), married civilly at Choiseul and religiously at Marnes La Coquette, November 28, 1986 and divorced Laure Marie Dauphine de Sabran-Pontèves (born at Neuilly, February 26, 1966), by whom he had a son Alexandre (born in New York, May 9, 1987); Laure (born in New York City, May 5, 1968) married to Robert Bernstein, M.D., with two children, Claire and Maximilian (Max); and Charles (born in Houston, Texas, January 16, 1971), married to Raasa Leela Shields (born in Richmond, Virginia) with two children, Kivlighan Finch and Everest Leo Myles.
Under his directorship the Metropolitan Museum has nearly doubled in size to two million square feet. Notable changes have included the opening of the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court in 1990, new galleries for Greek & Roman art, the recently opened 25,000-square-foot (2,300 m2) Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education, the remodeled 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 reopened its expanded galleries for 19th- and early 20th-century European paintings and decorative arts, formerly Modernist, in a historicizing Beaux-Arts style, and a new high-ceilinged gallery to show off Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's monumental paintings to their best advantage. Criticism of de Montebello has focused on his alleged conservatism regarding modern and contemporary art: in a 1999 op-ed piece in the New York Times he lauded 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. In the early years of his tenure, the Department of Modern Art was said to lag behind the museum's other departments in its spending power. But in recent years, the Museum has purchased iconic works by Jasper Johns, Damien Hirst, and Robert Rauschenberg, and mounted exhibitions by contemporary artists like Johns, Rauschenberg, Tara Donovan, Sean Scully, and Kara Walker.
Mr. de Montebello's other major building programs have included the expansion and renovation of period rooms and galleries for the decorative arts, the opening of new permanent exhibition galleries for drawings, prints, and photographs (supplemented in 2007 with the new Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography), the conservation and installation of the Gubbio Studiolo, the opening of the Antonio Ratti Textile Conservation Center, the opening of the new Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery for Byzantine art, and the installation of Coptic art in a crypt-like gallery carved out of former storage space beneath the museum's Great Hall staircase.
Under de Montebello's directorship, the Met acquired many major private collections, notably the Jack and Belle Linsky Collection of European Paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts; the Heinz Berggruen collection of works by Paul Klee; the gift of 10 paintings by Clyfford Still by the artist's widow; the Annenberg Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; the Florene Schoenborn collection of 20th-century works; the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of modern paintings; the Gilman Paper Company Collection of 19th-century photographs; the Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection of Abstract Expressionist and other modern works; and most recently, the Diane Arbus archive.
De Montebello also worked to acquire a number of individual masterpieces over the years, including works by Vermeer, Rubens, Guercino, and Nikolaus Gerhaert von Leyden. Among the most celebrated of these acquisitions have been 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' White Flag in 1998, and in 2004 the Madonna and Child by the Renaissance master Duccio di Buoninsegna.
Throughout this period, the Met under de Montebello's leadership mounted some 30 special exhibitions annually, involving not only all the museum's 17 curatorial departments, but also presenting works of art on loan from public and private collections around the world (current shows listed on the museum's website, metmuseum.org). Many of the shows were accompanied by the publication of major catalogues. Under de Montebello, the Met has become the leading art book publisher in the U.S., issuing some 25-30 illustrated volumes each year, most carrying an introduction by the director.
Long the "voice of the Met," de Montebello also narrates the Met's audio guides for both exhibitions and the permanent collection. He lectures on museological matters throughout the world, and has also given public readings of French poetry by Baudelaire, Rimbaud and others at the museum.
On January 8, 2008, he announced his intention to retire by the end of 2008 (Vogel, Carol (2008-01-09). "Director (and Voice) of Met Museum to Retire". New York Times. ). He was succeeded by Thomas Campbell in September 2008.
De Montebello assisted in the formation of the Association of Art Museum Curators in 2001, and later helped forge its policy on spoliated World War II-era art, advocating transparent research into the ownership history of museum collections, and testifying on Capitol Hill. In August 2006 he successfully negotiated the precedent-setting agreement with the Italian government that ended years of disputes regarding the legal ownership of several works in its Greek and Roman collections. Under the terms of the historic pact, Italy provided long-term loans to the Met in exchange for the return of these works.
De Montebello is the first professor to teach the history and culture of museums at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. In addition to being a full-time professor at the IFA, where he discusses topics such as the history of collecting and the progression and modernization of museums, de Montebello also advises NYU on its planned overseas campus and curriculum in Abu Dhabi, scheduled to begin enrolling students in 2010. He began teaching at NYU in January 2009 as well as consulting and lecturing at several museums on the modernization of their collections. In 2012, de Montebello served as the Humanitas Visiting Professor in the History of Art at the University of Cambridge.
De Montebello also serves as co-host of NYC-ARTS, a weekly program highlighting current New York City exhibitions, cultural institutions and profiling relevant contributors to the arts on Thirteen/WNET.
In April, 2015 the Hispanic Society of America announced the appointment of Philippe de Montebello to chair the Society's Board of Overseers and spearhead a major effort to roughly double the museum's size by renovating the now-vacant, adjacent, Beaux Arts, former building of the Museum of the American Indian.
Montebello was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 1991 (he was promoted to the rank of Officier in 2007). His adopted home country followed suit by awarding him the National Medal of Arts in 2002, the National Humanities Medal in 2010, and the Mayor's Arts Award in 2007. De Montebello was also awarded the Order of Isabel la Catolica, Encomienda de Numero; the Spanish Institute Gold Medal Award; Knight Commander, Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great; the 2002 Blerancourt Prize; the 2004 Amigos del Museo del Prado Prize; and in 2007 the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold & Silver Star, from the Government of Japan. In 2017, Montebello received the Edmund Burke Award for Culture and Society, awarded by monthly cultural review The New Criterion. 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. De Montebello is a recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.