American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 48

Collectors, Collections,
and Scholarly Culture

by Heil Harris, Moderator

Rare Book Collections in the Age of the Library Without Walls
by Anthony Grafton

The Library and the Scholar: A New Imperative for Partnership
by Deanna Marcum

by Jean Strouse

The session on "Collectors, Collections, and Scholarly Culture" was presented on May 6, 2000, in Washington, DC as part of the ACLS Annual Meeting.

© Jean Strouse

The Collector J. Pierpont Morgan

Jean Strouse
Morgan: American Financier

One day at the end of 1909, Pierpont Morgan came across a receipt for a bust of the infant Hercules by Michelangelo, for which he had paid £10,000 (about $50,000). He sent the bill to his librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, with a note asking where the sculpture was. "This bronze Bust is in your library," she wrote in green ink across the receipt, "and faces you when sitting in your chair. It has been there about a year."

Not surprisingly, the "infant Hercules" turned out not to be by Michelangelo, and is now on display at the Morgan Library as probably seventeenth-century Flemish. That Morgan failed to recognize an object he saw every day had to do with the pace, style, and nature of his collecting. He had a "good eye" and a lifelong, sensuous appreciation of the visual arts, but he was not a scholarly connoisseur who studied and fell in love with each object he acquired. Like Napoleon, who swept through Italy and Egypt taking cartloads of ancient art for France, Morgan set out to acquire as much as he could for America in a relatively short time, often buying entire collections en bloc. He once told a business colleague that his strength lay more in the consolidation of existing projects than in the promotion of new ones—an observation that also held true in the arts.

For the past hundred years there have been wildly conflicting assessments of Morgan's financial career. His admirers called him "the Napoleon of Wall Street," a modern Medici Prince, and the "financial Moses of the New World." On the other hand, critics regarded him as the "boss croupier" of Wall Street, a "great financial Gorgon," and "a bull-necked irascible man" with "fierce intolerant eyes set just close enough to suggest the psychopathology of his will." (That last is a combination of two quotes, from John Dos Passos in the 1930s, and E.L. Doctorow in Ragtime, 1975.)

Morgan's second career as a collector of art gave rise to equally conflicting assessments. For years he kept most of his collections at his house in England, since the US Government imposed a twenty percent tariff on imported works of art. (In 1909, some of Morgan's friends in the Senate sponsored a bill that changed the law.) Bernard Berenson, who toured Morgan's London residence in 1906, described it to Isabella Stewart Gardner as looking like "a pawnbroker's shop for Croesuses."

And Roger Fry, who worked as an assistant curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when Morgan was president of the Museum, said, memorably, that "a crude historical imagination was the only flaw in his otherwise perfect insensibility [to art]." (One problem with that delightful summary judgment is that Fry delivered it years after Morgan died, and said quite the opposite on a trip he took through Umbria with "the great man" in 1907.)

On the positive side, Wilhem von Bode, the director of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, who occasionally advised Morgan about purchases, called him "the greatest collector of our time." And Bode's student William R. Valentiner, who became the Met's first Curator of Decorative Arts under Morgan in 1908, called him "the most important art collector I ever met."

That people could have such contradictory appraisals of Morgan derives in part from his resolutely reticent nature. Neither introspective nor articulate, he was—as Henry Adams said of Theodore Roosevelt—"pure act." He never said anything to explain what he did in the financial world, left very few reflections on his collecting, and posted "no trespassing" signs all over the place. He burned hundreds of letters he had written to his father twice a week, every week, for thirty years. He kept a white enamel plaque over the mantel in his study that said, in blue Provençal script: "Pense moult, parle peu, écris rien." His silence acquired considerable renown. After he attended a dinner in his honor in Chicago in 1908, the Tribune ran the headline: "Money Talks But Morgan Doesn't."

I will quickly sketch the broad outlines of his life, and then concentrate on his collecting and his library. Morgan was born in Hartford in 1837 into the upper echelons of American society—both sides of his family had come here before the Revolution. One of his maternal ancestors, James Pierpont, was a founder of Yale whose daughter married Jonathan Edwards. On the Morgan side, his grandfather was a founder of the Aetna Insurance Company in Hartford. Morgan grew up in Hartford and Boston, then moved to London with his family in 1854, when his father, Junius Spencer Morgan, joined an Anglo-American merchant bank. Pierpont went to school in Switzerland and to the German university at Göttingen. The account books he kept during these first years abroad reflect his tactile, visual sensibility and mandarin tastes—the beginnings of what Neil Harris has wonderfully called "a lifetime of organized self-indulgence." The young Connecticut Yankee in Europe bought leather boots, kid gloves, colognes, a beaver hat, flowers, novels, and history books, as well as parasols, jewelry, and furs for his female relatives and friends. In France he noted the entrance fees at Versailles, Napoleon's tomb, the Gobelin tapestry factory, the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and the Louvre. Early one winter in Rome, at age 19, he spent a month wandering alone through churches, galleries, and ruins, buying mosaics, perfumes, bronze vases, and reproductions of famous sculptures. By the time he started work in 1857 as an apprentice banker in New York, he was fluent in French and German, and familiar with more cultures than most Americans would ever see.

In the middle of the nineteenth century there was not enough capital in the US to build enormously expensive railroads. For the next thirty years, Morgan and his father, working together in New York and London, funneled European capital to the emerging American economy—effectively presiding over a massive transfer of wealth from Europe to the United States. After his father died, Morgan continued the work on his own, acting—before there was a Federal Reserve—as the country's unofficial central banker.

He was what we would now call a workaholic, and struggled all his life with depression. He attributed his periodic "nervous" breakdowns to overwork, and consequently built long periods of European travel into his annual routine—he once said he could do a year's work in nine months but not in twelve. What he most wanted to do, when he got out from under the obligations of banking, was explore foreign cultures, looking at cities, landscapes, libraries, museums, galleries, architecture, and art.

Just as there was not enough money in the US at mid- century to fuel its explosive economic growth, there was little "high" art available either. (The critic Robert Hughes has described early nineteenth-century America as breathing "thin aesthetic air.") In the decades after the Civil War, as the American culture of enterprise turned to the enterprise of culture, affluent Gilded Age travelers crossed the Atlantic in record numbers, and in a mood of ebullient aesthetic nationalism took it upon themselves to build public museums and bring culture home.

Morgan was a founding trustee of the American Museum of Natural History and an early patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the 1870s, like most of his collecting contemporaries, he lined the walls of his house with academic paintings of the Barbizon and Dusseldorf schools—mostly landscapes and narrative genre scenes depicting worlds far removed from modern industrial America. At the same time he assembled a "gentleman's" library that included standard leather-bound classics, but also the beginnings of a serious reference collection on art, several of the volumes that were kindling nineteenth-century interest in medieval subjects, some original literary and historical manuscripts, and a copy of John Eliot's Indian Bible—the first complete Bible printed in North America, in 1663, in an Algonquin dialect.

The death of his father in 1890 brought Morgan an inheritance of about $15 million, equivalent to roughly $225 million today. It was partly this substantial increase in his means that led him to expand the scope of his collecting, but other factors also played a role. By the 1890s, the center of world finance had shifted from London to New York, and economic necessity was bringing great European collections onto the market as aristocrats long on ancestry but short of cash sought to trade with Americans who had the reverse problem. Moreover, the rise of scholarly connoisseurship and new techniques for authentication encouraged American collectors— including Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Peter Widener, Benjamin Altman, and Henry Clay Frick—to move away from academic salon paintings into more rarefied realms.

Having spent his professional career importing financial capital for the emerging American economy, Morgan turned in the last 20 years of his life to importing cultural capital as well. Essentially, he was stocking America with the great art and literature of the past. He built a private library next to his brownstone on East 36th Street to house his collections of illuminated manuscripts, drawings, and rare books. He was president of the Metropolitan Museum from 1904 to 1913. He gave important individual objects and entire collections to the Museum during his lifetime, encouraged his friends to do the same, underwrote other major acquisitions, and established the Met's archaeological expeditions in Egypt. He also fostered the study of ancient civilizations at his own library, and at Princeton and Yale. In addition, he was a prominent patron of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Botanical Garden, and the American Academy in Rome, which reflected his interest in fostering American study of classical traditions. And he supported a number of individual artists, including members of the expatriate American colony in Rome and the photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, who was documenting the lives of the vanishing American Indian.

As is evident from this account, Morgan never confined himself to an artistic category, a specific period, a single scholarly adviser, or a uniform aesthetic. Acquiring on an imperial scale in the last years of his life, both for his own collections and for the Metropolitan Museum, he seemed to want all the beautiful things in the world. There was what the French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard has called "a strong whiff of the harem" about this kind of collecting—a sense of intimacy "bounded by seriality," a wish to stand alone surrounded by exquisite objects like the "sultan of a secret seraglio."

There was also a charged relationship to the past and future. Ownership of art, like intense romantic love—another Morgan specialty—is inherently transitory. As Morgan appropriated treasures of the world's great civilizations, he seemed to be engaged in a drama of rescue, gathering works that had been widely dispersed and giving them orderly new contexts under his own name. Inscribing himself into the lineage of art, he was following in the footsteps of Medicis, Chigis, Hapsburgs, Bonapartes, pharoaohs, popes, and kings. The objects he acquired would be housed in American galleries and museums, and they would be known as "Morgan's Gutenbergs," the "Morgan Apocalypse," the "Morgan Fragonards"—at least until someone else acquired them. The fleeting nature of possession probably enhanced its potent appeal.

We could talk about turn-of-the-century collecting as hegemonic or as a prime example of cultural imperialism—which it certainly was—but I would prefer at this point to quote a passage from an obscure Henry James novel called The Outcry (1911), which features a rich American collector clearly based on Morgan. The title refers to England's outcry over the sale of its cultural treasures to wealthy Americans. A gifted young art critic in the novel declares that this west-bound traffic "deprives me of my rest and, as a lover of our vast and beneficent art-wealth, poisons my waking hours. . . . Precious things are going out of our distracted country at a quicker rate than the very quickest—a century and more ago—of their ever coming in." His friend Lady Grace—the acute Jamesian observer at the story's moral center—points out that England's precious things don't really belong to England: "I suppose our art-wealth came in—save for those awkward Elgin Marbles!—mainly by purchase too, didn't it? We ourselves largely took it away from somewhere else, didn't we? We didn't grow it all."

Morgan said in his will that he wanted his collections made "permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people," and that "lack of the necessary time to devote to it has as yet prevented my carrying this purpose into effect." In a little over twenty years he had spent about $60 million on art (roughly the equivalent of $900 million today). With the exception of the books, manuscripts, and drawings that remain at the Morgan Library, the collections are now, as he requested, dispersed. After he died, his son gave about 7,000 objects to the Metropolitan Museum, and about 1,500 to the Wadsworth Atheneum. Frick purchased some of the best items from Morgan's estate, including the Fragonard room, Rembrandt's portrait "Nicolaes Ruts," eighteenth-century French furniture, gorgeous clocks, enamels, and dozens of Renaissance bronzes. I confess to feeling comically propriety about these objects—I want everyone to know they were Morgan's before they were Frick's—but Morgan himself apparently did not. Having assembled his collections with an extravagant passion for twenty years, he made no explicit provision for their future: beyond the vague injunction to his son (whom he didn't even like) about making them available to the American people, he simply opened his hands and let them go.

As I mentioned earlier, Morgan worked with dozens of dealers and scholars in his Napoleonic acquisition campaign. One of his most important early advisers was his scholarly nephew, Junius Spencer Morgan—a Princeton graduate (Class of 1888) and a connoisseur of rare books, manuscripts, drawings, and prints. There is, unfortunately, little surviving correspondence between Morgan and this erudite nephew, but on the eve of the twentieth century, as machine presses and automated typesetting spread the printed word to much of the world, the two men began to assemble a record of the physical history of the book. Morgan's collections eventually documented an evolution that began with Egyptian, Greek, and Latin papyrus rolls, went on to the medieval vellum codex and the first volumes printed with moveable type by Johann Gutenberg, to later literary first editions and masterpieces of fine binding, printing, and illustration. The Latin Bible produced by Gutenberg in Mainz around 1455 is universally acknowledged to be the greatest monument in the history of printing. Morgan acquired his first Gutenberg Bible in 1896—a fine copy printed on vellum—for about $13,000. There are 49 surviving copies of Gutenberg's Bible in varying states of completeness. Between 1896 and 1911, Morgan acquired three of them, making his library the only institution in the world to have so many.

Beyond the "lifetime of self-indulgence" that found its fullest expression in collecting was his larger project: to harvest "the best" of the world's cultural past for the American future. In stocking US institutions with great works of literature and art, he was establishing historical records here, setting scholarly standards, and marking directions for future research. By 1902, he owned more literary materials than his Madison Avenue study could hold, and commissioned Charles F. McKim to build a library for them. As the building neared completion late in 1906, Morgan decided that he needed a librarian to manage his collections, and hired a young clerk working at the Princeton University Library named Belle da Costa Greene.

Small and slender, with dark hair and olive skin set off by light green eyes, Belle Greene had extraordinary intelligence and vitality. She said that she was 22, that her middle name came from her Portuguese grandmother, Genevieve da Costa Van Vliet, and that her mother, originally from Richmond, Virginia, had supported the family by working as a music teacher in Princeton. Over the next several years, as Belle presided over rare books of hours and autograph manuscripts at "Mr. Morgan's Library," she added an insouciant sense of style to the august tone of the place. "Just because I am a librarian," she reportedly announced, "doesn't mean I have to dress like one." She wore couturier gowns and jewels to work.

Morgan didn't really care what he had to pay for important works of art—he once said that the most expensive words in any language were "unique au monde." But Belle tried to keep the market in reasonable line with value. She disciplined dealers who asked too much or offered less than top-quality items, and directed her patron's voracious eclecticism into systematic, scholarly channels. Belle walked off with the best items at European auctions, where she was usually the only woman in the house. Her one aim, she told Morgan a few years after settling in, was to make his library "pre-eminent, especially for incunabula, manuscripts, bindings and the classics." She thought that their only rivals were the British Museum and the Bibliothéque Nationale, but hoped "to be able to say some day that there is neither rival nor equal." No young American library could surpass the great European repositories of culture, but Morgan and Belle Greene in a relatively few years secured individual masterpieces and scholarly collections of exceptional quality and range.

Far more voluble and articulate than the man she called (behind his back) her "Big Chief," Belle gave offhand glimpses of their shared sensibility—describing an exhibition of his medieval illuminated manuscripts as radiating color and light, an effect that emphasized "the luxury and gorgeous barbaric beauty of the Church in the early days." Many people suspected that she was Morgan's mistress. Asked about it, she is said to have responded, "We tried"—but all the evidence suggests not. She had love affairs or serious flirtations with many of the world's leading art scholars, and learned everything these men had to teach—her most important, long-term affair was with Bernard Berenson. But the chatty, intimate tone she took with her lovers is entirely different from the voice in which she addressed Morgan. She alternately worshipped and railed against her autocratic "Chief" to others, but treated him with fond, often reverent, respect.

And every piece of information she gave out about herself was false. Belle was actually 26 when she started to work for Morgan, not 22, but forty years after the end of the Civil War she had a far more compelling reason than feminine vanity for obscuring the facts of her life. Her real name was not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener, and she was the daughter of the first black man to graduate from Harvard.

A distinguished lawyer and scholar, Richard Theodore Greener graduated from Harvard in 1870, served as dean of the Howard Law School, Secretary of the Ulysses S. Grant monument, and US Consul in Vladivostok under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Belle's mother was African-American as well but very light- skinned, and at some point around the turn of the century she and her husband split up. Mrs. Greener and her children eventually dropped the -r at the end of their name, invented the da Costa/Van Vliet lineage to explain their exotic looks, and "passed" as white. On the strength of her own intelligence and initiative, Belle moved into an elite, cosmopolitan world that excluded virtually everyone of her race, and with Morgan's patronage created for herself an independent, heady, precarious life that few women of her time, black or white, could have imagined.

Morgan left no indication that he knew of her background, but once she took charge of his library, I'd like to think he would not have cared. Although he had a reputation as an imperious snob, he turns out to have been surprisingly meritocratic in his choices of people, drawn more to ability, energy, and new ideas than to credit line or pedigree.

In the decades after Morgan's death, Belle stayed on to manage the collections for his son, Jack. After Jack gave the library with its contents and endowment to New York City in 1924, she served as its first director. Known as "the soul of the Morgan Library," she retired in 1948 and died two years later.

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