and Scholarly Culture
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
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 onesan observation that also held true in
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 wasas 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
societyboth 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 tastesthe 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 economyeffectively presiding over a massive transfer
of wealth from Europe to the United States. After his father
died, Morgan continued the work on his own, actingbefore there
was a Federal Reserveas 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 routinehe 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 schoolsmostly 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 Biblethe 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 Frickto 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 collectinga
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 loveanother
Morgan specialtyis 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 imperialismwhich it
certainly wasbut 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 quickesta century and more agoof their ever
coming in." His friend Lady Gracethe acute Jamesian observer at
the story's moral centerpoints out that England's precious
things don't really belong to England: "I suppose our art-wealth came
insave 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
objectsI want everyone to know they were Morgan's before
they were Frick'sbut 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 Morgana 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 1896a fine copy printed on vellumfor 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 arthe 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 sensibilitydescribing 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 teachher 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.