Monday, December 1st, 2008

Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606 - 1669) The Polish Rider c. 1655.  Oil on canvas, 46 x 53-1/8 inches Frick Collection: Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1910.1.98
Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606 - 1669) The Polish Rider c. 1655. Oil on canvas, 46 x 53-1/8 inches Frick Collection: Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1910.1.98

At the end of the Civil War, there were very few significant paintings in America. By the start of the Great War, however, thanks to a surprisingly small group of men and women, the extensive collections we possess today had started to be formed. Cynthia Saltzman, a marvelously writerly writer, has studied the literature, read in the archives, and talked to the specialists. Her very unacademic narrative tells how Henry Gurdon Marquand, J. Pierpoint Morgan, the Havemeyers, Henry Clark Frick and Isabella Stewart Gardner, in collaboration with Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry and various dealers, purchased art wisely and very ambitiously. Thanks to them, the Met, the Frick, and Gardner’s museum acquired important old master pictures.  Henry James describes how impoverished English and Italian aristocrats salvaged their finances by selling art to newly rich Americans.   Saltzman retells that story. She is marvelously tactful with the practical financial details, which made possible the transmigration of European art. For Frick, she writes,

Art collecting, like all other aspects of his life, involved careful calculation. In accumulating pictures, he could translate the vast capital he had amassed into something magnificent, concrete and fixed, which gave him pleasure, gained him recognition, and over which he could exert complete control (p. 159).

Without moralizing, she tells this story in aesthetically satisfying prose.

None of the newly very rich American collectors had training in art history, though the Havemeyers were close friends with Mary Cassatt. And so it is natural to ask: Why did they purchase posh European art? Perhaps they wanted to emulate the English gentry, whose financially beleaguered collections were up for grabs. Certainly they were highly competitive with their peers, although of course not all of the nouveau rich became art-lovers. (Saltzman is particularly good on the relationship between Frick and his domineering partner, Andrew Carnegie, who chose, however, not to collect old master art, but gave his fortune to building libraries and other cultural institutions.) And yet, for all of her documentation, mysteries remain. Why did the Havermeyers buy then very unfashionable Spanish art? Why did Frick purchase only portraits and landscapes, never nudes?  We intellectuals can understand Fry and Berenson, but it is harder to comprehend  these business people, who I grant were sophisticated visitors to European galleries. It is nice to know that when Frick received The Polish Rider, “in one of the very few instances he ever recorded his feelings about a work of art, he summarized them in a single word: “ENCHANTED” (p. 222).

Frick, Saltzman suggests, created his museum “to create an alternative image to the dark figure who coolly masterminded labor’s defeat” (p. 162). He sought, she speculates, to “control his public legacy. He knew that a fabulous collection of art had the power to atone for sins, and to change the public’s perception of who he was” (p. 196). If that was his goal, then he didn’t succeed. In  1892 his hired Pinkertons murdered striking Pittsburgh workers. When, just a few years ago now, Frick’s long-lived daughter finally died, letters in the local paper, the Post Gazette revealed that her father’s actions had not been forgotten.  Frick was rebuked by a committee from the House of Representations for being “too stern, brusque and somewhat autocratic” (p. 157). But these, not virtues in a public figure, are the ruling qualities of a great collector.  A nicer man would probably not have created such a magnificent museum. I love the Frick, for I love imagining that Mr. Frick has allowed me to look at his private possessions.  And yet, I am always slightly uneasy. How am I, a mere professor, be wandering in his house? A generation ago a cranky English leftist published a book called, if I remember correctly, Art, Enemy of the People. Though I don’t share his politics, every time I enter I am aware of the moral ambiguity of this situation. Great visual art and money have always been intimately linked. No wonder so many of our leading art historians are Marxists.

Cynthia Saltzman Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures.  New York: Viking Penguin, 2008. 352 pages, ISBN 9780670018314