Old Masters; New World Hardcover – Aug 19 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
In this vividly narrated and highly informative study, Saltzman (The Portrait of Dr. Gachet), a former reporter for Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, examines American collectors like Henry Clay Frick and J. Pierpont Morgan who developed America's great Old Master collections, like those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Banker and railroad magnate Henry Marquand gave 50 Old Masters to the Met, among them Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. Marquand believed in the museum's capacity to educate the public, while Gardner and Morgan modeled themselves after Renaissance patrons. A Gainsborough and Raphael were among Morgan's cultural conquests in a vast, encyclopedic collecting project. Gardner's passion for Italian Renaissance art and her complicated relationship with Renaissance specialist Bernard Berenson, who arranged for the acquisition of the most important work in her collection, Titian's Rape of Europa, is one of the book's highlights. Saltzman deftly demonstrates that the often highly competitive process and volatile acquisition of cultural capital by dealers and their eager employers gives fascinating and important insight into the often fraught fusion of culture and commodity that built world-class American collections. Photos. (Aug. 18)
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" A lively, knowledgeable chronicle of a three-decade art-buying spree . . . so ably recaptured in her colorful, enjoyable narrative."
" Saltzman revivifies the story by showing . . . how these alpha collectors schemed and maneuvered to outsmart the dealers and each other in their feverish quest for the best Rembrandt or the rarest Raphael."
-The Philadelphia Inquirer --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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-- Jonathan Lopez, author of The Man Who Made Vermeers
Although some of the collectors were motivated in part by a desire to give America a great culture to match its rising power, most of them were fiercely competitive with one another, each seeking to outdo the others and possess the recognized top collection in terms of beauty or monetary worth or both. Each wanted to have the most "great works" by the "greatest artists." The only restraint was the size of their respective fortunes, which sometimes (as in the case of Granger) imposed limits. The narration is enlivened by adroit sketches of the lives and personalities of the salient persons involved in the race to acquire (by the collectors) and to become rich and influential (dealers and others). Saltzman is equally adroit in describing the power, appeal and importance of the great pictures the collectors sought.
Although always discreet, Saltzman's pen portraits are filled with incisive observations on character and psychology. Marquand, for example, emerges as more altruistic in motive than most while Frick obsessively focused on amassing the most valuable collection in the US (priding himself on driving as hard a bargain as possible for each acquisition). Frick, in keeping with his personality and his occasionally ruthless business career, created his own posthumous museum where his collection would be displayed in his NYC mansion just as it had been in his lifetime. Granger did much the same thing with her collection. The famous connoisseur Bernard Berenson, for his part, comes across as something less than honest and straightforward in his interactions with dealers and collectors.
This whole episode is well known to art historians but much less so among general readers. This brilliant book should remedy that.
The great purchasers portrayed in this book, AKA the Robber Barons, were Henry Marquand, Isabella Stewart Gardiner, JP Mrgan, Harry Havemeyer, and -- most vividly and extensively -- Henry Clay Frick, the arch-villain of labor exploitation who callously incited the most violent incident of strike-breaking in American history. Author Cynthia Saltzman treats most of her moneybag subjects with a certain gentle 'detachment' but she plainly finds Frick hard to love. Her brief account of the Homestead Strike is less condemnatory than her depiction of Frick's egotism, his monumental sense of entitlement, his stingy bullying of living artists and art-dealers in his pursuit of the works of the dead Masters whose portraits of aristocrats 'validated' his own grandeur. The museum that Frick built, on the east side of Central Park in New York, by the by, is one of my favorites in the world. I go there whenever I have a 'day off' in the Big Apple, to gaze lovingly at the Vermeers, El Grecos, and Turners. I try not to disrupt my appreciation with thoughts about the odd compatibility of art and evil.
Saltzman also depicts the art-dealers and professional connoisseurs who selected and supplied the "Old Masters" to their eager American clients, whom they did their very best to 'fleece' as often as possible. As usual, the 'aesthetes' held the plutocrats in amused contempt. The most contemptuous, and contemptible, of the lot was Bernard Berenson, who cozened and cheated Isabella Stewart Gardiner shamelessly. Berenson's books on the painters of the Italian Renaissance were still part of the 'canon' of genteel genius when I was a student in Boston in the early 1960's, though his reputation had already been tarnished. Even today I hate to treat Berenson disloyally; after all, I've spent several exhilarating sojourns at his villa 'I Tatti' near Florence, which is now operated as an institute by Harvard University. But he was a self-serving scamp for certain.
"Old Masters, New World" is not a history of art or a examination of aesthetics. It's a social history of the extended generation, from the end of the Civil War in the USA to the catastrophe of World War 1, which saw America rise to global economic might, and subsequently to the crude cultural arrogance portrayed in the novels of Henry James and Mark Twain. James, as one would expect, pops out of the closet here and there in Saltzman's narrative.
Saltzman writes deftly and colorfully, making her scholarship pleasant enough to read merely as a tale of adventure in the marketplace. It's definitely a worthwhile choice for anyone who enjoys a museum visit now and then, and who has ever wondered how the immense collections of the Met or the National Gallery were assembled. It's a story of pillage, to be blunt. The book's subtitle says it plainly: America's RAID on Europe's great pictures.
After the Civil War and during the industrial boom, Americans began concentrating on culture. When Henry Gurdon Marquand, the railroad and banking tycoon, was in England in 1886 on an acquisition trip for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was in a private gallery, not nearly the finest in Britain, but Saltzman writes that it "was grander than the hodgepodge of mostly mediocre pictures lodged in two rooms at the back of the Metropolitan's second floor." Looking at a van Dyke in the gallery, Marquand realized it was finer than any painting he had seen in America, including his own extensive collection. Marquand came away with four Old Masters, and thus the boom began. Another of the collectors profiled here was Henry Clay Frick, the violently anti-union head of Carnegie Steel. He liked portraits and landscapes; he never purchased a nude. Charles Schwab, another Carnegie partner, observed, "He seemed to lavish on art all the passion that he might have bestowed on human beings." Tycoons buying art is one story, and a fairly familiar one, but Saltzman also pays attention to the different dealers and advisors who helped enable the purchases. Professional art scholar Bernard Berenson figures often here, usually helping to arrange sales to Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston. Berenson was a social climber who clearly loved his partnerships with his wealthy clients, and made himself invaluable to them. When Peter Widener, the aging trolley car magnate, needed his collection evaluated, Berenson's wife described the collector "trotting around and saying meekly `Mr. Berenson, is this a gallery picture, or a furniture picture, or must it go to the cellar?'"
The art that was brought over here served to bolster collectors' self-worth. Sure, they were just manifesting greed but in a different way than in their workaday lives. As the collectors took more paintings over the decades, they complained about how much the prices were going up, but they did not complain about how much more valuable their assets were becoming. By the time the boom was over, most of them donated the works to museums, or made their own museums. A case could be made that these Old Master paintings provided an immediate art education for millions of Americans, that American artists were heavily influenced by them, and that American art in the last half of the twentieth century thereby became the most influential in the world. Saltzman's book, with its written portraits of collectors and dealers, provides an astonishing picture of an art craze that affected history, and the likes of which will not be seen again. We are unlikely ever to hear anyone speak of taste in acquisitions like Isabella Stewart Gardner did, to her advisor Berenson, when Rembrandt was every collector's favorite: "You know, or rather, you don't know, that I adore Giotto, and really, I don't adore Rembrandt. I only like him."