Old Masters, New World is 'light' reading by design, popular cultural history, an entertaining group biography of the Daddy Warbucks art collectors who emerged from America's Gilded Age with millions to spend on the sort of Art that would dignify their wealth and possibly erase the public image of their rapacious greed. In effect, the Economic Elite wielded their millions to assert themselves as the Cultural Elite, with the toady help of the Intellectual Elite, for the paternalistic benefit of the 99% of Americans who weren't Elite in any fashion. WE the latter thank them, to be sure, when we worshipfully elbow each other through the museums of New York, Boston, DC, Chicago - the mausoleums of their inordinate pride.
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.