2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
You can go to any large American art museum and see Old Master paintings: Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer, and more are all well represented in our nation, even though the painters worked and sold their works in various European nations centuries ago. It might seem that such aesthetic riches would naturally spread themselves to our nation, but that the paintings are now on American walls only happened around the turn of the last century. It was not a matter of sharing the Old Masters all around the world, but was a product of deliberate, aggressive acquisition. In _Old Masters, New World: America's Raid on Europe's Great Pictures_ (Viking), art historian Cynthia Saltzman has told how the flood of Old Masters to America happened, looking at specific masterpieces, collectors, and dealers. It is an amazing story of the time when English aristocrats (most of the acquisitions described here came from Britain) were low on rents, and low on land value because American grain was so much cheaper. On the other side of the ocean, certain individual Americans acquired huge wealth due to the Industrial Revolution. Looked at this way, it seems a simple matter of one side having the goods and the other having the money, but there was also competition among the collectors and dealers, all of which Saltzman describes with verve.
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."