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The lives of the collectors: J. Pierpont Morgan. Everything but the art

This blockbuster biography records the life of the American financier in exhaustive and exhausting detail, but fails to tell the story of his collecting

Hard on the heels of the massive book about Henry Clay Frick (The Art Newspaper, No.88, January 1999, p.57) comes this weighty new biography of J. Pierpont Morgan. Jean Strouse is an experienced biographer and this book is meticulously thorough. She has used previously untapped sources in the archives of the Morgan Bank and the Pierpont Morgan Library and has produced a full account of Morgan’s life and career.

In the introduction she remarks of a previous study of Morgan that it was a “300-page sketch”; at nearly 800 pages her tome is no sketch.

Morgan came from an altogether different background to Frick, hailing from the American upper-crust, with seventeenth-century settlers on both sides of his family. He married into the same milieu and his daughter once remarked that both her paternal and maternal antecedents doubly qualified her to join the Daughters of the American Revolution.

His education was cosmopolitan, with attention being paid to fluency in languages (he spoke both French and German) and he was familiar with European art and culture from an early age. He took his place by right in the highest echelons of American society, and in London and Paris as well: the patrician Henry Adams, whose contempt for mere riches was always trenchantly expressed, excepted Morgan from his category of men who could not be admitted into “a good club”, however rich they became. A good clubman, Morgan became the commodore of the New York Yacht Club, a title he liked so well that he used it for the rest of his life.

His father had set up the Morgan banking house, and between the two of them they became a force to be reckoned with. There are episodes in its history that are strongly reminiscent of the Rothschilds and their legendary capacity to sway the course of events on a wide political stage. Morgan’s banking career coincided with a period of huge expansion and prosperity for the US, and, although the banking partners had setbacks, the general trend was an irresistible rise.

Even so, at his death Morgan turned out less of a Croesus than his way of life had suggested and John D. Rockefeller famously remarked, on learning from a newspaper of Morgan’s net worth at his death, “and to think he wasn’t even a rich man.”

Morgan spent prodigiously, which may explain why his fortune appeared so pitifully small to Rockefeller. His marriage was a disappointment to him and he had mistresses for whom he provided very generously. Morgan suffered a disfiguring disease that gave him a grotesque appearance from middle age, but this in no way impaired his success with women, whom he preferred “with champagne in their veins”, to quote the felicitous description invented by his biographer.

He had numerous houses, and his European travels were conducted en prince, punctuated by huge shopping sprees for art and books. Morgan’s collection was eventually so large and valuable that it would have been the most important of its time in America if it had either been kept there or had remained intact after his death.

The reason most of his acquisitions remained in Europe, mainly in his London house in Princes Gate or on loan to various institutions, was because of the US government Revenue Act of 1897 which introduced a punitive 20% tariff on imported works of art. Morgan calculated that it would cost him $3 million to transfer his collections to the US. However, books were excepted from this imposition, and, to cut a long story short, that is the reason why the American have a Pierpont Morgan Library but no comparable art collection.

His will was curiously unexplicit about the long-term future of the works of art, with the result that almost the entire collection is now dispersed, many of the finest things ornamenting the walls and enhancing the reputations of rivals like Frick.

This is the biography of a banker, and it is something of a task to tease his collecting activities out from among the railroad deals and other matters of high finance. Even these are enmeshed in domestic and personal details. It appears at times as if the author has discovered what the family was up to every day of their lives, and it has to be said that the minutiae of Morgan’s boyhood are not enthralling.

Essentially, he waited almost until retiring age before setting out on a twenty-year art-buying spree, which can be followed in this book at least as far as time, place and price are concerned. His feelings about works of art are less easy to divine.

He became involved in the affairs of the Metropolitan Museum at its founding, rather in a spirit of noblesse oblige, since he had no need of the social cachet that such a connection afforded New York society. Other institutions angled for his attention, and he was notably generous and trusting in his philanthropy when he believed in the competence of his proteges, and rarely interfered with their plans. When costs for his building plans far exceeded estimates he would allow the work to go on without complaint. In fact, it was his architect, Charles McKim, who had the nervous breakdown, not Morgan. Nor did he repine when things went wrong. Perhaps he knew himself to be fallible too, and he was notably impatient with restraints or criticism of his own decisions.

Although he had trusted advisors in art collecting, among them the great connoisseur Wilhelm von Bode who was building up the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, there is something wildly haphazard about his buying. He was familiar with the Royal Library at Windsor and Lord Hertford’s collection in Manchester Square (the Wallace Collection) and may have consciously modelled his own on them. In the exuberance of his buying he more resembled Catherine the Great, since, in his impatience, he often bought whole collections en bloc.

His range was vast and his preference was for highly wrought decorative art. In spite of his Continental education and long residence in London, he began collecting in the typical fashion of the American rich of his era, buying contemporary works of a somewhat flashy character. His judgment with Old Master and eighteenth-century paintings was much less sure than with tapestries—of which he had the most wonderful choice—medieval manuscripts and rare enamels. One pertinent example is the now disputed Gainsborough of the Duchess of Devonshire that was sold by the Morgan family and returned to Chatsworth in 1994. Morgan paid an enormous sum for this famous portrait, five times more than he had given for the Rembrandt portrait of Nicolaes Ruts (now in the Frick Collection) only three years earlier, hardly a balanced assessment of their relative importance.

Shortly afterwards he realised his greatest ambition (and that of every American collector of Old Masters at the time) when in Paris he bought from Charles Sedelmeyer Raphael’s “Colonna Madonna”. Berenson remarked to Mrs Gardner, “Pierpont Morgan’s Raphael—the one I urged you not to buy—is exhibited in London at the Old Masters, and critics, I am happy to note, are pretty well agreed about its worthlessness—relatively to pretentions and price.” Morgan lent it to the National Gallery in London; it is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and regarded as a very early work, certainly not as worthless as Berenson liked to think.

There are other wonderfully funny passages in Berenson’s letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner, disparaging Morgan in order to flatter his patroness as in: “Pierpont Morgan was here [Florence] and bought all Prince Strozzi’s rags and tatters for 800,000 francs”—but also offering a telling glimpse of the entourage and its magnificent progress. The story of Morgan urging his lady guests to pocket the works of art to the consternation of his advisor who had bought the objets d’art for approval, is hilarious. The London house is described as “a pawnbroker’s shop for Croesuses”. Berenson could not, however, repress his admiration for the lovely Fragonard room, lined with paintings on the theme of love that mme du Barry had commissioned for his pavilion at Louvenciennes and then rejected. These, like much else chosen by Morgan, are now in the Frick Collection.

The story of the tangled triangle of Morgan, Berenson and Morgan’s young female librarian, Bella da Costa Greene, is fascinating, psychologically and socially. These and the many other figures from the art world greatly enliven the second half of the book: there are not many laughs in banking.

Jean Strouse, Morgan: American financier (The Harvill Press, London, 1999), 797 pp, 80 b/w ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 186046355X