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a market for merchant princes

20 september 2022

My interest in the history of American art collection grew during a visit to the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, this past summer. Birmingham's substantial collection is not as comprehensive as those in the mammoth museums of Chicago, New York, or Washington; but it has significant highlights. One is the compelling Envoûteuse (1883) by Georges Merle; another is the extensive and still-growing collection of American art. A third is in galleries devoted to masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, which at first glance don't seem much connected to the museum's emphasis on modern and contemporary art. But then you look at the labels under these old masters and see that all were gifts from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The mystery of this little capsule of old Italy in the middle of Alabama starts to clear.

Kress is one of the great American art collectors discussed in Inge Reist's 2015 volume A Market for Merchant Princes, in which eleven art historians chart how so much early Italian painting ended up at a museum near you (if you live in or around an American city). Americans are used to wandering into the municipal gallery and starting their tour with a set of radiant, stylized egg-tempera paintings on panel, extracted from Italian churches and palazzi. But as Edith Wharton recreated in False Dawn (1924), you would have seen no such collections anywhere in the US till about 150 years ago. And this not for lack of money or acquisitiveness, which Americans had had for generations by that point. Earlier collectors simply did not see the value or the beauty of items from the 1200s through 1400s.

One pioneer in extending American collections to that era was James Jackson Jarves. As Clay Dean discusses, Jarves was heir to part of a glass fortune and determined to parlay that stake into fine-art entrepreneurship. Jarves set about changing American tastes so that the old paintings he picked up in Tuscany would find American buyers. Despite publishing widely on his finds, Jarves failed to ignite the American market in his own lifetime. But he was far from a failure. The core of his collection is now at the Yale University Art Gallery, where I once wandered past it incuriously (my own interest in such collecting yet to be piqued). Though Jarves was no philanthropist. "He essentially pawned the paintings," Dean remarks (25), depositing them at Yale in 1869 for a tidy consideration of $20,000 that he apparently never intended to pay back. They're still there.

Andrea Bayer looks at the way some of the Metropolitan Museum's Italian collection got into its galleries, focusing on the curator Bryson Burroughs and the benefactor Benjamin Altman. A couple of the other entries seem to be for the sake of covering people who seemed to need coverage but turned out to be less than crucial. Jennifer Tonkovich finds that Pierpont Morgan came to collecting Italian Old Masters late in life, and few of his later-dispersed holdings were ever on view in the U.S. or sometimes got here at all (Morgan kept them in Britain). Jaynie Anderson's contribution on the great connoisseur Giovanni Morelli concludes "it can hardly be said that [Morelli] positively helped the formation of American collections" (37). At least we've got that established.

The central part of A Market for Merchant Princes involves Bernard Berenson, who works his way to the center of every narrative of art collecting from the late 19th through the mid-20th century. The young Berenson caught the interest of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who staked him to a portion of his art education and took his advice on buying the most prime properties available in her day, eventually founding a great museum with her collection. Frederick Ilchman shows how Gardner set an unmatchable standard for her Boston contemporaries, and inspired those Bostonians to stock the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard's Fogg Museum with Italian collections that emulate hers. Tiffany Johnston establishes that Mary Berenson was an equal partner with her husband in educating American collectors and steering their acquisitions of the art that is now central to American museums.

Stanley Mazaroff's chapter on Berenson and Henry Walters of Baltimore museum fame is among the best in the book. Berenson attached himself to Walters when he learned that Walters' checkbook was wide open and inexhaustible. But he never seems to have treated Walters fairly, either selling him second-rate paintings or claiming that the Italian market was barren when he was really cornering it for dealer Joseph Duveen. In 1914, Berenson showed up in Baltimore and (figuratively) trashed the Walters collection, demoting a large percentage of its paintings from Raphaels and Michelangelos to nonentities or unknowns. But Berenson, if cruel, was honest in his appraisals, according to Mazaroff: turning Walters' Italian holdings from a dubious hoard of junk into the select, strictly curated nucleus of a great museum.

Walters shares several characteristics with a late entry into the American craze for the Italian Renaissance: John Ringling. Virginia Brilliant discusses the course of Ringling's collecting career in a chapter that brings out the full strangeness of the American art-museum world. Long a collector of Italian Baroque paintings, Ringling had a Renaissance palace built for them in Sarasota, Florida, "upon an alligator-infested swamp" (98). He then added some key items from earlier periods, including an altarpiece by Paolo Veronese and a capriccio by Piero di Cosimo; then still others once the Depression made them more affordable. Ringling, like Walters, would buy up huge lots of Italian art on the theory that at least something in the grab-bag might justify the expense of the whole; he was usually right. Ringling was also an informal dealer, expert at flipping acquisitions and putting the profits into improving his collection. The whole spectacle of a circus entrepreneur building a great monument to art, far from the urban centers even of North America, exemplifies the strange quixotic nature of American patronage – which has the wonderful side effect of allowing me to drive across the American countryside while stopping at art museums built to rival the showpieces of old Europe.

Edgar Peters Bowron ends the volume with an essay on the man who got me interested in it, Samuel H. Kress. The greatest of all American art collectors, stocker of the National Gallery in Washington but also of museums in many far-flung cities, including the one in Birmingham but also others I've visited in San Francisco, Denver, El Paso, Houston, New Orleans, and many more besides. Kress was reticent about why he collected art and why he gave so much of it away. He furnished his own residence across from New York's Metropolitan Museum with his purchases, but equally enjoyed bestowing them on the cities that had made him a dime-store millionaire.

Reading about Kress made me think about Wal-Mart. Kress is the early-20th-century retail parallel to Sam Walton later on, and Walton's daughter Alice has provided the parallel to Kress' or Ringling's art interests. Though Alice Walton collects American art, she has fitted out the impressive Crystal Bridges complex in Bentonville, Arkansas with a collection to rival any museum of American art. (The number of alligators impeding construction is unknown.) It remains to be seen if the Arkansas powerhouse will be interested in supplying their surplus art to towns that enriched the Waltons. But the phenomenon continues: staggering wealth leading to art palaces in the unlikeliest places.

Reist, Inge, editor. A Market for Merchant Princes: Collecting Italian Renaissance paintings in America. University Park: Frick Collection / Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015. ND 615 .M298

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