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Monday, October 29, 2012

J. Pierpont Morgan

Very few portraits of J.P. Morgan exist, and what few there are, seldom
are very flattering. Above, Puck magazine in 1911 characterized and caricaturized
Morgan's overwhelming financial influence over the U.S. economy.
As much as we'd like to think so; as much as we'd like others to think so; art is not just about artists. Art is also about collectors. Without them, artists would quickly run out of room to create, not to mention the will and the wherewithal. The truth is, there are far more collectors of art than creators of it...thanks be to God. And insofar as history is concerned, most of them are about as anonymous as the artists they collect. In terms of numbers, I suppose there are about as many famous collectors as famous artists, which perhaps would explain why there are so few famous artists. Some, the legends of art collecting, I've written about...the Guggenheims, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Fricks, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Isabella Gardner, the Cone sisters, Paul Durand-Ruel, and most recently, Gustave Caillebotte, an artist himself. However, one of the biggest, and perhaps the richest, was not your typical Rockefeller or Guggenheim.

One of THREE
Gutenberg Bibles on display
at the J.P. Morgan Library
His name was John Pierpont Morgan. He was born in 1837 to an already wealthy financier and his wife. His father was Junius Spencer Morgan. J. Pierpont came of age in the business world shortly after the Civil War, working as an accountant in a New York banking firm. Ten years later, he joined his father's firm as a full partner in Drexel, Morgan and Company. When his father died in 1890, Morgan reorganized the business as J.P. Morgan and Company (later Morgan Guaranty Trust, now JPMorgan Chase Bank N.A.). He was instrumental in the founding of U.S. Steel, General Electric, Equitable Life Insurance, and International Harvester. He owned banks, several insurance companies, 5,000 miles of railroad, mining and manufacturing concerns; and in 1895, he single-handedly raised $25 million in fifteen minutes to keep the US Government afloat and stabilize the currency, thus avoiding a major financial collapse. (The syndicate he formed eventually loaned the government a total of $62 million in gold--a kind of reverse bailout.)

The J.P. Morgan mansion on Madison
Ave. and 36th Street in New York,
torn down to make room for the library's
first annex, 1924.
Morgan was first and foremost a businessman; and a far cry from the "culture vulture" art collector we might normally associate with those of his ilk. With the death of his father, Morgan suddenly had more money than he could ever hope to spend and already owned every creature comfort he might ever want or need. He lived rather modestly (for a multi-millionaire) in a New York City brownstone (left). His collecting urge started not with art but ancient books and manuscripts, eventually to include prints and drawings and a few paintings, but it was primarily history he collected in any case, and in whatever form. He owned a Gutenberg Bible (above right), Henry David Thoreau's journal, art from Babylon, Mozart's Symphony in D Major, a Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, as well as  drawings by Rembrandt and Rubens. It's typical and trite to conclude by saying, "the list is endless," but in Morgan's case, that's very nearly true.

McKim's 1906 architectural drawing for Morgan's library.
As years progressed, the collecting urge got out of hand. In 1906, he had Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White build him a Renaissance style palazzo library to hold it all--which it very shortly did not. When he died in 1913, Morgan's fortune amounted to about $113 million (around $30 billion in today's terms). Most of the art went to the Metropolitan Museum (housed in the Pierpont Morgan wing). In 1924, his son, J.P. Morgan Jr. opened the library to the public and had his father's home beside it torn down to construct a much-needed annex. When J. P. himself died in 1943, he left his own next door townhouse to the library/museum. It was annexed in 1987 with the addition of a cloister gallery and garden court, effectively doubling the size of the place. Today, the three-building complex is the home of a wide array of research facilities, lecture and exhibition halls, and various educational programs; as well as the museum and library.
The Pierpont Morgan Museum and Library today with its various wings and additions, the latest by famed architect, Renzo Piano (central area). The original library is at lower right.

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