The Golden Age of Art Patronage at Met

New York has never seemed to be so crowded before.

At Armani Exchange, one of the upper-scale apparel stores lined in SOHO area, I was literally squeezing in to try a coat on. I was puzzled by the untold shoppers who grabbed jackets or jeans as if they were displayed in dollar-trees. In the end, I quit without buying the coat. It was not the price tag (though it IS more than I would have expected), it was the crowd that made me feel I was wasting money on something cheap.

Later on, a similar scenario happened in Metropolitan Museum of Art. To view a small-scaled painting by Vermeer in the special exhibition titled “The Age of Rembrandt”, I had to see it through a wall of human heads.

The show, although championed by Rembrandt, includes works by Dutch painters in their golden ages. They were NOT new or special: All works are collections of MET, except they are rearranged following the order of acquisition. Thus it is quite a task to find all five Vermeer in the total of 12 galleries, not to mention through flocks of visitors. In the case when the view of pictures are half blocked by people, the donor’s names, which are, in some cases, placed above the painting in huge font, attracted my attention more easily. In fact, the exhibition is not about the golden age of Dutch painting, it is a nostalgia gesture of the past golden age of patronage. I am not sure that Vanderbilt should like the idea of having his name shown prominently above masters’ works, at least he would not enjoy J. P. Morgan’s name is equally mentioned; after all, in the age that fortune had been amassed in an unbelievable speed for these few starring magnates, the art trophies can only belong to one person in the end.


On May 29, 1913, New York Times published an article titled “J.P. Morgan’s Art to Remain Here”. In a letter from Morgan to the Trustees of the museum, it reads “It is my desire that the objects of art left by my father should be exhibited for the benefit of the public as soon as may be. I know that it was in my father’s mind to make a load exhibition of the of them in the new south wing which is to be built, ….” The south wing construction, at that time, has not been approved yet; but Mr. Morgan made it clear that there is NO question of breaking up the collection or sending part of it elsewhere so that the public will see the entirety of the collection (bronzes and jewels etc.) which was believed unsurpassed.

The first batch of Rembrandt from J.P. Morgan happened even earlier. In June, 1906, the Rudolph Kann art collection including eight Rembrandt, four Rubens and six Van Dyck were bought through J. P. Morgan for $5,500,000. Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, the second director of the Met at that time, was summoned to France to give consultant to Mr. Morgan. Although he didn’t tell the reporter whether Morgan bought the entire collection for the museum or not, the great businessman conducted his purchase in his dominant, forceful way, for he must for sure know such great collection would never depreciate.

In today’s perspective, J.P. Morgan’s presidency of Met coincided and clashed with his own desire of collection. If Marion True, the former antiquities curator of Getty Museum, was accused based on several artifact of minor value in her vacation home, then by normal ethnic code, the way that J. P. Morgan summoned the MET expert cross Atlantic for his service would have caused a shocking scandal. On the other hand, without the fortune of J. P. Morgan, the Met (which is about 80 years younger than Louvre) could have hardly achieved today’s status. By 1920, a tablet to J. P. Morgan was installed in the northwest pier supporting the central dome of the main Fifth Avenue Hall. It reads: “Erected by the museum is grateful remembrance of the services of John Pierpont Morgan, …. He helped to make New York the true metropolis of America; his interest in art was lifelong, his generous donation to it commanded world-wide appreciation: his munificent gifts to the museums are among its choicest treasures.

In the same year, William K. Vanderbilt contributed “the Noble Slav”, an early work by Rembrandt. Considering the drawing and print department of the Met grew up through Cornelius Vanderbilt’s initial donation with 670 works in 1880, and even more some of the1920 donation had been loaned to the Met during Corneliu’s last year, W. K. Vanderbilt’s generosity was probably just forced under the shadow of his father’s legacy.

The golden age of patronage didn’t last long. By the First World War, the starring collectors such as Altman, Huntington, and Morgan have gone. And after the two wars, the focus of art in US had been shifted from European masters to domestic newborn. The older generation collectors like Cornelius Vanderbilt who only collected European works were perpetually constricted by the dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow, between academic pedantry and pavement slang. For them, the rise of American Art as a defining force was not within their sight. It was after the Second World War that Henry Luce brought public attention to the American Art and called Jackson Pollock the greatest living painter in the United States. Through his efforts (which can be seen through not only Met, but also Brooklyn Museum of Art and New York Historical Society), the most of the collection legacy in the 20th century should be called American Century.

Such patronage system can seldom be found nowadays. The new generation of philanthropists such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet are more focusing on health improvement and poverty reduction in global perspective. Money has flown more toward humane activities and research instead of art forms. On the other hands, enthusiastic art collectors such as Ronald Lauder are assembling art for their own galleries. Thus it is specially nostalgia for the Met to show its homage to the hands which didn’t hold the brush, but signed the contract.

Of course, the Met won’t label the exhibition as “$ matters”, instead it claims that such arrangement has its own benefit for it shows from a historical point of view a change of public tastes (or maybe more precisely a change in magnates’ tastes). However, I found it implausible. The availability of works by Dutch masters has always been limited. Thus the acquisition sequence doesn’t reflect too much about the taste change in social context, more likely it reflects what pieces were available in the market at certain time (mostly due to 3Ds: death, divorce or debt). Thus all five Vermeer are separated just because they were not bought together. Or because Benjamin Altman donated all of his collection to the Met upon his death, the works got united together even though certain works appear much weaker than others.

But in regardless to the awkward arrangement, Rembrandt stands out. Under the immaculate brushes of Dutch painters, one can always sense a yearning for seeking, something deeper than the oil surface. For Frans Hals it may mean amicability and accessibility of characters, for Aelbert Cuyp, it may be the tranquility and homecoming-like comfort; but only Rembrandt searched as a real thinker, who pursued something opposite: problematic, unsolved yet true.

One may have to pass numerous master pieces at Met without or with only one glance; but almost no one would hurry up in front of Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer. (Interestingly, that is the only painting by Rembrandt which was actually bought by the museum) The curator’s audio tour interprets the painting as contemplation of immortality. Aristotle, well-dressed with shining gold-chain, loses his minds besides the bust of the blind Homer. He is, as the talk indicated, not communing with Homer. Instead he is asking himself: Will I obtain such immortality centuries after? The answer falls in the darkness between the figures.

Yet for Morgan and Vanderbilt, they knew they would.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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