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Art and plutocracy, then and now


In the Chronicle of Higher Education, James Delbourgo reviews The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Charles Molesworth. The book examines the professional relationship between Fry, an English art critic, and Morgan, the paragon of mega-rich art benefactors, who together turned the Met into a world class museum. Their relationship also arguably cemented the modern link between plutocracy and fine art—a link that has only grown stronger since. Here’s an excerpt from Delbourgo’s review:

In 1907, as panic hit the New York Stock Exchange, causing a run on the banks — Morgan was later credited with saving the system by using his personal influence to promote liquidity — Fry and Morgan embarked together on a buying tour of Italy. There, Morgan was welcomed as a savior of a different kind. Even the Franciscan monks of Assisi experienced “frenzied excitement” on his arrival, Fry quipped; the depth of Morgan’s pockets was legendary.

Molesworth dryly recounts the awkwardness that characterized the two men’s interactions. To begin with, their professional relationship was entirely ambiguous. The Met had engaged Fry’s services as a connoisseur, but he had been reluctant to swap London for New York and, because of seasickness on his Atlantic crossings (both physical and cultural), he preferred to operate as one of the Met’s European agents. Fry advised Morgan on art with the result that Morgan bought some “fine things for the Museum and some superb ones for Morgan.”

This fusion (or confusion) of private and public mission was characteristic of American museums founded as philanthropic gestures by the magnates of the industrial age. Fry mocked his role as “bearleader to the great man,” but he needed money from clients like Morgan to care for his ailing wife (the artist Helen Coombe) and to realize his own artistic projects. Fry made no forensic claims about the science of connoisseurship, unlike his vaunted contemporary Bernard Berenson, but he, too, appraised works of art and, to make a living, provided attributions and authentications both for the Met and for private collectors. Judging art involved intense personal rivalries and complex confidence games in a latticework of potentates and institutions. The Met competed with the Louvre and London’s National Gallery; Morgan competed with the likes of Henry Clay Frick; and Fry competed with Berenson.

Image: The Met Museum in 1905. Via the Chronicle of Higher Education.