Great Collections: September 2017

Great Collections: September 2017

J. Pierpont Morgan

Hartford native John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), founder of a banking dynasty still in operation today, was one of the great financial figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Well known for his successes as a banker, railroad tycoon, and steel magnate, he was also an important philanthropist and avid art collector.

Morgan’s active financial career dates roughly from 1857 to 1907, and his career as a collector from 1890 until his death in 1913. Although he showed an early interest in collecting, including autographs during his childhood, he did not become actively involved in collecting until his father’s death. At that time he became an independently wealthy man with a powerful financial organization behind him.

While Morgan was not the only major American collector of his time, he probably was the greatest-distinguished most notably from his contemporaries by the sheer quantity of objects he collected, estimated to have exceeded 20,000 works of art obtained over a very short period of 23 years.

He sought out objects that were rare, exquisite, famous, sacred, and rich in history. Morgan’s lifelong fascination with the ancient world is evident in his collection of art and artifacts spanning 3,000 years. His acquisitions included paintings, sculpture, manuscripts, rare books, prints and drawings, and decorative arts including tapestries, furniture, silver, porcelain, glass, enamels, ivories, and bronzes.

Morgan’s serious and far-reaching intentions for the works of art he acquired-he instructed that most of them be made available to the American public either through gift or bequest to American museums-are of great significance to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. One hundred years ago, as his son Jack (J. P. Morgan, Jr.) settled the magnate’s estate, Pierpont’s hometown museum received over 1,300 objects from his collections.

To mark this anniversary, the Wadsworth Atheneum will explore and celebrate Morgan’s collecting accomplishments in the special exhibition Morgan: Mind of the Collector, opening September 23, 2017. The exhibition will feature great works of art indicative of Morgan’s remarkable collection-drawn from the Wadsworth Atheneum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Morgan Library-in the context of his groundbreaking career.

Morgan and the Wadsworth Atheneum
“It would be agreeable to me to have ‘The Morgan Memorial’ which forms a portion of the Wadsworth Athenaeum at Hartford, Connecticut, utilized to effectuate a part of this purpose [to render my collections available to the public].” – Last Will and Testament of J. Pierpont Morgan

Pierpont’s family was the third generation of Morgans to support Hartford’s art museum-his grandfather Joseph was one of the founders of the Wadsworth Atheneum. Pierpont moved away from Hartford when he was 14, yet he retained a strong sense of hometown pride. In 1889, concerned for the future of the Wadsworth Atheneum and its challenging lack of space, the 52 year-old Pierpont convinced his father Junius to contribute $100,000 to the museum; Pierpont himself contributed an additional $50,000.

After Junius died in 1890, Pierpont commissioned and funded a $1,400,000 memorial to his father, a building that more than doubled the size of the museum. Acquiring plots of land for the Morgan Memorial took 12 years and construction spanned an additional seven; the building was still under construction at the time of Pierpont’s death in 1913. Four years later, Jack acted on his father’s will and gave the Wadsworth Atheneum a trove of ancient art and European decorative arts from his father’s renowned collection.

This gift of art was transformative for the museum, forming the core of its European decorative arts collection. Distinguished by their quality, rarity, and import to the history of art, Morgan’s objects include antiquities from Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome; Renaissance pottery from Florence, Urbino, Siena, and Deruta; sixteenth and seventeenth century glass from Venice and northern Europe; seventeenth century silver and silver-gilt objects; and eighteenth century porcelain.

Morgan’s Ceramics
Morgan was a voracious collector who kept ceramics in all of his houses-Italian, French, German, English, Chinese, Persian, American, ancient Egyptian, Greek-from Sèvres and Coalport dinner services to an extraordinary Meissen garniture. Some he collected for himself and some for others. The types of objects he lived with, such as the Qing Dynasty Bottle Vase purchased in 1907, for which Morgan had a special fondness, divulge more about his motivations as a collector. He kept this particular object in the West Room of his New York Library: “On another side table was a unique ruby-colored Chinese bottle-shaped vase … said to have come from the Palace collection of the last Empress.Mr. Morgan had it where he could look at it every day …?” (Herbert Satterlee).

Morgan’s personal taste led his collecting in two distinct directions. The first was back to the Italian Renaissance. His library was in the style of a Renaissance palazzo, decorated in a Renaissance revival style, and furnished with Renaissance and Renaissance-style objects. Maiolica was just one of several categories of Renaissance objects in Morgan’s collection, though it is uncertain exactly how many pieces he ultimately acquired. Pierpont began collecting Italian Renaissance pottery in the early twentieth century, amassing a collection rich in works from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries including Virgin and Child (c. 1480-1510). As he purchased works he would send them either to his New York residence or to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The works on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum-approximately 122 pieces-were shipped to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1912, and, after Pierpont’s death, sold to the dealer Duveen Brothers. Forty-seven of the more than 100 works that had been in Morgan’s New York library were sent to the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1917.

Morgan’s second great interest was in the decorative arts of the eighteenth century. Within this broad category he collected in two specific areas of ceramics, Meissen and French porcelain. Morgan’s Meissen collection curiously consisted almost entirely of figures, which he kept at his country home outside London. He would often buy them in large groups-an 1899 invoice shows Morgan acquired four cases of Meissen totaling 161 pieces in one purchase. Over the next few years he made additional purchases in groups of five to 10 pieces, occasionally buying some pieces individually.

The remarkable Basket of flowers (c. 1740s and 1751) bridges Morgan’s German and French porcelain collections; the basket is Meissen, while the flowers are Vincennes and the mounts French. Morgan purchased this piece in 1900 and displayed it in his home at Princes Gate, London, covered by a large glass dome. In the 1912 inventory of Princes Gate, the Basket of flowers is listed with Morgan’s Dresden porcelain in the Front Drawing Room, where he kept his extensive collection of French porcelain, primarily Sèvres. The inventory also listed (roughly counted) 24 vases; 20 tea sets; 10 trays; 13 broth basin sets; 27 cups and saucers; 10 plaques; 10 ewer and basin sets; 13 figures, in addition to various table wares. Among these objects were some of the most important pieces now at the Wadsworth Atheneum.

As a collector, Morgan was more interested in an object if it had an interesting provenance or historical association. He bought two Pot-pourri vases (c. 1752-53) from A.B. Daniell & Sons, London, in 1901; the dealer claimed that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI had given the objects to the Abbes de Ronceray. This provenance is unlikely, considering that the vases had been made between 1752 and 1753 and were completely out of fashion by the time Marie Antoinette was Queen of France (1770-1793). A Sèvres Plate (1785), also purchased from Daniell, was thought to be part of the dinner service ordered by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia in 1776, when in fact it was made by the Sèvres factory nine years later as a souvenir. Morgan was unaware of this, and listed the plate as part of Catherine’s service in the inventory of his French porcelain as it was being prepared for shipment to New York in 1912.

Morgan: Mind of the Collector
J. Pierpont Morgan’s collecting career was truly groundbreaking, significantly impacting art scholarship and the art market, and defining the nature of art collecting in American and European culture. Morgan: Mind of the Collector will assess this remarkable man and his colossal achievement with fresh eyes and the distance of a century, through the nearly 100 historical objects and stellar works of art on view. The breadth and richness of his collections will be on full display, telling illuminating stories about Morgan as a man and specifically as a collector, delving into his mind and exploring his enduring legacy.

The Wadsworth Atheneum will host a number of programs in association with Morgan: Mind of the Collector, including an international symposium November 10-11 to examine and showcase the latest research about Morgan’s collection and how he shaped the identity of the collector in the modern age. On October 7 the museum will explore Morgan’s admiration for and complex friendship with writer Mark Twain, presenting Artful Collaborations: J.P. Morgan & Mark Twain in partnership with The Mark Twain House and Museum. A full schedule of programs and events, including gallery talks and tours, is available at

Founded in 1842 with a vision for infusing art into the American experience, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is home to a collection of nearly 50,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years and encompassing European art from antiquity through Modernism as well as American art from the 1600s through today. The Wadsworth Atheneum is the oldest continuously operating art museum in the United States, opening its doors to the public in 1844. The museum’s five interconnected buildings-representing architectural styles from Gothic Revival to modern International Style-are located at 600 Main Street in Hartford, Connecticut.

Great Collections: September 2017