Bad Blood in Gilded Age America

Margaret Deli on Charles Molesworth’s The Capitalist and the Critic

Charles Molesworth, The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, University of Texas Press, 2015, 256 pp., $29.95
Charles Molesworth, The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, University of Texas Press, 2015, 256 pp., $29.95
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On Tuesday, February 28, Thomas P. Campbell resigned under pressure as director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The announcement came after months of speculation regarding the museum’s skyrocketing deficit and Campbell’s capacity to lead. It will, no doubt, prompt months of further speculation regarding who is capable of reconceiving the museum’s collections for twenty-first century audiences and placating its board of trustees. In the meantime, perhaps those tasked with finding Campbell’s successor would be wise to consult Charles Molesworth’s The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—another story of the contradictory imperatives of art and commerce (also featuring hurt feelings, bad blood, and some really expensive art).

On or about December 1909, the most important art critic of his generation was fired from the Metropolitan. That man was Roger Fry, a scholar of the Italian Renaissance and future member of the Bloomsbury Circle, an influential group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and artists, including Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forester, and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Trouble had been brewing for some time between the connoisseur-critic and the museum’s board of trustees. The former disliked New York, and wanted to spend as little time there as possible; the latter disapproved of their new curator’s habit of making bids on paintings that did not meet with their approval. The coup de grace happened in June of 1909, when Fry accused J.P. Morgan, the Metropolitan’s president, of scooping a Fra Angelico he was in the process of acquiring for the museum. “The most remarkable letter I ever received,” Morgan scribbled on top of a note from the younger man, attempting to explain the dicey ethics of the situation. Six months later, Fry’s position at the museum was officially terminated.

In the capacious annals of twentieth-century modernism, surprising little has been written about the fact that the founder of British post-impressionism was once employed by the king of American high finance. Following Virginia Woolf’s lead, most Fry biographers dismiss Morgan as an example of provincial vanity and boorish incompetence. While Morgan’s professional rapacity is typically censured, Fry’s personal ambition is tacitly endorsed—including his willingness to exploit the avarice and egotism of people like Morgan in the first place. In The Capitalist and the Critic, Molesworth adheres to precedent by finding much about his capitalist to critique and much about his critic to admire. But Molesworth also insists that both men were crucial to the future of the Metropolitan: he presents the museum’s “greatest period of expansion” as the result of a “dialectical conflict between commerce and art, wealth and beauty” represented by “the traceries of Morgan and Fry, these two agents of change.”

Between 1909 and 1910 alone, fine art objects valued at more than a million pounds sterling left the United Kingdom. Much of it was bound for the United States, where collectors like Henry Clay Frick and J.P. Morgan were willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of hanging Rembrandt, Rubens, Velazquez and Gainsborough on their walls. A dramatic surge in prices not only increased the demand of wealthy collectors, but the necessity of employing fine arts professionals capable of spotting forgeries and fakes—“a problem,” Molesworth notes, “that had begun to afflict America’s millionaire collectors in a way that seemed contagious, if not epidemic.” Aesthetic professionals like Fry were suddenly facilitating sales worth thousands of dollars on the international art market, based on their ability to “identify artists and attribute their paintings on the basis of distinctive details.” The term used to describe this new methodology of verification was “connoisseurship,” a word meant to imply the superior expertise and aesthetic competency of its practitioners. But while connoisseurs like Fry clung to the belief that aesthetic worth alone should determine how a work of art was discussed, it soon became clear that professional success was contingent upon a certain degree of showmanship and commercial savoir faire. As John Brewer argues in The American Leonardo, his excellent study of the twentieth-century art market, successful connoisseurs were quick to market themselves as “broker[s] of the transcendental,” not only capable of revealing to the public fine art’s technical qualities, but its aesthetic and spiritual values.

“I go tomorrow to the Metropolitan Museum to meet the great J.P. Morgan, to see whether he and I hit it off,” Fry wrote his wife, Helen, in the winter of 1905. “The bigness of the job, the élan and real confidence in the future…fascinate me and this climate is exhilarating.” Fry was equally appreciative of the financial opportunities employment at the Metropolitan represented. For some years now, Helen had suffered from increasingly intense bouts of mental instability, and now required constant care. Fry was similarly hopeful that he might find additional funding for the Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, the scholarly art journal he co-founded in 1903. That Fry conceived of the position of curator as an extension of the Burlington’s principles and practices can be deduced from “The Idea of a Gallery,” the first essay he published in the museum’s monthly Bulletin. By foregrounding “the establishment of standards of truth and beauty, and the encouragement of a keener discrimination and firmer faith,” the art critic hoped to educate an increasingly broad public as to the spiritually-remunerative value of the museum’s contents. With a knowledgeable expert like himself at the helm, Fry was confident that the museum could improve the aesthetic health of the metropolis.

But it was not to be. Morgan may have been the most powerful financier of his generation, but the man himself struck Fry as unforgivably vulgar. “Morgan, rather jovial and making jokes, which I parried, about my becoming an American. After lunch a cigar called the Regalia de Morgan. The whole regal and yet how infinitely provincial,” is how the art critic described their first meeting. “He behaves not as a host but exactly as a crowned head, and everyone else behaves accordingly.” Still, Fry conceded, “for a few minutes I felt that I wielded absolute power.” In the weeks and years to come, Fry would grow increasingly resentful of Morgan’s sense of the Metropolitan as his personal fiefdom—made manifest by the latter’s conviction that he had the right to “first choice” in terms of any acquisitions it might be contemplating. Fry was equally frustrated by the willingness of the museum’s staff to accede to these desires. For his part, Morgan obviously resented Fry’s frequent absences from the Metropolitan—although he benefited from the latter’s expertise. As Fry describes one particularly difficult European tour: “I have found several other Italian pictures which I wanted for the Museum, and on my calling Mr. Morgan’s attention to them he secured three for himself and expressed a pious hope that the Museum might be able to buy the rest!”

The Capitalist and the Critic is quick to lay the blame for Fry’s termination at Morgan’s doorstep. At various points in Molesworth’s text, Morgan is referred to as Fry’s “opponent,” his “nemesis” and once, memorably, his “te noir,” as though Fry’s expulsion from the museum was the financier’s nefarious plan all along. The truth, one suspects, is that the scope of Morgan’s business and collecting interests was so vast that he was largely oblivious to Fry’s mounting sense of dissatisfaction. Molesworth usefully points out that the expansion of the Metropolitan’s collection of European paintings was only one of many ventures that Morgan embarked upon during his presidency. He also oversaw the formation of the Department of Decorative Arts, the Department of Arms and Armor, and the Department of Egyptian Art, three of the museum’s most popular and successful departments—each of which was helmed by men with whom Morgan had extremely successful working relationships. Fry was perhaps foolish to believe that he could redefine “the social, political, and financial nature of the twentieth-century museum” while coming and going from the Metropolitan as he pleased.

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different than you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald would opine some fifteen years following Fry’s exit from the museum. What Molesworth’s treatment of his two key figures ultimately suggests, however, is that Fry and Morgan’s animosity was based on a shared sensibility. Each man believed in the acquisition of “beautiful and beautifully made objects,” both as an end in itself and as a means of forming “a cultural bulwark, a historical record that reveals a truth.” Each man believed that the only way to produce this cultural bulwark was by shaping taste and values via the public art museum. And each man believed in the superiority of his right to dictate the art museum’s public agenda. Although The Capitalist and the Critic equates Morgan with finance capitalism and Fry with formalist aesthetic values, it could be argued that both men’s success in their respective fields was contingent upon the esotericism and opacity of those fields. Whether it was a corporate merger or a highly sought-after painting, success depended on the obfuscation of knowledge: keeping what one knew under wraps, and revealing at the right time only what was necessary.

But which man’s expertise was ultimately more valuable? The question is of newfound pertinence now, given the highly public leave-taking of another scholarly Brit from the Metropolitan. Campbell’s forced resignation reminds us that the relationship between art and commerce is always tense and usually volatile. Under his tenure, the museum enjoyed record attendance and blockbuster special exhibitions; it has also endured growing deficits, curatorial layoffs, and postponed expansion plans. Today’s Metropolitan may not be run by a robber baron like Morgan or an aesthete like Fry, but the dramatic termination of Campbell’s directorship suggests that the jury is still out as to who knows best. The capitalist and the critic are still feuding, perhaps now more than ever. These questions are still our own.

 Margaret Deli is a Ph.D. Candidate in English Literature at Yale University. Her research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature with a focus on histories of institution-building and transatlantic cultures of collecting.