Published: December 19, 2000
Art & Antiques, Inc.:
By Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY – Michael Kimmelman disparaged it as “Knickerbocker’s Knickknacks,” “only marginally an art exhibition.” His colleague Roberta Smith complained that it was “a discordant array of painting, sculpture, photographs, furniture, documents, clothing, ceramics and glass,” “uncharacteristic for the Met” and “short on genuinely significant objects or artworks.”
Hey, could it be that the art critics of The New York Timesdon’t appreciate antiques? Or have trouble with Victorian excess? Ponderous in scale and dripping with ornament, 1850s furniture can be an adventurous taste for those weaned on Modernist design. But along with a few challenging casepieces, “Art and The Empire City: New York, 1825-1861,” which closes on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 7, is full of delectable drawings, prints and photographs; marvelous pottery, glass, porcelain and silver; and some truly provocative recreations of noteworthy art installations of the day.
“Art and the Empire City” is my vote for the most ambitious, progressive, and difficult exhibition of the fall season. Could I tell you what it’s about? Not in a word. The show didn’t lend itself to a breezy walk-through or a facile reading. That’s the good news.
This cross-disciplinary investigation took a dozen curators, a cultural historian and a team of research assistants half a decade to complete. With a checklist of 310 objects, “Art and the Empire City” is, physically, the largest exhibition in the Met’s history. The show itself is just the tip of the iceberg. The 636-page catalogue is dense with new findings on every aspect of art and commerce in New York in the middle quarters of the Nineteenth Century.
It is safe to say that scholars, dealers and collectors will be building out fromArt and The Empire City: 1825-1861 for some time to come. As a measure of how much ground the research team actually covered, one need only refer to an earlier Met catalogue, 19th-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts. A landmark in its time, this 1970 volume now seems modest in scope and rudimentary in its findings by comparison.
Aside from predictable differences in taste, the chief regret of decorative arts experts who have seen “Art and The Empire City” is that the exhibit does not include enough examples of their own specialties. But to tour “Art and The Empire City” with project director Catherine Hoover Voorsanger is to understand her desire, not so much to define each medium, but to recreate the complex cultural milieu of what was variously called the Empire City, the Great Emporium, and the Empress City of the West. The contextual basis is what rankles the art critics the most.
The catalogue includes some outstanding essays. Dell Upton, a professor of architectural history at the University of California, weighs in with a fascinating analysis of urban development in antebellum New York. Kevin J. Avery writes about the stimulating effect of tourism on landscape painting. Thayer Tolles examines the equivocal relationship that American sculptors, who often worked abroad, had with New York City, a superb venue for displaying and selling art.
Morrison Heckscher’s fine work on architects and architecture has produced many unfamiliar gems. In parallel essays, Elliot Bostwick Davis studies printmaking and Jeff L. Rosenheim examines photography. The emergence of Manhattan as a fashion capital is fascinatingly told by historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank. In a related discussion, Amelia Peck reveals where fashionable New Yorkers shopped for fabric, wallpaper, mantels, floor coverings and other household appointments.
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen takes on ceramics and glass. Debra Dependahl Waters of the Museum of the City of New York looks at silver. Voorsanger, whose curatorial charge is American furniture after 1825, studies cabinetmaking in the Empire City. Styles changed dramatically between the opening of the Erie Canal and the onset of the Civil War, as an elegantly stylized Duncan Phyfe pier table of 1834; a painted and gilded French Rococo writing desk of 1849, retailed by Charles Baudouine; and a Neo-Grec cabinet by Gustave Herter, circa 1860, illustrate.
Voorsanger writes intriguingly about the taste for French and French-style furnishings that flourished in the 1840s. This leads to a fascinating and perhaps unprecedented discussion of the first antiques dealers, auctioneers and collectors. Popular interest in antiques has not been thought to much predate the Civil War, but Voorsanger writes convincingly that antiquarian values were firmly in place 30 years earlier. She quotes “The China Pitcher,” published in New Mirror in 1843: “Garretts are ransacked, old cellars, lumber-rooms, and auction-shops, and everything turned topsy turvy…pillaged over and over again by people who, six months ago, had their great-grand-mother’s chairs lugged off into the wood-house…”.
The New Mirror dated the antiques revival to 1839 or 1840, “…when it was the rage to look up costly and old-fashioned articles of jewelry and furniture.” Frequent bankruptcies encouraged flea-marketeering in America’s brash new capital of commerce, and auctions were regarded as prime sources for luxurious French decor. “People build houses and furnish them as if for 20 generations, occupy them for a year or two, and sell out at auction,” the Home Journal reported in 1848. “New-York [is] perhaps the best place in the world to purchase costly and curious furniture secondhand.” Not unlike today, buying at auction, Home Journal said, combined “a good deal of the excrdf_Descriptionent of gambling” as well as the opportunity to see “how every class furnishes.”
“While the appreciation for old things may have been new,” writes the curator, “purchasing secondhand furniture was an established custom in New York.” There were “mock-auction” shops, particularly in Chatham Square. One of the city’s first antiques dealers was Daniel Marley, who, from 1840 on, dealt in used furniture and Rococo curiosities. The term “antiques dealer” wasn’t used until 1886, when it first appeared in London trade directories.
John K. Howat, who directs the museum’s American Wing, and Carrie Rebora Barratt, an associate curator in the painting and sculptures department, explore the parallel rise of New York’s art market, which was just getting underway when the English landscape artist Thomas Cole arrived in Manhattan in 1825. Cole placed works with George Dixey, a carver, gilder, and retailer of art supplies on Chatham Street, and with antiquarian William A. Colman. His pictures soon sold to the painters Asher B. Durand, William Dunlap, and John Trumbull, the most influential art impresario of his time.
The American Academy and its rival, the National Academy of Design, validated artists and profoundly shaped tastes throughout much of the Nineteenth Century. “Art and The Empire City” strongly makes the case that, far from contenting themselves with Hudson River School canvases, New Yorkers were keen on Old Masters pictures and modern European painting.
“We were interested not just in what American artists were doing but with what concerned American patrons,” notes Voorsanger. “We did a massive amount of original research. We looked at 90 periodicals, page by page, and selectively at the scores of New York newspapers that flourished during this period.”
Over 200 Italian paintings, owned by Sarti of Florence, were shown at the American Academy in 1828 before they were auctioned. In 1830, the Academy mounted a controversial exhibition of the collection of English pictures dealer Richard Abraham. Two of those paintings – Ruisdael’s “A Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Church,” on loan from the National Gallery in London, and Murillo’s “Four Figures on a Step,” from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex. – were reunited for “Art and The Empire City” and are illustrated in the catalogue.
“By 1849,” writes Barratt, “the competition for viewers and buyers of art was fierce. Frequent auctions held by new professional houses, including Cooley, Dumont and Hosack, Leavitt, Lees, and Royal Gurley, brought more and more art objects to the attention of New Yorkers.” In 1848, the Paris print publisher and dealer Goupil, Vibert and Company opened a Broadway showroom, broadening the market by offering affordable copies for the masses. Barratt makes an extremely useful contribution with her nine-page list of dealers, auctioneers and galleries in operation in antebellum New York. A second appendix provides a chronological list of exhibitions, sales, and auctions.
John Howat picks up where Barratt leaves off, with an essay on private collectors and their public legacies. One of the earliest was the colorful Eliza Jumel, who, before her marriage to the wealthy Stephen Jumel, was a prostitute in Rhode Island. Mademoiselle Jumel exhibited her collection of Old Master paintings, at the American Academy in 1817. The group was auctioned by Claude G. Fontaine in 1821.
Far more typical were the art connoisseurs Samuel F.B. Morse and John Trumbull. Howat profiles dozens of collectors, among them Richard Worsam Meade; Luman Reed; Ithiel Town; Town’s partner, Alexander Jackson Davis, a noted collector of prints; John Allan, another print collector; Edward Brush Corwin; Asher B. Durand; John M. Falconer; James B. Suydam; and Henry Foster Sewall, whose collection of approximately 23,000 prints is now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“It is also significant,” writes Howat, “that while men such as Reed and Sturges were forming their collections of American works, others were searching abroad…and bringing together intriguing groups of paintings, sculptures, antiquities, and decorative arts.” James C. Colles bought dubious Old Master pictures, along with Neo-classical sculpture by Americans living abroad. Dr Henry Abbott was the first American to build a collection of Egyptian antiquities, now at the Brooklyn Museum. James Lenox bought broadly, acquiring books, paintings, and Assyrian antiquities. Concludes Howat, “the beginning of the Civil War, in April 1861, closed many chapters in American life…Most notable was a radical shift in the taste of collectors, away from Hudson River School landscapes and ideal marble figures toward the more painterly, realistic, and worldly works being created across the Atlantic…”
Dealers In The Modern Age
Malcolm Goldstein, a professor of English at the City University of New York, takes a longer look at the art market in his new book, Landscape With Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States. Though his previous works, on George S. Kaufman and Depression-era theater, would have hardly predicted his latest endeavor, Landscape With Figures is a well-researched and readable survey.
“My own interest in galleries and their owners dates from my graduate-student days at Columbia University in the1950s and the rare occasions when I pulled away from my books and took a bus down to Fifty-seventh Street to look at art…I particularly remember with gratitude three eminent dealers, Grace Borgenicht, the late Edith Gregor Halpert, and the late Antoinette Kraushaar.”
Goldstein opens with a description of John Doggett, a Boston framemaker who opened a shop in 1810 and not long after began selling pictures. Renamed Williams and Everett, the firm became one of the most prestigious galleries of the Nineteenth Century. In New York, Nineteenth Century art dealers of note included Pierre Flandin, the German émigré Michael Paff, art lover Philip Hone, and the auctioneer Aaron Levy, characters also thoroughly covered in Art and The Empire City.
A new group of dealers and collectors emerged after the Civil War. Goldstein writes at length about Samuel Putnam Avery, an engraver and collector who became a dealer with the backing of an important client, William T. Walters. Avery’s rivals included Knoedler and Schaus galleries, as well as the dealer Ernest Gambart and William Macbeth, the leading specialist in American art. In Chicago, collectors turned to the M. O’Brien and Roullier galleries; in San Francisco, to the Vickery Gallery; and in Boston, to Williams and Everett, Doll and Richards, and Sowle and Shaw.
Vose Gallery is covered at length. In 1850, Joseph Vose of Rhode Island bought the Westminster Gallery of Providence. Seth Vose enlarged the trade in Barbizon artists, holding the first Corot show in the United States in 1852. In the 1880s, Vose began showing paintings in the Studio Building in Boston.
“Knoedler and Schaus, as employees of Goupil, had constituted the first wave of Europeans to enter the American market, along with the naturalized John G. Boker, proprietor of the Dusseldorf Gallery,” Goldstein writes. The Duveen Brothers handled only decorative arts when they opened a New York branch in the 1870s. By the early Twentieth Century, writes Goldstein, “they had become the giant of the old-master trade.” In 1880, Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel brought Modern French painting to New York.
It is as Goldstein writes about progressive art in New York, beginning with the 1913 Armory Show, thatLandscape With Figures comes alive. He profiles Alfred Stieglitz, foremost among American dealers to exhibit Post-Impressionism, and devotes a chapter to Edith Gregor Halpert, a powerhouse in the art trade for four decades.
In a story that has recently gotten a lot of ink, the author reviews the charges against Wildenstein Gallery, accused of making “an advantageous arrangement” with Occupation forces while the holdings of many prominent Jewish dealers were confiscated. “In the postwar years,” writes Goldstein, “the firm continued to grow in wealth and, correspondingly, power in the international market.” In the 1990s, Wildenstein purchased a 49-percent share in Pace Gallery, a leader in the Contemporary field representing artists such as Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenberg, Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson and Mark Rothko.
Several chapters are devoted to the stimulating effect of collectors on the market. Goldstein writes about Katherine S. Dreier and the Societe Anonyme; Museum of Modern Art founders Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan; Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, creator of the Whitney Museum; and Peggy Guggenheim.
Aided and abetted by Betty Parsons, Charles Egan, and Sidney Janis, Abstract Expressionism rose to prominence in the late 1940s. Leo Castelli was a presence by 1957. Ivan Karp, who later had his own gallery, joined Castelli Gallery in 1959 as an assistant. By the 1960s, Castelli’s roster of controversial artists – including Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, and the Pop artists Lichtenstein, Warhol and Rosenquist – had left Abstract Expressionism behind. Landscape With Figures continues on to the opening of the Guggenheim branch in Bilbao in 1997 and the proliferation of alternative spaces in the New York’s East Village.
In his final chapter, Goldstein asks what’s next. “…The business of art is tricky, and dangerously so for the unsophisticated man or woman who hopes for success in it,” he writes. While the average life of a gallery is between five and 25 years, a few have survived from the Nineteenth Century. Among the old guard are Vose, Knoedler, Babcock, Graham, Kennedy, and Kraushaar.
Billed as the first book on the history of art dealing in the United States, Landscape With Figures is an even-handed and accomplished account, frustrating only in that it introduces so many interesting characters about whom we wish to know more.
Birth of the Blockbuster
One has to admire Francis Haskell for uncovering all kinds of obscure and long-forgotten history in The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition.
The first temporary shows seem to have been in Italy, mounted on saints’ days in cloisters or churches and drawn from the collections of aristocrats or the newly wealthy. Haskell writes that some of the earliest shows on record were organized from 1676 on by Giuseppe Ghezzi, a painter, copyist, restorer and collector who owned Leonardo’s famous “Codex Hammer.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Haskell writes that another kind of temporary display was becoming important, the showrooms of dealers and auctioneers. “It was, for instance, probably at an auction in Amsterdam on 9 April 1639 [that] Rembrandt was able to see and make a drawing of Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Catiglione…From the first years of the Eighteenth Century auction houses in London, Paris and elsewhere provided the easiest opportunities for looking at pictures (both genuine and, more often, copies) by celebrated Old Masters.”
Haskell was a celebrated art historian who died in January 2000 as he was putting this, a series of lectures, into book form. Over the years the British scholar, who retired from Oxford University in 1995, wrote variously about the culture of collecting. His best-known works include Patrons and Painters, Past and Present in Art and Taste, and, with Nicholas Penny, his collaborator on the current volume, Taste and the Antique.
International exhibitions of Old Master paintings are a recent phenomenon, only becoming regularly established in the early Nineteenth Century in England. The most successful of them have had nationalist overtones. In this group Haskell includes the 1898 Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam, what he calls the first modern “blockbuster.”
Haskell had little respect for the “blockbuster,” arguing that loan shows divert resources away from scholarship, draw audiences away from permanent collections, and, increasingly, distract museums with the alarming business of marketing and merchandising. He concludes, “No one could have predicted the change that took place in the second half of the Twentieth Century when almost all of the great museums and galleries of the world one by one came to organize or host loan exhibitions. Today these institutions are often associated in the minds of their visitors as much with ephemeral displays as with a ‘permanent’ collection…”
This scholarly volume contains 50 black-and-white illustrations of early exhibitions and some of the landmark objects in them. A photograph charmingly depicts Marcel Proust outside the Jeu de Paume in Paris, on his way to visit Vermeer’s “View of Delft.”
First Person Singular
Art dealer Richard Feigen has always stood out among his colleagues. Lately, he has been visibly associated with the sale of $60 million dollars worth of Old Master pictures from the collection of financier Saul Steinberg and his socialite wife, Gayfryd. In Tales From The Art Crypt we learn that this multifaceted lover of art has hardly been limited to vintage pieces. After a brief, unsatisfying career on Wall Street, the Harvard graduate opened his first gallery in 1957 in his hometown of Chicago, there helping to build some important Midwestern collections of avant-garde art. He moved back to New York in 1966.
Typically ahead of his time, Feigen organized an exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon in 1959. Despite the fact that they were priced from $900 to $1,300, only one canvas sold, to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for $1,300. The fortunes of art dealers, Feigen has wryly observed, are built on pieces that dealers cannot, or will not, sell. We hope he held onto the Bacons.
Meandering and episodic, Tales From The Art Crypt is loosely organized as a series of anecdotes about the people Feigen has known and the places he has been. Invited to join the board of the Barnes Foundation, the great repository of Post Impressionist pictures outside of Philadelphia, Feigen is scathing in his criticism of its management. The financial disaster he prophesied is only now becoming public.
Another fascinating chapter revolves around convicted junk-bond king Michael Milkin, who approached him in 1986 with a $200 million deal to buy and market Old Master paintings. “At that point, no work of art had ever sold for more than $11 million, and sales even in the low seven figures were a rarity. I doubted that $200 million could be spent intelligently…,” writes Feigen, who walked away from the offer.
An easy and entertaining read, Tales From The Art Crypt is the perfect companion to Landscape With Figures. Better than any survey, it describes by example the qualities that successful dealers tend to have in common: canny intuition, financial daring, persistence, and social agility.
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