ALISON COFRANCESCO ’20
Through Dec. 31, the Wadsworth Atheneum is displaying “Mind of the Collector,” an exhibition honoring John Pierpont Morgan. Morgan was a major benefactor to both the city of Hartford and the Atheneum, having donated over 1,400 works of art from his personal collection. The show attempts to give a snapshot of Morgan’s vast and varied collection, and illustrate his motivations as an art lover.
Morgan was born into a prominent Hartford family. His father worked in the financial sector, and hoped for his son to follow his career path. John Pierpont did become a banker, but not before receiving a degree in art history from the University of Gottingen.
After attending school in Europe, Morgan began work in the financial sector. He gained nationwide acclaim for saving the United States economy by bailing out the banks during the 1895 financial crisis and the Panic of 1907. Despite being most famous for his role as a Gilded Age banker, Morgan’s true passion was for art. As soon as he amassed his fortune, he began to spend it on just about every type of art. After the death of his father, Morgan became even more intensely focused on collecting, using his inheritance to buy whatever he could. According to Morgan’s biographer, Jean Strouse, he spent more than 60 million dollars on art (equivalent to roughly 900 million today) on his personal collection.
Morgan wanted his art collection to be put to public use. His final will and testament reads, “It has been my intention to render them [his works of art] permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people.” Thanks to Morgan’s generosity, the Wadsworth is home to several of his inter- national pieces, and was able to put on an exhibition honoring his love of art.
Walking through the Morgan exhibit feels a little like going through someone’s attic (albeit an incredibly lavish one). It not only includes a variety of artifacts that span across cultures, but also old letters, photographs, and sign in books from the Morgan estate. The artifacts in the exhibit are accompanied by short blurbs that explain why Morgan was so drawn to each piece. One work that was particularly important to Morgan was a statue of an angel that he would move from house to house, in order to keep it near him. Another notable piece was an ostrich shaped wine ewer, with a base made from an ostrich egg. It is strange to see this piece in the same room as Chinese pots and cuneiform tablets, but this was the style of Morgan’s collecting. His collection includes Byzantine carvings, illuminated manuscripts, Egyptian statues, Chinese pots, and Dutch engravings (among many other works). Because of this, there is something for almost every art lover in the Morgan exhibit.
The tone of “the Mind of the Collector” is decidedly sentimental, showing an intimate view of such an intimidating figure. It includes stories from friends and family that describe Morgan’s opinion of art and his adventures collecting it. One account from his wife states that Morgan “would buy anything from an Egyptian pyramid to Mary Magdalene’s tooth.” The exhibit gives the impression of Morgan as a lover of art and history, whose opinions of art were not dictated by what was popular during his lifetime. He simply collected what he loved. This is in stark contrast to our modern art market, where fine art is often bought as a status symbol or an investment. “Mind of the Collector” offers the opportunity to understand a collector who was able to find value in all genres of art.