The essays in Power Underestimated: American Women Art Collectors emanated from a conference at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice sponsored by the Frick Museum. Co-edited by Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, professor of American Studies at the University of Venice, and Inge Reist, Director of the Center for the History of Collecting in America at the Frick Art Reference Library, it is the second volume stemming from conferences Zorzi has convened in Venice dealing with actual and fictional American women collectors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Power Underestimated, like her previous collection of essays, Before Peggy Guggenheim, profiles some of the rich Americans who populate the novels and short stories of Henry James and Edith Wharton but pays more attention to actual women who amassed impressive art holdings. The contributors escort us through luxurious houses across the United States from New York to Honolulu presided over by Gilded Age and modern doyennes such as Arabella Huntington, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, and Doris Duke. Even though most of these names are familiar to scholars, the authors augment the sparse literature in the emerging field of the history of women collectors. The reader is left wondering, however, why the real-life art collectors who are the subjects of seven of the ten essays are not compared with the characters examined in the three essays on James and Wharton.
Strangely, for a volume about American women collectors, the only fictional counterparts the authors discuss are male, except for Adele Gereth in James’s The Spoils of Poynton, who is British. The rationale, according to the director of the Frick, was to “gain an understanding of the attitudes of art collectors as reflected by their [End Page E-1] own contemporaries” (6). One questions the assumption that it is possible to gain an insight into women collectors by examining them through the eyes of men. Thus it comes as no surprise that Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, in one of the two essays on Henry James, concludes that “with one exception, James’s collectors are males who turn female characters into ‘objects’ in their art collections” (18–19). She lists only one woman among the collectors he actually knew, the dynamic Isabella Stewart Gardner, but hesitates to identify her as the model for Adele Gereth’s tenacious attitude toward her art treasures. Although James was troubled by the frenzied purchasing of European works of art by American millionaires, Zorzi argues that he exonerated Gardner and praised her collection in The American Scene.
But this does not explain the neglect of similarities between fictional and real women collectors in the other essays in the volume, especially since the editors claim that the art aficionados James and Wharton wrote about are thinly veiled (10). One only wishes that they had asked the contributors to exchange manuscripts and suggest links between their subjects. Why not, for instance, contrast Arabella Huntington’s attitude toward her possessions with Adele Gereth’s vis-à-vis their only sons’ marriages? Far from feeling threatened by her son Archer’s marriage to the sculptor Anna Hyatt, Huntington made him the sole inheritor of her collection. Further, Elisabetta Mazzani in her otherwise excellent essay, “Collectors in Edith Wharton’s Fiction,” might have related the thrice-married Arabella Huntington to Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, whose third husband was also a railroad king. By the same token, Shelley Bennett, in her carefully structured study of Arabella Huntington, might have compared her taste in displaying her paintings and antiquities to the opulently furnished salons of Wharton’s women characters.
One can also imagine a treatment of Catherine Lorillard Wolfe as a composite of James’s and Wharton’s rich spinsters. Although Wolfe was a generation older than Wharton, they moved in the same social circles in Newport and New York. In Newport Wolfe knew Marietta Reed Stevens, the mother of Wharton’s ill-fated fiancé Harry Stevens, and hired Richard Codman, the uncle of Wharton’s collaborator on The Decoration of Houses, to assist...