- The Capitalist and the Critic: J. P. Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Charles Molesworth
Charles Molesworth’s book on J. P. Morgan (1837–1913), financier and Metropolitan Museum of Art benefactor, and Roger Fry (1866–1934), painter, connoisseur, and theorist, opens with an examination of portraits [End Page 145] of the two men. In Edward Steichen’s famous 1903 photograph, Morgan glares from under furrowed brows, watch and chain glimmering against a black waistcoat. In his 1928 self-portrait, Fry captures himself with an enigmatic expression, bemused and wary. Each portrait also has a significant feature. In the Steichen photograph, Morgan appears to have a drawn dagger in his left hand (it was the shiny armrest of the chair in which he posed), while Fry emphasizes his modernity by including the raw edge of the canvas in his portrait. These two idiosyncratic details ground Molesworth’s own depictions of these two men, one a predatory capitalist who brandished a “metaphorical knife blade” and the other a thoughtful modernist who “operated with the felt necessity of clear, scrupulous, and engaged knowledge.” Thus does the author set the ground rules for his examination of “the traceries of Morgan and Fry.”
J. P. Morgan is described on a memorial tablet commissioned by the Metropolitan trustees as a “great citizen [who] helped make New York the true metropolis of America” and that “his interest in art was lifelong and his generous devotion to it commanded worldwide appreciation . . . vita plena laboris.” Morgan’s life was indeed full of work, from his first job as an unsalaried clerk in his father’s merchant banking firm to his own remarkable success as an investor and financier. Once his fortune was made, Morgan, like many wealthy men, began looking for ways to spend it, discovering an interest in art as a source of civic pride. The Metropolitan figured largely among his philanthropic projects, and he served first as a founding trustee beginning in 1871, moved on to vice president of the board, and then as president from 1904 until the end of his life. The year that Morgan became president of the Metropolitan board, Roger Fry was being considered for a position at the museum although he would not be offered an appointment as assistant director until 1905. In the event, Fry first served as curator of paintings and later as “European agent,” a flexible position that allowed him to work in New York, to travel to assess new works of art for the museum, and to handle his complicated affairs in England (namely, the care of his mentally ill wife).
It may have sounded like a dream job, but it wasn’t. Molesworth’s account of Fry’s five years at the museum—if one can follow the author’s fluid chronology and digressions—shows that the curator never became comfortable and experienced several reverses. Hardly had the ink dried on his employment contract when Fry became involved in a workplace scandal. While it is not unusual for employees to begin work before an offer is formalized, it is unnerving to learn that Fry was cleaning and restoring canvases even though the author has made no reference to the curator’s expertise in this area. We must take it on faith that Fry’s unconventional method of cleaning—hanging a painting, in this case a Rembrandt, over heated alcohol and allowing the fumes to loosen surface dirt—was sanctioned by the museum director and by extension Morgan and the board. According to Molesworth, the “cleaning scandal” was largely the work of a disgruntled trustee and collector who conceived some kind of animosity [End Page 146] toward Fry. The reason is not given but one wonders if Fry’s arch comments about American art collectors (Morgan and others) being amateurish and uncivilized might have had something to do with it. (About a year earlier, Fry had been rejected for consideration as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge after his disparaging comments about...