– We’re now gonna be
listening to Margaret Laster who is associate curator of American art at the New York Historical Society where she oversees the Society’s holdings of American painting and sculpture. Her specialty is 19th century art, architecture, and material culture, with a particular focus on collecting and patronage histories of the Gilded Age. Margaret has held research positions in the curatorial
departments of museums in New York, Chicago, Boston,
and Washington, D.C. She has degrees from Williams College, the University of Chicago, and she has a doctorate
in art history from the Graduate Center City
University of New York. Margaret’s scholarship
has been supported by the Huntington Library, the William Morris Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and she was also like
Lance a Leon Levy fellow at our Center for the
History of Collecting. In addition, Margaret
was the inaugural fellow for the Lunder Consortium
for Whistler Studies at the Freer Gallery of
Arts in Washington, D.C. where she worked to develop the 2011 international symposium Palaces of Art: Whistler and the Art
Worlds of Aestheticism, and the proceedings of that symposium were published in 2013. Margaret is currently
co-editor of a forthcoming anthology titled New
York: Cultural Capital of the Gilded Age, and she is also at work on a biography of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, the first female benefactor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today Margaret will be speaking about the taste for Flemish art in
early 19th century New York. Please welcome Margaret Laster. (audience applause) – Thank you for the– Thank you for that kind
introduction, Esmée, and for inviting me here
today to participate in this wonderful conference. My gratitude extends as well to Inge Reist and Samantha Deutch and everyone here at the
Frick Collection and Library. Okay. The taste for old masters,
including Flemish art, in New York of the early
decades of the 19th century as cultivated by such major collectors as Luman Reed and Thomas Jefferson Bryan was inextricably connected
to a larger tension that existed in a young
nation newly independent. Collectors were faced with the question of what cultural model they should follow. Adopting the area of taste
of their English forebears, or helping to create
a new American school. In an 1816 address on the
occasion of an opening at the American Academy of
the Fine Arts in New York, DeWitt Clinton, soon to be governor, spoke of the need to foster the arts. “A republican government, “instead of being unfriendly to the growth “of the fine arts, “is the appropriate soil
for their cultivation.” He continues, “With respect to comparative “advantages or disadvantages “of the ancient and modern artist, “we stand precisely on the same footing “as our brethren of the old world. “But we are unfortunately deficient “in having but few
distinguished models of art.” He goes on, “It must be
obvious that the imagination “of the artist must derive its power “and receive its
complexion from the country “in which he was born
and in which he resides. “And can there be a country in the world “better calculated than ours to exercise “and exalt the imagination?” A demonstratively far less optimistic view of American sophistication can be seen in the words of Frances Trollope, a British journalist and writer, and mother of Anthony Trollope, in her two-volume opus Domestic Manners of the Americans published in 1832. “I visited all the
exhibitions in New York. “The Medici’s of the republic must exert “themselves a little more before they can “become even respectable. “The worst of the business
is that with the exception “of about a half dozen individuals, “the good citizens are
more than contented. “They are delighted. “I should heartly
believed were I to relate “the most ignorance respecting pictures “to be found among persons of the first “standing in society.” One did not need the words
of a visiting commentator from across the pond to articulate what was considered by some at home a cultural deficiency. In this sketch by the illustrator David Claypoole Johnston, and old master painting, perhaps a Claude or a Michelangelo, or even a Snyders, is venerated. Whether right side up or upside down as the canvas is, either way it is divine. It must be remembered that New Yorkers were entering an art market only beginning to form and define itself
beyond the commissioning of family portraits. The serious pursuit of
art collecting for many was in its nascent stage. There were art societies and academies such as the American
Academy of the Fine Arts, founded in 1802, the National Academy of Design, its rival, founded in 1825, and later the American Art Union was formed in 1839. But there was no encyclopedic museum in New York until the establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870. The early 19th century
taste for Flemish painting in New York would also include works of Dutch origin, with which they were often conflated. This taste must have been engendered by an American admiration
for what was perceived as Netherlandish hardiness
and lack of pretension. America in the early 1800s, having wrested its ties
from the rule of kings, had a self-consciously
democratic sensibility for what was the practical
and the immediate. Works that individual buyers chose by Flemish and other old masters, many of questionable
attributions we’ve seen, were for the most part not painted in the grand Baroque
style that would later appeal to Gilded Age collectors. In his iconic 1992 essay, Flemish Painting in America:
An Art Historical Text, Walter Liedtke speculates that the “ease and honor with which Rembrandt,” excuse me, “Rubens and Van Dyck moved among princes “would have been held against them “by most Americans in the 19th century.” Collectors of this era
were less interested in schools of painting
than they were drawn to individual artists. Liedtke cites the particular
early 19th century appeal for the paintings
of artists such as David Teniers, whose work
we see on the screen, or for Jean Racine’s in the same style. In this context, the taste gave validity to painting scenes of ordinary life and at
least to the collectors of the early 1800s. At the time of Luman Reed’s death in 1836, Phllip Hone, former New York mayor and an art collector himself, wrote, “Mr. Luman Reed died this morning, “a respectable citizen, “an upright merchant, “and what does not always follow “a man of taste and a
liberal patron of the arts.” Luman Reed became best known for his pioneering patronage of American painters Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, William Sydney Mount,
and George Whiting Flagg. However, he began first
to collect European art, including the work of
Flemish and Dutch masters, although some of the
attributions have changed. And here we have an assemblage of pictures in the Reed Collection that are believed today to be by artists from the Flemish or Dutch school, and we’re working on
fine-tuning these attributions, but I think you’ll find
they are an interesting assemblage of memento mori, religious painting, still life, and a wonderful interior scene. A self-made man of humble beginnings, Reed did not have the experience of travel over seas. He made his mark as a wholesale grocer before becoming a highly successful dry goods merchant in New York. By 1830 when he started his collection, Luman Reed was cited as one of the city’s wealthiest 500 citizens. It was at this time, in the early 1830s, that Reed commissioned
the building of a house at 13 Greenwich Street, which would become a repository for his growing collection. However, this new
advocation would only last a little over five years. Although not part of the original design, he had the double parlor
adjoining a nursery on the third floor transformed for the “for purpose of a picture gallery “as well as could be done
without a skylight in the roof.” The paintings would be
illuminated by natural light from side windows with gas burners installed for night time viewing. Reed opened his gallery once a week to persons properly introduced, attesting to his desire
to promote the education in the arts. His son-in-law assisted
him in forming a collection of more than 200 engravings. These included examples in the style of Flemish artists, among them Rubens and Van Dyck. According to the inventories
from Reed’s house, the engravings were unbound and they were kept in his library with his books for study purposes. The prints helped him
learn about the style and subject matter of
the old master paintings on which they were based, serving as pedagogical
aids for the new collector, while he hoped that the
paintings he purchased were original works by old masters. At the time Reed was
collecting old master canvases, American buyers were beginning to worry that they were extending themselves beyond their knowledge and
were possibly being dupped. An 1835 edition of the Knickerbocker New York Monthly Magazine asserted that “great improbability that
works of such immense “value as originals by
great masters bear in Europe “should come to the United States “begging for a purchaser, “when we know, too, that
the millionaires of England, “and even princes and kings, “are always on the
alert to snap up the few “real gems that may come into the market.” Two decades later the journal The Crayon would be far more direct. “Always prefer a modern to an old picture “and advise those who would been diluted “into making great bargains in Titians, “Van Dycks, Claudes, or
any other old master works, “to burn them at once
if you can afford it.” Reed purchase many of
his European paintings from the German immigrant
dealer Michael Paff, originally owner of a shop
selling musical instruments. Paff became notorious first as a collector of supposed old masters, and then for selling these old masters with dubious attributions. When Paff bought a picture, he would clean it using methods that would horrify present-day conservators, and then decide for himself
who would have painted it. Philip Hone recollected
how Paff transformed many a dark canvas into
the sunlit landscapes of a Ruisdael. It is unclear the extent to which Paff was willfully trying to deceive his buyers or was a victim of his own fantasies. Paff and Reed reportedly
fell out over Paff’s misattributions of
pictures originally to be believed by Teniers. And here is one example of a picture that Luman Reed purchased from Paff once attributed to Teniers, and then believed not to
have been by the artist. Luman Reed became suspicious of the trade in European pictures
and moved on to collect contemporary American art. And here we have just a few examples of works by the four artists, Cole, Durand, Mount, and Flagg, whom he so passionately would support. I think it’s interesting
that we see the use of genre painting, particularly in the work on the lower left which is of Peter Stuyvesant, which does call to mind some of the old master European paintings
that we’ve been looking at. The shift in his patronage must be seen as an example of his cultural nationalism. Asher B. Durand commented
a year before Reed’s death. “His kindness and liberality towards me “knows no bounds. “He is determined to
make something of me.” Perhaps nowhere can Reed’s commitment to living American
painters be seen in a more compelling fashion than
in the commissioning of Thomas Cole’s monumental five-part series charting the bucolic beginning, rise, and inevitable fall of a civilization, which I must add was originally
conceived for Gilmore. What began as Cole’s
installation diagram in 1833, became in it’s finished
form The Course of Empire, completed in 1836, soon
after Reed’s death. And here we see it installed in the manner that was in Reed’s house
on Greenwich Street surrounding a mantel place. Luman Reed’s art collection was not put on public display until
eight years after his death. It became the nucleus
of what was conceived to be New York’s first
permanent gallery of art, the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts. In 1858 it closed, and the collection was
placed in perpetuity at the New York Historical Society, the city’s first museum, founded in 1804, with the mission to collect and preserve materials relating to
the history of New York and the nation. The art was to be
displayed in the galleries of the Society’s newly opened, first purpose built museum building on Second Avenue at Eleven Street. And here we see a
reinstallation of paintings including works that
belonged to Luman Reed in the New York Gallery of the Fine Art at the New York Historical Society. Decades after Reed’s death, John Durand, the son of Asher B. Durand, said of Reed, “He commenced his education as an amateur “in a practical way. “His first lessons consisted of a course “of old masters. “At the end of this he
realized the meretriciousness “of counterfeit works, “the hypocrisy and naivery
of picture dealers, “and the delusion of those
who survived in the darkness.” In considering Reed’s
legacy it is important to remember that in 1835, the year before he died, he purchased the Huntsman’s Tent, thought then to be the work of the Flemish painter Joannes Fyt. Of his acquisition, Luman Reed remarked, “I bought a picture a few days ago “by one of the old masters. “A first-rate specimen of art, “and I must say, “I never knew what could
be done in painting before. “The subject I do not admire, “but as a work of art it is first-rate. “I am now a believer in the old masters.” In contrast to Luman Reed, Thomas Jefferson Bryan, originally from Philadelphia, was born to great wealth. His father was a partner
of John Jacob Astor. Bryan spent three
decades living in Europe, principally in Paris, and was able to devote
himself to art collecting which became the central
focus of his life. His time in Paris
encompassed the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, when the market was flooded
with old master paintings no longer in aristocratic or royal hands. And in fact, he acquired several works from formerly belonging to Louis Philippe. Bryan’s ultimate goal was
to exhibit the paintings and the prints he had amassed in Europe when he would return to the United States. He had a long-term vision for educating and elevating the taste
of his fellow citizens. His holdings included
works of Italian, French, Flemish and Dutch origin. The later, Flemish and Dutch, encompassing more than 100 paintings, at least a third of his collection. Among his Flemish and Dutch holdings were works at one time attributed to Van Eyck, Van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and I was delighted that Dr. Wheelock showed that painting of St. Catherine, which was once thought to
be by the hand of Rubens. It’s still in New York, but I have never seen
it and nor have I seen a color reproduction of it, so that was wonderful. And he also, Bryan, had several works by the perennial favorite David Teniers. Of Teniers’ Incantation Scene, a small scale oil on copper, and an image revealing satanic
practices and witchcraft, Bryan wrote, “It is a
composition of many figures, “some of which are the
most uncouth and grotesque. “The room is filled with
figures of monsterous “and diabolical expression.” It is Teniers’ mother-in-law, pointing to the elderly
woman in the center, (laughs) whom he, Teniers, has
represented as bewitching his own wife. Poor Teniers. What dreadful experience drove him to thus unite revenge and satire in warning in one matchless work? In his further notes, Bryan talks about the
beauty of the painting’s rich tones, its delicacy,
and power of touch. Although the literature on this work has included some dispute
about the identity of the elderly figure, it is believed that the artist Teniers intended the scene to be a straightfoward depiction of the activity of sorcerers. He even may have attended trials in which witches were put to death and this painting
demonstrates his familiarity with the activities and
iconography of witches, as they were believed
to have been powerful sources of dread in the hamlets
of 17th century Flanders. The fact that Bryan owned prints, and by the way these are
based on works by Teniers, styled after the artist, but showing similar subject matter attests to Bryan’s own attraction to imagery of the rituals of witches
and witchcraft in the Sabbat. Upon Bryan’s return to New York in 1852, he opened the Bryan Gallery in the New York Society Library, in the old rooms of the
National Academy of Design. The next year he reopened his collection at a location further up
town and gave it the title for which it has become best known, The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art, one encompassing the broad history of Western art, not just religious painting, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century as opposed to works from
classical or pagan tradition. Advertisements ran in local papers announcing the gallery, including what we see here, calling it the most complete collection ever made by one person. It’s pretty great. In the introduction to his 1853 companion to the Bryan Collection of Christian Art, literary critic Richard Grant White, the father of Stanford White, allows us how the connoisseur Bryan would clean his own
pictures and rejects six for every one that he chose
to enter into his collection, thereby creating a gallery that has in its historical character “an importance not possessed by any other “ever open to the public in this country.” One who did not worship
at the shrine to art, though he later became a respected writer about art was young Henry James. In an account of his early years, A Small Boy and Others, first published in 1915, James recalls when at
perhaps 10 years of age he was taken to the Bryan
Gallery of Christian Art. He writes, “This collection
cast of worm-eaten “dyptychs and tryptychs of
angular saints and seraphs, “of black madonnas and obscure bambinos “of such marked approved primitives “as has ever been shipped to our shores “and confesses that he, James, “has never been able to shake off “the great mantel of that night.” The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art received favorable
notices even if it did not attract large audiences. Critics observed that the Bryan paintings should form the basis of a
permanent city collection. It found a temporary home at the Cooper Union in 1859, remaining there until Bryan witnessed Peter Cooper using the
point of his umbrella to convey the merits of a painting supposedly by Rembrandt, alarming Bryan and causing him to remove his collection from the venue. Fueled by concerns about
insurance, theft, and fire, he began to search for a
municipal home for his art, having been first rejected by
his native city, Philadelphia. In 1864, negotiations began with the New York Historical Society, and in June of that year the collection was installed there
under Bryan’s direction. The bequest was finalized in 1867 and three years later in 1870, Bryan died at sea while returning from a last collecting venture. That same year the
Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded. Edith Wharton’s 1924 novella False Dawn is set in the New York of the 1840s. She invents a hero, Lewis Raycie, who is given funds by
his domineering father to go on a grand tour
and purchase paintings to promote the family’s fine taste. He meets an Englishman, a thinly-veiled John Ruskin, who introduces Raycie to
William Morris and Rossetti, and encourages him to purchase the work of the authentic pre-Raphael painters della Francesca and Giotto. These choices horrify Raycie’s father, who disinherits him. Raycie opens a gallery of Christian art, which initially turns out to be a failure. Wharton’s fictional
Gallery of Christian Art, as well as some aspects
of Raycie’s character, bear a resemblance to the real world Thomas Jefferson Bryan. Yet as Wharton’s biographer
Hermione Lee suggests, Wharton conflates the world
of her paternal grandfather Edward Renshaw Jones, of the keeping up with the Jones set, with that of Raycie’s
father in their shared parochial self-satisfied
sense of the world and their ignorant attitude towards art. It has also been suggested that Raycie’s character was that of
James Jackson Jarves, too. Yet the fact that Bryan
has been linked by some with the character in the Wharton novella underscores a continued significance he has had in American popular culture, as well as in collecting history. The Bryan Collection, including his Flemish and Dutch holdings, remained a complete unit at the New York Historical Society until the 1970s, when they were included
in a series of auctions continuing into the 1990s to raise funds for the museum, then in desperate straits. The proceeds from the sales allowed the museum to reinvent itself anew. Curators at the time fought to ensure that a representative portion of Bryan’s encyclopedic
collection would remain at the Historical Society. And here we have a few
of the northern works of 17th century. Two landscapes and a lovely scene of two women in an interior that are still in the collection, and James Willson
Peale’s The Peale Family. Bryan, when he would return to America ventured into American art, as well. And Taddeo Gaddi’s Maesta, which was the subject
of a focus exhibition this past winter. As part of an upcoming
installation this summer, the museum will display a larger selection of Bryan paintings, including ones I’ve showed to you today and, of course, Teniers’
Incantation Scene, along with old master
and American pictures once belonging to Luman Reed. Currently on view are
several other pictures of Flemish origin which were added to the New York Historical Society’s
holdings in the 19th century, although not from Bryan and Reed. And these include two paintings, each of which were formally attributed to Frans Snyders. A wonderful van Utrecht
still life with game, fish, fruit, vegetables,
animals, and figures, and a work by an
unidentified Antwerp artist Monkeys at Backgammon. The appeal of Flemish old masters acquired in early New York endures. Thank you very much. (audience applause)

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

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