Cover image for A Market for Merchant Princes: Collecting Italian Renaissance Paintings in America Edited by Inge Reist

A Market for Merchant Princes

Collecting Italian Renaissance Paintings in America

Edited by Inge Reist


$69.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06471-0

168 pages
8" × 10"
38 color/13 b&w illustrations
Co-published with The Frick Collection

The Frick Collection Studies in the History of Art Collecting in America

A Market for Merchant Princes

Collecting Italian Renaissance Paintings in America

Edited by Inge Reist

A Market for Merchant Princes provides an excellent survey and investigation of how great Italian Renaissance paintings came to enter American collections. Key collectors and institutions—such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, James Jackson Jarves, J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Walters, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Samuel H. Kress—are discussed, as are the noted connoisseurs Morelli and Berenson, who had an important impact on them. This will become an essential reference work for the history of collecting in this country.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Not unlike their European forebears, Americans have historically held Italian Renaissance paintings in the highest possible regard, never allowing works by or derived from Raphael, Leonardo, or Titian to fall from favor. The ten essays in A Market for Merchant Princes trace the progression of American collectors’ taste for Italian Renaissance masterpieces from the antebellum era, through the Gilded Age, to the later twentieth century.

By focusing variously on issues of supply and demand, reliance on advisers, the role of travel, and the civic-mindedness of American collectors from the antebellum years through the post–World War II era, the authors bring alive the passions of individual collectors while chronicling the development of their increasingly sophisticated sensibilities. In almost every case, the collectors on whom these essays concentrate founded institutions that would make the art they had acquired accessible to the public, such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Morgan Library and Museum, the Walters Art Gallery, The Frick Collection, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum.

The contributors to the volume are Jaynie Anderson, Andrea Bayer, Edgar Peters Bowron, Virginia Brilliant, David Alan Brown, Clay M. Dean, Frederick Ilchman, Tiffany Johnston, Stanley Mazaroff, and Jennifer Tonkovich.

A Market for Merchant Princes provides an excellent survey and investigation of how great Italian Renaissance paintings came to enter American collections. Key collectors and institutions—such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, James Jackson Jarves, J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Walters, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Samuel H. Kress—are discussed, as are the noted connoisseurs Morelli and Berenson, who had an important impact on them. This will become an essential reference work for the history of collecting in this country.”
“Thousands of Italian Renaissance paintings began to find their way to America in the nineteenth century, and the majority of these pictures—by artists great or obscure—can now be enjoyed in public art collections. In this single volume, we are given an overview of this remarkable story of the importation of art—indeed, of culture. Notable experts such as David Brown and Inge Reist recuperate this episode of art history, introduce us to the collectors, their motives, and their methods, and depict the early moments of American museums. The complicated competing interests of connoisseurship and business, optimistic attributions, deceit, and mistakes born of a newly developing expertise are all in these pages. Once these collectors—Henry Clay Frick, Samuel H. Kress, Isabella Stewart Gardner—were known for their great fortunes, but it was the important art that they acquired and their cultural philanthropy that ultimately ensured their fame and brought to American shores more Italian pictures than can be found anywhere else except Italy.”

Inge Reist is Director of the Center for the History of Collecting at The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library, where her first position was as an Assistant Curator and Lecturer from 1980 to 1983.


List of Illustrations


Inge Reist

Introduction: Looking Backward: Americans Collect Italian Renaissance Art

David Alan Brown

Part I

The Lure of Italy: Art and the Market Before Bernard Berenson

1 James Jackson Jarves and the “Primitive” Art Market in Nineteenth-Century America

Clay M. Dean

2 “Modern Connoisseurship” and the Role It Played in Shaping American Collectors’ Taste in Italian Renaissance Art

Jaynie Anderson

3 Discovering the Renaissance: Pierpont Morgan’s Shift to Collecting Italian Old Masters

Jennifer Tonkovich

Part II

The Ubiquitous BB

4 Boston Collectors in the Wake of “Mrs. Jack”

Frederick Ilchman

5 Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson

Stanley Mazaroff

6 Mary Berenson and the Cultivation of American Collectors

Tiffany Johnston

Part III

A Taste of One’s Own: A New American Renaissance

7 Collecting North Italian Painting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andrea Bayer

8 Building a Renaissance Collection and Museum After the Gilded Age: The Case of John Ringling

Virginia Brilliant

9 Samuel H. Kress and His Collection of Italian Renaissance Paintings

Edgar Peters Bowron


List of Contributors



Frontispiece Frontispiece: Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255–ca. 1319), The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, 1308–11

1 Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, ca. 1488–1576), Europa, 1559–62

2 Giorgione (1477/78–1510), The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505–10

3 Exhibition Berenson and the Connoisseurship of Italian Painting, held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1979

4 Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430/35–1516), Saint Francis in the Desert, ca. 1475–78

5 Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952), [Blowing pinwheels], 1899

6 Tebbs & Knell, Inc., the West Room of Pierpont Morgan’s Library, ca. 1914

7 The “Raphael Room” at Lynnewood Hall, the Widener estate

8 Kress apartment, decorated in Italian Renaissance style

9 Kress apartment, decorated in Italian Renaissance style

10 Larkin Goldsmith Mead (1835–1910), James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888), 1883

11 Antonio del Pollaiuolo (ca. 1432?–1498), Hercules and Deianira, ca. 1475–80

12 Magdalen Master (active ca. 1265–95), Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Leonard and Peter, ca. 1280

13 Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370?–1427), Virgin and Child, ca. 1420–24

14 Unknown artist, Giovanni Morelli, ca. 1880s

15 Unknown German artist, Giovanni Morelli in His Undergraduate Lodgings at the University of Munich, ca. 1835

16 Gaetano Zançon (1771–1816), after Lorenzo Lotto (about 1480–1556/7), Portrait of the Physician Giovanni Agostino della Torre and His Son, Niccolò, 1800–15

17 Lorenzo Lotto (about 1480–1556/7), Giovanni Agostino della Torre and His Son, Niccolò, ca. 1513–16

18 Lorenzo Lotto (about 1480–1556/7), Giovanni Agostino della Torre and His Son, Niccolò, ca. 1513–16

19 “The Magnet.” Editorial cartoon by Udo Keppler from Puck, June 21, 1911

20 Scipione Vannutelli (1834–1894), The Cardinal’s Fête, n.d.

21 The Rotunda. New York, The Morgan Library and Museum

22 Morgan’s study. New York, The Morgan Library and Museum.

23 Pierpont Morgan’s study with Lippi panels

24 Early Italian Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

25 Piermatteo d’Amelia, ca. 1450–1503/8, Annunciation, ca. 1475

26 Filippino Lippi (1457–1504), The Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Margaret, ca. 1495

27 Attributed to Pinturicchio (Bernardino di Betto, ca. 1452–1513), formerly attributed to Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, ca. 1445–1522, Virgin and Child with Saint Jerome, ca. 1475–80

28 The Walters Art Gallery at the time of the grand opening of the Walters’ new museum in 1909

29 Salle V in the Massarenti Gallery, Rome, about 1900, showing self-portraits attributed to Michelangelo and Raphael

30 Cartouche with bronze bust of William T. Walters

31 Sodoma (1477–1549), The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and the Infant Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1525–30

32 Workshop of Bernardo Daddi (ca. 1290–1348), Madonna and Child, ca. 1340

33 Mary Berenson, ca. 1910.

34 Mary Berenson Colony Club lecture handbill

35 Moretto da Brescia (Alessandro Bonvicino, ca. 1498–1554), The Entombment, 1554

36 Moretto da Brescia (Alessandro Bonvicino, ca. 1498–1554), Christ in the Wilderness, n.d.

37 Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo (1480/85–after 1548), Saint Matthew and the Angel, ca. 1534

38 Correggio (Antonio Allegri, active by 1514–died 1534), Saints Peter, Martha, Mary Magdalen, and Leonard, n.d.

39 Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, ca. 1488–1576), Portrait of a Man, ca. 1515

40 Unknown photographer, John Ringling in Front of the Ca’ d’Zan, ca. 1930

41 John H. Phillips, Air Plane View of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 1928

42 John H. Phillips, View of the Italian Room, ca. 1927

43 Veronese (Paolo Caliari, 1528–1588), Rest on the Flight into Egypt, ca. 1570

44 Piero di Cosimo (1461–1521), The Building of a Palace, ca. 1515

45 Workshop of Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, ca. 1488–1576), Sultana Rossa, 1550s

46 Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955), in the early 1900s

47 Andrea di Bartolo (active 1389–1428), Madonna and Child [obverse], ca. 1415

48 Vincenzo Catena (ca. 1480–1531), Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Joseph, ca. 1525

49 Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255–ca. 1319), The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, ca. 1308–11

50 Giotto di Bondone (probably 1266–1337), The Peruzzi Altarpiece, ca. 1310–15


Backward: Americans Collect Italian Renaissance Art

David Alan Brown

Thirty or so years ago, two anniversaries gave an important boost to studies of American collecting of Italian Renaissance art. One was the twentieth anniversary, in 1979, of the death of Bernard Berenson (1865–1959); the other was the quincentenary, in 1983, of the birth of Raphael. First out of the gate was the exhibition Berenson and the Connoisseurship of Italian Painting, held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1979. Installed in the newly opened East Building, the show was unique or unprecedented in a number of ways (fig. 3). Alongside some twenty familiar masterworks of Italian painting appeared a selection of photographs, books, letters, newspaper clippings, even a telegram. These ancillary items aimed to form a context for the pictures and, insofar as this was possible, to visualize Berenson’s methods and activities. The foreword to the handbook accompanying the show stresses the novelty of the undertaking. What it does not reveal is that the Gallery hesitated and, while the author was abroad, briefly cancelled the exhibition as being too unorthodox. For an institution that was busy augmenting its holdings, why investigate the history of collecting? The Berenson exhibition suggested, to the contrary, that the recent past was worthy of examination.

The exhibition took a detached view of its protagonist, who aroused much controversy in his own time and afterwards. As the handbook explains, the show sought to illustrate the history and methods of connoisseurship, as it relates to early Italian paintings, by focusing on Berenson, for more than half a century the foremost authority in the field. On a visit to Italy in 1888, Berenson found his true vocation in the study of Italian art. Four pioneering essays on the Italian painters of the Renaissance followed. Published between 1894 and 1907, they were accompanied by the famous “Lists” of pictures Berenson accepted as authentic. It was on these lists, as well as his other writings, that Berenson’s reputation as a connoisseur was based. Berenson was also remarkable for the role he played in the history of taste and collecting. Working as he did from a coincidence of his talent and the opportunity offered by American millionaires, who were beginning to acquire masterpieces of Italian art, Berenson stimulated and guided that interest and, as the leading expert, authenticated paintings for dealers and collectors. In his youth there were, aside from the Jarves Collection at Yale, practically no Italian paintings of importance in America. Berenson regarded it as his mission to provide them. His success may be measured from the fact that there are now more early Italian paintings in the United States than anywhere else outside their place of origin.

Soon after the exhibition, a spate of biographies began to appear, all of which had to deal with the issue of whether Berenson’s judgment was tainted by his involvement with the art market. Published by Harvard University Press, Ernest Samuels’s “official” biography was a well-researched attempt to view Berenson in the historical perspective of his own times. Drawing on extensive archival material unavailable to other writers, Samuels painted a largely sympathetic portrait, echoing BB’s own lament that he had betrayed his finer instincts. But while Samuels saw Berenson as paradoxical, Meryle Secrest, in a biography entitled Being Bernard Berenson, argued that he was deeply conflicted. For Secrest, social ambition was the mainspring of Berenson’s career. Another biographer, in a tale of corruption that has elements of a Greek tragedy, focused on Berenson’s two-decade-long collaboration with the flamboyant dealer Sir Joseph Duveen (1869–1939).

The ethical issues surrounding Berenson still resound in contemporary culture, as shown by Simon Gray’s 2004 play The Old Masters. Directed by Harold Pinter, the play dramatized the expert’s refusal to attribute the so-called Allendale Nativity, now in the Kress Collection at the National Gallery of Art, to Giorgione (fig. 2). Duveen tried every way to get Berenson to change his mind—in the play he walks onstage with a full-scale reproduction of the picture—but Berenson insisted that it was by the young Titian, leading to the breakup with his employer. At the scholarly level, Berenson’s enduring fascination led to the conference held at Villa I Tatti in 2009 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Here a somewhat different Berenson emerged, not the salesman nor the various personae he created for himself, but the center of a circle of intellectual relationships, which put him in a more favorable light. The truth is that the shock value of Berenson’s business dealings has mostly worn off, revealing as much about us, perhaps, as it does about him.

Dealers are no longer a dirty word, and Duveen, whom Berenson is said to have called the “King of the Jungle,” is now himself the subject of a full-scale biography, again by Secrest. The secret of Duveen’s success was his purchase of whole collections, which he broke up, persuading clients to purchase individual items separately at inflated prices. Duveen was clearly not the buffoon he is often made out to be, and in a recent interview the dealer Larry Gagosian cites him as a fellow risk-taker who believed in the power of art. Another dealer, the aptly named Otto Gutekunst (1865–after 1939), or “good art,” who directed Colnaghi’s in London from the 1890s to the Second World War, has also attracted considerable attention. In partnership with Berenson, Gutekunst played a key role in providing Italian paintings to Isabella Stewart Gardner. Whatever we may think of his motives, in the end Berenson’s legacy is the Italian paintings that made their way to this country. These date mostly to the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries, since Berenson’s aversion to the Baroque is—and was—well known. An exception is the eighteenth-century Venetian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Surely one of the reasons so many fine paintings by Tiepolo adorn American museums is that Berenson particularly admired the Venetian and admitted him into his classic Italian Paintings of the Renaissance as a kind of belated Veronese.

The nexus that has always existed between collecting and connoisseurship took a particular form in the early decades of the twentieth century. As American collectors sought early Italian paintings, they increasingly turned to experts like Berenson for proof of authenticity in the form of a written expertise or certificate. The collectors, astute businessmen lacking specialized knowledge of art, relied on the experts to make up that deficiency. The experts were supposed to exercise independent judgment, of course, but the system serving the collector was inherently flawed. The opinions given were not impartial, as the experts stood to gain from a sale—a clear conflict of interest. In addition, the sort of Morellian connoisseurship of details that was practiced by Berenson and his fellow experts and that purported to be “scientific” or “objective” was not infallible and left plenty of room for error and disagreement. Judging the authorship or authenticity of a work of art was more of an intuitive process that was also intensely personal. The list of connoisseurs with whom Berenson feuded—Herbert Horne (1864–1916), Roger Fry (1866–1934), Richard Offner (1889–1965), and Roberto Longhi (1890–1970), to name only a few—goes on and on. Finally, the notion of a single artist as the author of a painting, while it responded to market and collecting imperatives, also conflicts with what we know about Renaissance workshop production, which was mainly collaborative.

All these issues about how attributions are made and how they affect the status of works of art came together in the notorious Hahn-Duveen trial of 1929. Now the subject of a book-length study by John Brewer, the case involved an American midwesterner named Harry Hahn and his French-born wife, who were trying to sell what they thought to be a genuine Leonardo, and Duveen, who declared the painting a fake without ever having seen it. The Hahns sued for slander, and the ensuing legal battle put connoisseurship itself on trial, as judge and jury were forced to decide which of the experts convened to testify were right. During the trial connoisseurs were excoriated for changing their minds about the original on which the Hahn copy was based: was it or was it not a Leonardo? Actually, as knowledge expands, connoisseurs often change their minds about attributions they made. But their volte-face left them open to the charge of giving favorable opinions about works in which they had a financial stake. Here we must note that Giovanni Morelli (1816–1891) and his disciples were iconoclasts, often demoting attributions they later came to accept. Even so sublime a masterpiece as Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert in The Frick Collection was once dismissed as by a follower of the master named Basaiti (fig. 4). Berenson omitted the picture from his original List of Venetian painters of 1894, and so did Fry in his Bellini monograph of 1899, because they held this erroneous view. But when the painting was exhibited in London in 1912, it caused a sensation, and both Fry and Berenson were forced to recant. Bargaining for the painting on the basis of lingering doubts about it, Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) purchased it three years later, and Berenson cabled to congratulate him on the acquisition.

Even if not commercially motivated, an attribution may be suspect if it is based on insufficient or misleading evidence. Today we regard the material or physical state of an object as essential for any assessment of its nature or worth. But connoisseurs of Berenson’s generation were surprisingly ignorant about artists’ methods and materials, and they were mostly indifferent to the actual condition of the works they studied. The experts might be forgiven for their lack of “damage control,” but their concern with the object as image was also shared, paradoxically, by restorers working for the same dealers. It is not that restorers lacked technical expertise but that their goal was to have a picture approximate as nearly as possible to the style of the master under whose name it would be sold. To the experts’ “hopeful” attributions, therefore, must be added “wishful” restorations. A prime example of this sort of deception is the Portrait of a Young Man in the Kress Collection at the National Gallery of Art. In its previous state, before the restorer’s handiwork was removed, the sitter had been prettified to resemble faces painted by the Umbrian master Pinturicchio, to whom the painting was then attributed. Shorn of repaint, the portrait turned out to be a perfectly respectable effort by a follower of Lorenzo di Credi named Del Mazziere.

In the story of “Gilded Age” collecting of Old Masters in this country, J. P. Morgan (1837–1913) and his peers are often depicted as the dupes of wily dealers, but our brief look at the system underlying their acquisitions demonstrates the pitfalls they encountered in obtaining sound advice. The collectors deserve our sympathy, therefore, but only up to a point, for they, too, contributed to the problem of getting great art by recklessly pursuing great names. No better illustration can be found for this bias than their rivalry over Raphael. Though he now takes his rightful place among the greatest painters of Western art, Raphael once enjoyed a unique status, not only among collectors. A delightful photograph of a Texas schoolroom around 1900 shows the pupils blowing pinwheels—an exercise in aerodynamics, perhaps (fig. 5). On the back wall we see the American flag, and on the other side of the door, a reproduction of Raphael’s famous Sistine Madonna in Dresden. Just as the flag symbolized patriotism, so the Raphael print stood for the worthy goal of cultural elevation. Raphael, in short, was synonymous with art. The exhibition Raphael and America, held at the National Gallery of Art in 1983, on the five hundredth anniversary of his birth, demonstrated that a special admiration for Raphael existed since colonial times. Artists imitated him, while early collectors, like Thomas Jefferson, obtained copies of his masterpieces or paintings mistaken for originals. Drawing, as the Berenson exhibition did, on newspaper accounts and correspondence in museum archives, the exhibition told the colorful story of a group of men and one woman who pursued a common goal, to acquire whatever works were still available by Raphael, above all a Raphael Madonna.