Henry James vs. the Robber Barons

Why Italian art should stay in England, where it belongs, and not fall into the hands of foreigners


An hour or so from my house hangs a Rembrandt, an engaging portrait of a slightly smug young man with a grand plume in his cap. It is my favorite painting in the Toledo Art Museum—Toledo, Ohio, that is—the painting I would go to if I could see only a single item in the collection. So much time have I spent with this young Dutchman that he seems like an old friend, reliable, always at home when I drop in; but at certain random moments, I am amazed all over again that there in a smallish museum in a smallish city in the American Midwest—the boonies, to bicoastalites—is a fine painting by one of the world’s greatest painters. How did it get there?

The literal answer: It was, like many of the riches of the Toledo Museum, a gift from Edward Drummond Libbey, he of the glass fortune and an avid, discriminating art collector. In 1908 Libbey and a group of wealthy, like-mindedly civic Toledoans constructed a building and donated their private, often substantial, collections, to bequeath to their city a creditable museum. But the figurative answer as to how my Rembrandt got there, the generic answer—the answer that will allow me to develop my argument—is Breckenridge Bender: to him belongs the credit not only for “my” Rembrandt but indeed for most of “our” Rembrandts being in America. Every art-loving American owes Bender a great debt of gratitude.

Who is Breckenridge Bender? He is the quasi-villain of Henry James’s late (1910) short novel The Outcry, reprinted in 2002 after a long stretch in more-or-less obscurity. When The Outcry first appeared, it sold much better than any of James’s late masterpieces, five printings in only a few weeks, in great part, apparently, because it resparked the animus the British felt when the American multimillionaire Henry Clay Frick almost succeeded in absconding from their isle with Holbein’s Duchess of Milan—in, that is, buying it from the Duke of Norfolk and bringing it to America. The furor occasioned by this near loss of a piece of their patrimony constituted the protest fictionalized in The Outcry. In real life, the British public raised more than $350,000 to buy the Holbein for the National Gallery.

The Outcry began as a play for a proposed repertory company that fell through when the death of Edward VII closed the London theaters. James’s conversion of the already completed drama into a novel appears only too transparent; with minimal effort the conversion could be reversed. The three-act structure remains as three “books,” each occurring in a single set; the text is primarily dialogue, with snatches of stage direction. The Outcry is far from top-drawer James: its seams show, it creaks, its characters are, for him, paper-thin. But for all sorts of reasons, it still interests, and its re-publication is welcome. Its interest for me consists primarily in capturing that fussy British frisson at the prospect of vulgar American culture vandals making off with their treasures: “such a conquering horde,” one of James’s characters puts it, “as invaded the old civilization, only armed now with huge cheque-books instead of with spears and battle-axes.”

The Outcry turns on a discovery by a young connoisseur-in-the-making, Hugh Crimble (an Anglicized Bernard Berenson, himself then still young and on the make). Dedborough Place, the ancestral home of Lord Theign, contains a misattributed masterpiece, a rare—and if Crimble is correct—priceless Montavano. Montavano is a fictional painter, James’s creation, but given the great rarity of his work and the frenzied jubilation at unearthing an unsuspected one, he roughly corresponds to Leonardo da Vinci. Bender’s efforts to buy the painting from the cash-needy Lord Theign become a cause célèbre, with the opposition led by Crimble and his new love, Theign’s daughter, Lady Grace. In the end, for a complex of Jamesian reasons, Lord Theign—nobly, but in rather a snit over the bad press he’s getting—donates the painting to the Thingumbob, as he insists on calling the National Gallery. Hardly the sensitive sort, with more than a smack of the philistine, Lord Theign nevertheless typifies for James aristocratic noblesse, while Bender embodies the archetypal American plutocrat—brash, sharp elbowed, ruthless. The Outcry celebrates his comeuppance, at least this once.

I would not want to recycle that old canard of James’s being un-American in his defecting to the Union Jack and looking down his ample nose at us, his imperfectly civilized countrymen. But clearly, the premise of The Outcry posits that the Benders of the world, with their insatiable acquisitiveness, ought to be resisted as far as possible and the Montavanos kept in their rightful place, apparently England—like the Elgin Marbles. I protest this premise: I honor Breckenridge Bender, I laud Breckenridge Bender, I celebrate, even this far after the fact, every success he had in wrenching an Old Master from an old peer and shipping it off to America. How else would a Rembrandt have come to hang so conveniently close to my home?

Breckenridge Bender stands generically for that host of (often nouveau) super-rich Americans, the “squillionaires,” who in the last decades of the l9th and first decades of the 20th centuries set out to amass for themselves magnificent art collections—Morgan and Frick, Benjamin Altman and Henry Walters, P. A. B. Widener and Andrew Mellon, Henry and Louisine Havemeyer, and Henry and Arabella Huntington. And there is Henry James’s own longtime friend Isabella Stewart Gardner, the insatiable collector known as Mrs. Jack and called by Bernard Berenson “the Serpent of the Charles.” Van Wyck Brooks suggests that this epoch of acquisition began in 1875, when Gardner bought her first small landscape, after which there was no stopping her. In just one year, 1898, with Berenson acting as her agent, she bought the wonderful Christ Carrying the Cross (then thought to be a Giorgione, but now attributed to the workshop of Giovanni Bellini), a great Rubens, Raphael’s portrait of Count Inghirami, three Rembrandts, a Cellini bust, a Bronzino, a prized Ter Borch, and a small Masaccio—all for around $300,000. James’s famous phrase “a sacred rage” might well have been coined to describe Mrs. Jack’s voraciousness. “I have tasted blood,” she wrote to Berenson of her obsession to procure a Raphael Madonna—an appropriate metaphor.

The biggest Bender of them all, however, was J. Pierpont Morgan, America’s archcapitalist in that expansive pre–World War I era. When it was revealed, at Morgan’s death in 1913, that his estate, exclusive of his art, was estimated at only $68 million, John D. Rockefeller reputedly exclaimed, “And to think he wasn’t even a rich man!” In fact, most of his income in the last two decades of his life had gone into amassing his collections, valued at least at another $60 million. His huge, eclectic, excellent quality art collection was larger and finer than those of most of Europe’s royal houses or any of its noble families, acquired over centuries. A year after Morgan’s death, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, Edward Robinson, wrote in Guide to the Loan Exhibition of the J. Pierpont Morgan Collection: “Had such an assemblage represented the results of several generations of a family of collectors, it would have been a most remarkable achievement, but formed as it was by one man, and during a comparatively short period of his life, it is probably without parallel in the history of collecting.” When one contributor to the Met opined that “the bringing of the Morgan collection to America [was] the greatest event that had ever happened to any country,” Robinson recalled, “I did not disagree with him.”

Both Gardner and Morgan inherited fortunes, but many of the collectors were self-made men and aesthetic autodidacts. Bernard Altman, the son of Bavarian Jewish immigrants, left school young to go into the dry-goods business, ultimately founding the Fifth Avenue carriage-trade emporium B. Altman. Widener, who began as a butcher supplying meat to the Union troops in the Civil War, made an immense fortune in street railways in Philadelphia and other cities. Frick, a pioneer in developing the steel industry, came from a rural community in Pennsylvania and had little formal education. Already a millionaire, at 30 Frick took his first trip to Europe with three friends—one of them Andrew Mellon—a trip on which the collecting bug bit both men. This would lead ultimately not only to the founding of Frick’s own museum, among the best private museums in the world, but also to the establishment of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Mellon’s brain child. In just the years 1912–1914, Frick added to his already impressive collection Holbein’s great portrait of Sir Thomas More; two large, lavish allegories by Paolo Veronese; Van Dyke’s huge portrait of the Earl of Derby and family; El Greco’s portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi; Hogarth’s Miss Mary Edwards; Gainsborough’s Lady Innes; two portraits by Goya, as well as his extraordinary Forge; and Manet’s Bullfight; in addition to other important more contemporary works by Turner, Degas, and Whistler.

Lewis Mumford decried collecting on this scale as “the pillage of the past,” ferreting out “the epidermis and entrails of palaces and churches.” To many abroad, American millionaire acquisitiveness seemed like a black hole, sucking in Europe’s artistic heritage. It was, after all, the age in which the architect Stanford White kept a ship at anchor off Livorno while he scoured Italy for frescoed ceilings, marble mantelpieces, paneled walls, and the like to decorate the newly built mansions of his newly rich clients; when it sailed, the ship was crammed to the gills with booty. For this age Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” and perhaps no other means of consuming conspicuously had quite the panache, the status enhancement, of assembling under one’s own roof a monarch’s portion of great art. Any garden variety plutocrat—any one of that ilk Edith Wharton dismissively called “the Lords of Pittsburgh”—could build himself a huge mansion, buy himself a yacht or private Pullman car, or load his wife up with diamonds and pearls; but the supply of Raphaels and Vermeers was finite and small and maddeningly hard to come by, so that possession of a trove of such treasures raised one above the ruck of run-of-the-mill millionaires and conferred a princely status.

Still, the big-spending Benders have not enjoyed good press, at least not since, say, the Great Depression, with its crisis of faith in capitalism and its acolytes, and certainly not among intellectuals, who attribute the collectors’ acquisitiveness to discreditable motives such as the essentially “predatory nature of our culture” or some warp in their psyches (think Rosebud and Citizen Kane). In Matthew Josephson’s still paradigmatic Depression-era treatment of the great capitalists, revealingly titled The Robber Barons, the pages dealing with their art collecting are devoted almost exclusively to their bad taste and gullibility: “According to accounts of the period hundreds of nondescript or spurious canvases were imported and sold as ‘Old Masters.’ To those who felt alarm at the passage of art from Europe, it was often said, ‘Europe is being relieved of works of art which are hearty good riddance.’” But Josephson can’t quite keep his animus straight and a few pages later on is found decrying the despoliation of Europe’s precious heritage: “In the history of human civilization there had been no such sweeping displacement of works of art, at least since the days when . . . Napoleon had plundered the Italian cities. It was shown now that this great good work [what, irony?] could be done by men without taste”—unlike, presumably, that renowned aesthete, Napoleon.

The assumption behind such criticism, the assumption that pervades The Outcry, holds that the place whence Bender removes an important objet d’art is its rightful home, alienation from which constitutes a kind of cultural vandalism: the Montavano belongs at Dedborough—or at least in a British museum. The irony ought to be apparent: the “rightful” place for an Italian painting is in an English country house. About 20 years ago when I was in England, the newspapers were full of outrage that some duke was peddling his prime collection of Rembrandt engravings to an American concern, selling off, that is, the national patrimony. Nobody bothered much with how a collection of works by a Dutch artist became part of the English heritage. But I guess that it was in the usual way—a commercial transaction, money changing hands, a buyer and a seller. Britain’s National Gallery ranks as one of the world’s greatest precisely because it has garnered art from so many other countries and cultures. My guidebook to the National Gallery relates that its earliest acquisitions “had recently been imported from revolutionary Europe and came from the palaces of dispossessed French and Italian aristocrats.” By the mid-19th century, “not only were pictures by Italian painters earlier than Raphael now sought but also those by early German and Netherlandish artists; and in 1854 the Trustees purchased twenty-seven pictures predominantly by early German masters from the Kruger collection in Germany.” The international flavor of the National Gallery is replicated, on a smaller scale, in other London museums—the Dulwich Gallery, the Wallace Collection, the Courtauld Gallery—and on a yet smaller but still quite grand scale in the great houses throughout Britain, like nearby Kenwood House with both a wonderful Vermeer and a Rembrandt. Ah, predatory Albion! Were there “outcries” in Italy or Germany or the Netherlands at the British despoliation of their heritage—and did the British care? Was crossing a channel less deracinating for a canvas than crossing an ocean? Were pounds sterling less crassly commercial than Yankee dollars? How does the Gilded Age millionaire differ from his 18th-century British counterpart, except that Mr. Breckenridge Bender was then Sir Breckenridge Bender?

All that British tsk-tsking about American crassness, looking down noses at nouveau-riche excess, smacks, of course, of rankest hypocrisy, occasioned by the transatlantic shift in economic power that rendered Britain a seller rather than a buyer nation in the art market. And James, in his late anglophile phase, reflected in The Outcry all those prejudices and predilections, insufficiently appreciative of Breckenridge Bender’s role in transforming the United States from a visual-arts desert into a player. In 1897, for instance, when Bernard Berenson catalogued all the known Raphael paintings around the world, there were none in America. By 1932 there were nine. Now there are 12 (or so, depending on attributions), the same number as in Britain. America has more medieval and Renaissance Italian artworks than any country except Italy, and probably more works by the Dutch Old Masters than any country but Holland, and certainly more works of the French Impressionists than any country besides France. American collectors perceived much sooner than their Gallic counterparts the importance of that school and bought up many of their major canvases early on. This favorable balance of artistic trade is owed, of course, to the acquisitive robber barons; and best of all, they shared the wealth with the masses, with the likes of me.

The bulk of their collections ended up accessible to the public. During the first three and a half decades of the 20th century, 110 new museums opened their doors, many of them collaborative civic efforts, like the Toledo Museum. These initially depended on one or two big-money donors, like Libbey, or, preeminently, Andrew Mellon, or Louisine Havemeyer (after her death in 1931, her children donated nearly her entire collection, estimated at roughly $3.5 million, to the Metropolitan Museum). Other collectors founded museums of their own, bearing their names. Isabella Stewart Gardner built Fenway Court and opened her museum there on New Year’s Day 1903. The Frick, in the family’s former mansion on Fifth Avenue, opened to the public in December 1935. William T. Walters, builder of the Atlantic Coast Railroad, founded the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in 1909; the Ringlings, of circus fame, established the Ringling Museum of Art in 1927 in Sarasota, Florida; the builder of the Southern Pacific Railroad created the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in Los Angeles in 1919–22. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Clark in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the Taft in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Kimball in Fort Worth, Texas, the Timken in San Diego, and the Barnes near Philadelphia number among the gems of private, single-founder museums in America. Last in this line stood J. Paul Getty, who, posthumously, in the guise of his hilltop museum in Los Angeles, continues to arouse much the same feelings among other museum directors that Don Juan would evoke in the mothers of virgins—or a billionaire at Christie’s. (After the legal challenges to his will were settled, Getty’s bequest to his museum amounted to $1.2 billion.)

Meryle Secrest in her recent biography Duveen: A Life in Art, the story of the dealer instrumental in the creation of most of the great American collections, remarks on the extraordinary motive of these collectors: They bought numerous and expensive works of art “in order to give them all away. . . . That urge to give back something precious, something immortal, that had been salvaged from the struggle and even wreckage of their private lives is the most puzzling yet admirable aspect of these great American collectors and philanthropists.” Lewis Mumford, never one to eschew extremes, dismissed the “imperial” museum as “essentially a loot-heap, a comprehensive repository for plunder,” a manifestation of “our essentially predatory culture.” No doubt the Benders savored the reflected glory emanating from this high-profile form of conspicuous sharing, relished the fame—last infirmity of the noble mind, but probably much sooner in the list of the plutocratic mind—that came from playing Maecenas to the age. But so what? To a viewer today—to me—standing before Titian’s Rape of Europa in the Gardner or El Greco’s Saint Jerome in the Frick or any of the other great masterpieces leveraged from Europe by Morgan or Mellon or the Havemeyers, what possible difference can it make as to what motive put it there: pride, status seeking, civic duty, anal retentiveness, hope of Heaven?

The anti-squillionaire animus surfaced recently in a piece in The New York Times on the relocation of the Barnes, when the writer asked rhetorically: “But who wouldn’t enjoy seeing some of the Frick’s great paintings . . . free of the trappings of Henry Clay Frick’s robber baron lifestyle?” I must admit the question had never occurred to me; I’m just glad the old guy shared. All in all, I rather like the following account, again about Toledo and by a prominent businessman there, Arthur Secor: “I watch the procession of people, men, women, and children, passing by my house on Sunday, a never-ending file up the street to the Museum, and I turn around and look at my collection of paintings and feel selfish. I am giving them to the Museum tomorrow.”

The true robber-baron bashers, however, seek to convert the connoisseurship-cum-philanthropy into a moral problem. What, they ask, created those great fortunes that made possible those great collections; how did Bender get his bucks? Is it not from sweatshop labor, cutthroat competition, pocketing politicians, exploitation of the masses, and throwing widows and children out into the snow?—the whole familiar litany of abuses of Gilded Age Social Darwinian-style capitalism. While not going to the extreme of Proudhon in proclaiming that all property is theft, still a kind of left-leaning critic assumes that the amassing of great fortunes presupposes duplicity and chicane, if not worse. James himself—still relatively amused and amusing in his notorious mystification of the source of the Newsome millions in The Ambassadors, their manufacture of that “rather ridiculous object of common domestic use,” not further specified—posits in The Ivory Tower, a work left unfinished at his death, “black and merciless things that are behind the great possessions” of the newly rich. Although The Outcry is much lighter than The Ivory Tower, still we wouldn’t be surprised to find that Breckenridge Bender, ruthless in his desire to get what he wants, counts more than a few “black and merciless things” contributory to his vast buying power.

In a variation on the genetic fallacy—the belief that the meaning and worth of a thing are determined by its origins—the argument runs that if the money that bought a work of art is tainted, this somehow taints the work itself. Some people will not listen to Wagner because the composer was virulently anti-Semitic. Some women I know, my wife among them, won’t go to a post–Soon Yi Woody Allen movie, so despicable do they find his personal conduct. Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad strikes an uncharacteristically schoolmarmish note in censuring Renaissance artists for accepting the patronage of cruel and unscrupulous popes and magnifici (as if there were any other kind!), excoriating “the groveling spirit that could persuade these masters to prostitute their noble talents to the adulation of such monsters.” Raphael, he chides, “pictured such infernal villains as Catherine and Marie de Medici seated in heaven and conversing familiarly with the Virgin Mary and the angels”—this despite the fact that Raphael painted neither woman, both of whom were born well after he died. But Twain’s position is clear: paintings of villainous subjects, paid for by ill-gotten ducats, no matter how aesthetically pleasing, are morally offensive.

Do the sweat and tears of countless anonymous exploited laborers—to pose the worst-case scenario—cast a pall of reproach over even the most magnificent acquisition, thus acquired? I can answer only for myself: no. Ours is an era wracked by remorse and recrimination over our historical sins; breast-beating is the rage; apologies are noisily demanded of and noisily offered by people removed by generations from both victims and victimizers. I read recently of a tribe of Fiji islanders who apologized to the descendants of a British missionary who had been killed, cooked, and eaten by their ancestors 136 years ago. The apology was meant to lift a curse that the tribe felt it had lived under ever since, a better reason than most. How healthy it would be if this apology to end all historical apologies ended all historical apologies. Analogously, whatever the economic and social and political sins of the art-collecting robber barons in those bygone days, they must answer to a higher power—the academic historian. As for me and my house, we have Breckenridge Bender on a pedestal, a cultural hero, the plutocrat as Prometheus, bringer of light.

Life continues to imitate The Outcry. Sometime around 1990 art expert Nicholas Perry, visiting Alnwick Castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland, discovered a “lost” Raphael. Soon Breckenridge Bender came calling, in his present-day institutional guise as the Getty Museum, offering the duke around $50 million for the painting The Madonna of the Pinks, hanging on loan in the National Gallery, and the duke agreed to sell. Comes the outcry.

James Fenton, a trustee of the National Gallery, penned an article with the plaintive title “Don’t Take Our Raphael!” (The New York Review of Books, December 19, 2002) that reads exactly like a journalistic mini-version of James’s novel. Again the rich Americans—the Getty—are the villains, “red in tooth and claw,” offering money for Britain’s heritage. The tone and level of the piece can be gauged by this passage: “They long to hear the pitty-patter of tiny Raphael feet [at the Getty]. But that does not mean they are welcome to take their pick from the cribs of London’s maternity ward and go rushing out into the parking lot with a screaming Raphael under their arm.” But if the Getty had made off with “their” Raphael, wouldn’t it have been a case of cribnapping from cribnappers? Doesn’t The Madonna of the Pinks, by Fenton’s logic, “really” belong in an Italian museum as part of the Italian heritage? Presumably the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which recently returned some of its treasures to Italy, thinks so.

Ah, well . . . it’s all academic, as they say. The outcry, like that of James’s novel, worked. The issue was still up in the air when Fenton wrote, but the big, bad Bender was ultimately beaten back. When I was last in London, however, the painting was hanging in the National Gallery with an appeal attached, urging patrons to contribute their pence to save the masterpiece from permanent exile in darkest California. My wife, somewhat unpatriotically, I felt, dropped several pounds in the collection box. Although I was much likelier to see the painting again if it reappeared in London, I felt disinclined to fall for the jingoistic smarm of the appeal and kept my hands in my pockets. No matter. The government temporarily banned export of the picture; the appeal succeeded, the money was raised, the Raphael was “saved” for the Thingumbob.

James, no doubt, would have approved.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Gorman Beauchamp is the author of a book on Jack London and essays on subjects ranging from Shakespeare to science fiction, and an associate professor of humanities at the University of Michigan.


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