John Pierpont Morgan is remembered as a beefy, red-faced bully, fierce and lonely, possessed of small ideas and consumed by enormous greed. All of this is deeply unfair to Morgan. Recent biographers—most notably Jean Strouse—have looked at Morgan with fresh eyes, finding a much more subtle and interesting character than his caricature would allow. He was a genuine polymath, fluent in French and German, steeped in literature and the arts, whose aptitude for mathematics prompted one of his professors at the University of Göttingen to encourage him to consider an academic appointment. He was remarkably generous, and devoted his considerable wealth and energy to a few, favored causes.
As John Steele Gordon writes in the Summer 2020 issue of Philanthropy magazine, “As a respite from his commercial labors, Morgan collected art, omnivorously. Not only paintings and sculpture but also rare books and manuscripts, bronzes, gold work, tapestries, snuff boxes, Chinese porcelain, medieval armor, and furniture. Art historian Bernard Berenson wrote to museum founder Isabella Stewart Gardner that he had visited Morgan’s London house and ‘it looks like a pawnbroker’s shop for Croesuses.’”
At the turn of the century, Morgan was America’s greatest patron of the fine arts. He began collecting art while touring Rome, not long after finishing at Göttingen at the age of 19. It was the start of a lifelong love affair. He was the driving force behind the rise of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, serving as president and donating extensively from his personal acquisitions. His reputation, however, was established by a bitter enemy, the artist and critic Roger Fry. Fry belonged to the Bloomsbury Set, and had once been a curator of paintings at the Met. He suspected—not without reason—that Morgan was behind his firing. “A crude historical imagination,” Fry icily pronounced, “was the only flaw in his otherwise perfect insensibility.”
As Strouse notes, the letters Fry wrote to his wife during a purchasing tour of Europe in 1907 tell a rather different story. They praise at surprising length the artistic sensibilities of the “Big Man.” Contemporary critics increasingly agree with Fry’s earlier assessment. “Almost single-handed, Morgan turned the Metropolitan from a merely notable collection into one of the three or four finest anywhere,” writes historian Paul Johnson. “Morgan obviously employed experts . . . but it is astonishing how few mistakes he allowed them to make on his behalf.”