J.P. Morgan: The Prince of American Art Collectors

Gilded Age tycoon J.P. Morgan was one of America’s most prolific art and book collectors, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and founder of New York’s Morgan Library.

Mar 22, 2023By Alexandra Kiely, BA Art History (with honors)

jp morgan legendary american art collector


Most people know John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan (1837-1913) as a Gilded Age banking tycoon and founder of the financial institution JP Morgan Chase. Some know him as the bibliophile responsible for creating the Morgan Library in New York City. However, relatively few people realize that he was also the ultimate American art collector, using his vast wealth to purchase artwork on a scale only matched by Renaissance Princes and Russian Empresses. As president, donor, and de-facto ruler of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morgan shaped the United States’ most significant art museum according to his own tastes and vision. The bulk of his collection ended up there after his death


J.P. Morgan: Art Collector

J.P. Morgan by unidentified photographer, c. 1910, via National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.


Despite accumulating an art collection none of his countrymen could have dreamed of, more than 20,000 objects in only about 23 years, according to one estimate, Morgan’s motives for collecting remain unclear. Speculation suggests that he felt a civic duty to bring world-class art to America since he had the means to do so far beyond any of his contemporaries. That idea is consistent with the national mood at the time.


The second half of the 19th century was an era where the United States still felt very culturally inferior to Europe and was doing everything it could to catch up and compensate. The idea of importing international art treasures to fill newly-founded public cultural institutions like the Met (many of which were established for this very same reason) therefore would have seemed patriotic and appealing. It would also be in keeping with Morgan’s paternalistic attitude towards his country, as we shall see.


Surprisingly, Morgan did not become a serious art collector until he was in his fifties. Some people have suggested that the death of his father, Junius Spencer Morgan, in 1890 inspired this collecting boom since the resulting inheritance gave the younger Morgan enough wealth to purchase pretty much any artwork he could possibly have wanted. However, his collecting habits did not suddenly emerge, as he had already begun his better-known rare book and manuscript collection.

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The Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke, Byzantine, early 9th century CE, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Morgan’s tastes are even more difficult to determine than his motives, especially due to his habit of purchasing entire collections at a time. He certainly did not buy indiscriminately, relying on the advice of his trusted librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, as well as art advisors like the influential art dealer Joseph Duveen and experts at the Met. However, few strong patterns emerge in terms of the time periods, styles, subject matter, or even media that he collected. He tended towards European art but also collected ancient Egyptian, Near Eastern, Byzantine, Islamic, and Asian objects.


He definitely had a strong taste for religious art and liturgical objects like reliquaries and precious manuscripts, likely owing to his own deep Christian faith. His collection ranged from antiquity to relatively recent, but he never collected modern art or art of the Americans from any era. It’s unclear how much he enjoyed his objects and how much he just collected for the sake of owning them.


Highlights of Morgan’s art collection include Raphael’s Colonna Altarpiece, a late medieval reliquary said to contain the tooth of Mary Magdalene, a set of Assyrian royal relief plaques from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, a set of decorative painted panels by Fragonard, paintings by Vermeer and other Dutch masters, luxurious medieval ivories and enamels, Byzantine and early Christian objects, 18th-century French and British paintings, Italian Renaissance artworks, European and Asian porcelains, Egyptian antiquities both large and small, rugs and tapestries, just to name a brief selection.


Morgan and the Met

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (The Colonna Altarpiece) by Raphael, c. 1504, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


After Morgan’s death in 1913, his son Jack donated about 7,000 prized artworks from the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum had hoped to receive everything, but the collector had considered the assortment too large for any single institution. Morgan’s entire collection was, however, temporarily exhibited in the Met’s new Morgan Wing shortly after his death. Afterward, Jack (the art collection’s sole heir) disbursed the objects. Among those that did not go permanently to the Met, many were sold off through art dealer Joseph Duveen to raise needed funds for the estate.


They were eagerly bought up by other ambitious art collectors, especially Henry Clay Frick, and often came to reside in other major American museums like the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Frick Collection’s famous Fragonard Room, for example, had previously belonged to Morgan. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Morgan’s birthplace of Hartford, Connecticut also received a gift of more than 1,350 objects. The tycoon had previously donated the money to build the Morgan Memorial building in honor of his father’s contributions to the institution, and his grandfather had patronized the Wadsworth as well.


Relief panel, Assyrian, c. 883-859 BCE, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Morgan’s relationship with the Metropolitan Museum was a very close one that lasted for decades, making the museum’s hopes of receiving the entire collection quite reasonable. During his lifetime, he had been a patron, trustee, president, and essentially ruler of the museum. Accordingly, he had a major impact on the direction that the institution took, using his wealth and influence to shape the institution according to his own vision. He wielded incredible power there and seems not to have had much tolerance for those who had differing visions for the museum. Part of this meant influencing the Met’s own acquisition decisions during his lifetime, controlling which objects the museum would purchase with its own funds and others’ donations, as well as donating objects himself. Therefore, more objects than merely those carrying his donation credit came to the Met through Morgan’s wishes.


The Morgan Library

Inside the Morgan Library and Museum, photo by londonroad, via Flickr


Morgan never founded a museum of his own, but his son did so posthumously on his behalf. This is the famous Morgan Library, a repository for illuminated manuscripts, rare books, prints, drawings, and luxury objects related to the book arts. It has its basis in Morgan’s personal library, a McKim, Mead, and White-designed addition to his Manhattan home containing his office and vast book collection. Both the palazzo-style architecture and richly painted and gilt interior decoration were inspired by the Italian Renaissance. The museum has since continued to build its collection and expanded its building with a Renzo Piano-designed modernist addition.


The museum’s highlights include fabulously ornate medieval treasure bindings for religious manuscripts, a rare collection of Coptic manuscripts in their original bindings, several hundred etchings by Rembrandt, ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals, music manuscripts by some of the western world’s most famous composers, incunables (early printed books) by Gutenberg, and an illuminated medieval Crusader Bible, to mention just a selection. Credit for this assemblage goes not just to Morgan, but also to Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950), a fascinating character in her own right.


Greene came from a prominent African American family (although she pretended to be Portuguese) and met Morgan through his nephew while working at the Princeton University Library. Starting out as Morgan’s personal librarian and chief advisor, she became one of the most respected American librarians ever, a prominent society figure, and the Morgan Library’s first director as a public institution. The library was as much Greene’s achievement as it was Morgan’s. In a refreshing change from the usual story, this extraordinary woman has not been forgotten despite working within the largely male domain of early 20th century book collecting. The Morgan Library does much to honor her today.


J.P. Morgan’s Legacy

J.P. Morgan’s study at the Morgan Library and Museum, including an 1888 portrait of Morgan by Frank Holl, photo by Alexandra Kiely


Morgan’s controversial legacy is best represented not by artwork, but by an economic event: the financial Panic of 1907. Working out of his luxurious study in what’s now the Morgan Library, J.P. Morgan orchestrated a resolution to this Wall Street crisis almost single-handedly. In doing so, he exerted far more control over the national economy than any individual should, and he did not hesitate to use the situation to his own immense financial benefit. His relationship with the Met was analogous; he gave much to the museum, but he also dominated it completely, excluded those who didn’t agree with him, and benefitted as a private collector from the arrangement.


He seems to have considered himself an American version of the Medici family, much older fabulously wealthy art-collecting bankers with an outsized influence on their surroundings. Like them, he can be seen as either an enlightened philanthropist or a power-loving oligarch, depending on the situation and point of view. He collected objects that had belonged to royalty and designed himself a library befitting a Renaissance prince. The emblem of the Chigi, another major Italian banking family, literally decorates the walls of Morgan’s study, for which the furniture was designed based on examples of Medici provenance. However, this dominating, princely attitude does not really work in America. People were deeply uncomfortable with his actions even in the relative free-for-all that was the Gilded Age economy.


A Lady Writing by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665, via National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


As an art collector, Morgan’s legacy has become surprisingly pale. His contributions to the Met have been so thoroughly integrated into the museum that most people are unaware of them today. For all of Morgan’s impact, he has become just one wealthy donor among many. In fact, his presence is much more visible at the Wadsworth Atheneum than it is at the Met. The works sold by his estate went to other collectors who donated them to museums under their own names. No matter how significant his contributions and influence, Morgan’s reputation as an art collector has been eclipsed by people like Henry Clay Frick and Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose individual art museums have kept their names and legacies alive. As it remains, the Morgan Library – the only institution to actually carry J.P. Morgan’s name – is his only visible artistic and cultural memorial.

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By Alexandra KielyBA Art History (with honors)Alexandra is an art historian and writer from New Jersey. She holds a B.A. in Art History from Drew University, where she received the Stanley Prescott Hooper Memorial Prize in Art History. She wrote her honors thesis on the life and work of early-20th century art theorist Roger Fry. Her primary interests are American art, particularly 19th-century painting, and medieval European art and architecture. She runs her own website, A Scholarly Skater, is a regular contributor to DailyArt Magazine, and has written two online courses. Alexandra enjoys reading, ballroom dancing, and figure skating.