J. Pierpont Morgan had a fascination — some might say obsession — with the past, an eye for beautiful things and a yen to travel. Most important, he had loads of cash.
In the last two decades of his life, the legendary Hartford-born financier accumulated more than 20,000 objets d'art: sculptures, golden boxes, pottery, timepieces, jewelry, antiquities, anything that caught his eclectic fancy.
He was such an avid purchaser of strange and lovely objects that his wife, Fanny, once quipped that he "would buy anything from an Egyptian pyramid to Mary Magdalene's tooth."
She was only half-joking. A reliquary holding what is fabled to be one of Mary Magdalene's teeth is one of the 100 objects on exhibit now at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The exhibit "Morgan: Mind of the Collector" marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 donation to the Atheneum of more than 1,400 pieces from Morgan's estate.
The show, which runs through Dec. 31, is made up of pieces owned by the Atheneum, as well as pieces owned by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, which got all his documents and works on paper; the Frick Collection, which acquired many pieces once owned by Morgan; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"He had an acquisitive nature. He acquired railroads, he acquired companies and put them together to make U.S. Steel. He also loved to acquire beautiful things," says Linda Roth, the museum's curator of European decorative arts. "When his father Junius died in 1890, Pierpont inherited a lot of money and he started collecting on a seriously grand scale. He already had the latent collecting thing in him and at that time he went all out. ... He not only bought individual items, he bought other collectors' entire collections."
The collecting bug bit Morgan (1837-1913) early in life. As a youth, he wrote to Episcopal Church leaders, asking for their autographs.
"He was brought up in a very religious Episcopal household. His grandfather was a minister," Roth says. "It was embedded in him. He knew the Bible almost by heart."
Those Episcopal leaders complied. A few of their letters are seen in the exhibit including one whose writer wonders what value his signature would have to anybody.
Roth has divided the exhibit into four concentrations, which mirror the motivations behind Morgan's collecting. Two of those motivations reflect Morgan's intense religiosity: the lure of antiquity and fascination with the Biblical lands, and collecting of Christian art and artifacts. The exhibit's other two focuses are history and historical personages and institution-building, as Morgan was dedicated to leaving his pieces with the Atheneum, the Met, the Morgan Library and other institutions.
"He wasn't a populist but he was fiercely patriotic, even though he spent half his time overseas. It was important to him to bring the best of European culture to these shores," Roth says. "In his will he left everything to his son Jack in the hopes that Jack would make some or all of the collection permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people."
Hence the donations to the Atheneum and the Met, and the establishment of the Morgan Library in his former home.
Roth says, however, that summing up Morgan's passion for collecting was not easy. "It's hard to tackle him in a concise way," she said. "Where do you start with someone who acquired 20,000 works of art in 23 years? How do you do that?"
During his lifetime, Morgan's all-consuming passion for art collecting was known all over the world, leading one Russian journalist to dub him "The Medici of America."
In the late-19th century many academics focused on Biblical archaeology, and Morgan took up that fascination.
"He would fund archaeological digs. You would think that would skew him toward a more scientific approach, but his focus was always on the Bible," Roth says.
Many items featured in the exhibit stemmed from this fascination and reflect this time period and geographical region: a bronze statuette of a cat dating from Egypt's Ptolemaic period (third to first century BC); a small bronze statue of a Greek warrior; a silver drinking cup; a beautifully preserved blue glass cup from ancient Rome; a spectacular sixth-century Byzantine gold necklace; as well as items from Mesopotamia and Babylon.
This fascination neatly segues into a focus on Biblical themes not related to the ancient era. A 10th-century Coptic manuscript is shown alongside a 1663 Bible, the first printed Scripture in a Native American language — in this case Massachusett— and a 15th-century Flemish book of hours. A marvelous 12th-century chasse (church-shaped box) is made of gold and painted with a row of saints.
Morgan amassed many ritual and liturgical objects, as well as statues of holy figures such as angels. Terracotta and earthenware Madonnas from the 15th and 16th centuries, a 14th-century crucifixion tapestry and a phenomenal ivory triptych sit near that Mary Magdalene reliquary, whose crystal core houses the tooth of questionable authenticity.
"It's like the true cross. If you put together all the chunks that are supposed to be pieces of the true cross, you'd have a whole forest," Roth says. "Kind of like the Charter Oak."
Pivoting from Biblical to secular history, Morgan acquired the most sumptuous pieces in the exhibit, luxurious baubles collected by the wealthy and powerful throughout the centuries.
A gold-enameled snuffbox owned by Frederick the Great, embedded with diamonds and ivory, is tiny and exquisite, as is an elaborate golden pocket-sized "necessaire," which held the personal items that fancy ladies considered necessary when they were on the move. A 1670 pocket watch encrusted with rubies and a portrait miniature of one of Elizabeth I's lovers were kept in glass-topped vitrines and in drawers in Morgan's home, Roth says.
Morgan's focus was not on paintings, but a few are featured in the show, including a Goya of a Spanish duke and a portrait of Robert Rich, who was the second Earl of Warwick and the original owner of the land that is now Old Saybrook.
He also collected a few more signatures, not of religious leaders but of historical figures including George Washington and Morgan's fellow Hartfordite Mark Twain. In 1893 Morgan bought a manuscript of Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson."
The final bay of the exhibit focuses on the institutions that benefited from Morgan's gifts: the Atheneum, the Met and the Morgan Library.
Two metal doors embedded in the walls of the gallery are a reminder that the objets d'art were not Morgan's only contribution to the Atheneum. The doors were originally the entrance gates to the Morgan Memorial Building, which Morgan financed in memory of his father. When the building's entrances needed to be upgraded, those doors were retired.
MORGAN: MIND OF THE COLLECTOR is at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until Dec. 31. thewadsworth.org.