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New book demystifies nineteenth-century Pittsburgh collectors and how they rose out of the US's industrial centre

The birth of American collecting: Frick, Mellon and Carnegie analysed

In theory it might seem simple to chronicle the activities of collectors in the late nineteenth century. The protagonists are only two degrees away from living memory, and their possessions have not yet suffered generations of dispersal and destruction.

But the story has proved surprisingly difficult to reconstruct, even when the full apparatus of art-historical research is focused on a cast of characters so prominent and a period so recent as the subject of the exhibition of which this book was the catalogue. This may be the reason why both the colourful tycoons and their time of greatest activity in the art market have suddenly become attractive to serious scholars.

As so often happens with historical research, the story of Pittsburgh’s gilded age is matched by a detailed study of Britain’s merchant class as collectors: Art and the Victorian middle class by Dianne Macleod, reviewed by Lionel Lambourne, above, and by Margaretta Frederick Watson’s comparison between two Pre-Raphaelite collectors, in Birmingham and Wilmington, Delaware. This last has a greater relevance than is immediately apparent since Charles Dickens, for one, was struck by the resemblances between Pittsburgh and Birmingham. These present a picture of nineteenth-century buyers in eager competition for contemporary art; in contrast to the early patrons of the Impressionists, the industrial middle class as collectors have for too long been overlooked, with the result that some of the most admired and successful nineteenth-century American and Continental painters and sculptors have been overshadowed by the more romantic refusés. In whatever terms we can bring ourselves to judge them now, Jean Georges Vibert, Luis Jiminez y Aranda, Mihàly Munkàcsy, Theobold Chartran (also a favourite portraitist) and Daniel Ridgway Knight command awe and respect in their sheer ability to paint.

This massive publication could appear like the legendary sledge-hammer and fin-de siècle Pittsburgh the nut to be cracked, but it was here that Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie cut their art-collecting teeth, and their tentative early forays into the market are significant in the story of the founding years of America’s public art museums. In terms of distance Pittsburgh is not so far from the sophisticated East Coast, but it was perceived as nothing but a grimy, smoke-filled industrial hell. The very people who constructed Pittsburgh’s heavy industry and caused the pall of smoke were those who put it on the international cultural map. The complex psychological facts of American art collecting are given their full weight in a series of chapters that address issues of social respectability and ambition, the search for cultural sophistication, the role of the dealers and the public-spirited desire among the industrial millionaires to share these cultural riches with a more disadvantaged section of the populace. It is interesting to try to detect when the collecting urge moves from the simple gratification of personal taste into a conscious attempt to refine and educate the public. The names of America’s public art benefactors are stamped indelibly on the cultural scene because they placed less reliance than the founding fathers of Europe’s public art galleries on a continuing flow of civic or state funds from future generations.

Although the book’s central theme of Pittsburgh remains its focus throughout, a chapter is devoted to collecting beyond Pittsburgh itself. In Outre-mer, impressions of America, published in 1895, Paul Bourget observed the art-collecting activities of the industrial magnates as he travelled from New York to Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis and St Paul: of a typical home in the latter place he remarked, “Pictures, pictures, everywhere. Corots of the highest beauty, among them the ‘Biblis’ which featured at the Sécretan sale, Troyons, Descamps, a colossal Courbet, the ‘Convulsionnaires’ of Delacroix, and a view of the coast of Morocco, before which I stood long, as in a dream.” In Baltimore he saw “in the collection of the ‘magnate’ of another railroad, the complete series of Barye pictures... Fromentins and Daubignys, other Corots, Troyons, Decamps, Bonnats, all the glory of France! What sentiments impels these wealthy speculators to gather into their own homes art treasures most foreign to all that has been the business and passion of their whole life?” That scene is examined here.

As far as functioning as an exhibition catalogue is concerned, the organisers have taken a fashionable view, and the list of paintings is summary in the extreme. As to the merits of the decision I will not venture to comment, but I would just note that, in order to discover why Frick bought an eighteenth-century portrait by the relatively obscure Hugh Barron (1745-91), you will have to read a good deal of the text.

Gabriel P. Weisberg, DeCourcy E. McIntosh and Alison McQueen, eds, Collecting in the gilded age: art patronage in Pittsburgh, 1890-1910, (University Press of New England, Hanover, 1997), 420 pp., 172 b/w ills, 110 col. ills, £45 $75 (hb only) ISBN1881403033

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Industrial strength'