Old Masters, New World (Review)

Cynthia Saltzman (Viking)

We go to our American art museums and dutifully pass the Old Masters’ paintings, nonchalant about them being on display here rather than Italy, Spain, Germany, England, France, Netherlands or the other European countries where those great painters lived centuries ago.

After all, we’re the United States of America, the world’s most powerful country. Why shouldn’t we have our fair share of Rembrandts, Vermeers, Titians, El Grecos, Raphaels, etc.? That’s just natural.

But, actually, it isn’t natural at all. It took a revolution and a war — the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century and then World War I — for that to happen. It also took the brute financial strength of some tough-as-nails American industrial barons, such as the violently antiunion Henry Clay Frick of Carnegie Steel, to bring some of these masterpieces to our shores and eventually into our museums.

There were also some very aggressive dealers, especially in Europe, eager to dislodge masterpieces from the homes of various Old World aristocrats and land barons. Invariably, the Americans had the most money to buy them.

In Old Masters, New World, Cynthia Saltzman doggedly uses correspondence and documents to track how specific masterpieces came to America. She also offers portraits of the principals involved in this seismic shift of art wealth — collectors like Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner and J. Pierpont Morgan, who now have museums named after them.

Saltzman, who previously wrote Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a van Gogh Masterpiece, also reveals details of how the mighty art authority of the period, Bernard Berenson, misrepresented himself in his dealings with Gardner, especially.

It’s good to know the provenance of the art in our museums. As Saltzman shows, the story behind America’s Old Masters isn’t always as pretty as the pictures themselves. Grade: B

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