Last week the 150th anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum—which was to be celebrated with grand festivities and a glittering lineup of public exhibitions—came and went with a whimper, just one of the many sad and unexpected consequences of our national shut-in. Chief among these planned events is “Making the Met,” an exhibition that will examine the Met’s history since its 1870 founding when the museum’s doors finally open again to Fifth Avenue. It will be a cause for great celebration.
Nevertheless, I suspect that one short but important episode in this history will go largely unexplored: Roger Fry’s brief association with the museum, first as Curator of Paintings from 1906–08, then as European acquisitions advisor for the following two years. The story is recounted in an essay from Caroline Elam’s Roger Fry and Italian Art (Paul Holberton Publishing), which, as a scholarly volume, is an exceptional dive into the mind of an intellectual who deserves more attention than he usually gets nowadays, as well as the Italian masterworks with which he engaged over the course of his life.
Fry, whom Kenneth Clark called “incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin,” is best known for his studies in England. He was an active member of the Bloomsbury group (Virginia Woolf wrote his biography), one of the founders of The Burlington Magazine (the nation’s first scholarly journal of art history), and a prodigious lecturer on painting who did perhaps more than anyone to bring an understanding of the French avant-garde to the Anglophone world.
These accomplishments gave Fry a name that carried over the Atlantic and into the great, luxurious homes of New York City, whose owners were then stockpiling artworks from the Italian Renaissance. In the early 1900s, he acted as an advisor to the likes of Henry Clay Frick and J. Pierpont Morgan in the English market. Soon enough Morgan—a founding trustee and then also the President of the Met—invited Fry to America to offer him the museum’s directorship. Fry made the trip, met with scores of industrialists, lawyers, and moneymakers, and gave the position some thought. With two young children and an unstable wife lodged back home in England, however, he declined—enraging the “colossal” Morgan, who evidently wasn’t accustomed to hearing bad news.
At the time, Fry was also a favored candidate to become the Director of London’s National Gallery—a dream opportunity that surely factored into his unwillingness to commit to the Met then and there. But the London appointment was, for unknown reasons, delayed, and in the meantime the Met altered its offer to Fry, allowing that he could stay in England for most of the year under the title “Curator of Paintings.” Unsure of his standing with the National Gallery’s trustees, Fry accepted the offer and set sail once more for New York.
Upon arrival he found the city “a fierce and cruel place, monstrous and inhuman, so that in spite of the voyage [which had been detestable] one scarcely wants to land,” and he described the Met as being “in a state of chaos.” Though he soon warmed to America, to Americans, and to his work at the Museum, his relationship with Morgan was fraught. The banker, who hoped to wield as much power in the realm of art as he did the realm of finance, proved a difficult boss. Strong-willed and overbearing—from Fry’s point of view, at least—Morgan had a habit of taking Fry’s advice on proposed acquisitions, but for his own collection rather than the museum’s—effectively demoting Fry to a sort of private art advisor who worked gratis.
Fry also made his share of mistakes. Like most art historians of his time, he was essentially a self-taught connoisseur and occasionally fumbled attributions, to the great consternation of the museum’s trustees and benefactors. And the fact that Fry spent only a small fraction of the year in America remained a point of contention between the man and the museum. Beyond his leader-starved staff, there were the New York artists eager to court Fry’s favor and just as ready to denounce the Met when they found he wasn’t around to hear their entreaties.
Fry soon renegotiated his position down to “European advisor,” but this arrangement also only lasted a couple of years, culminating in disaster. In a Paris dealership in the summer of 1909, Fry found a particularly notable Fra Angelico, a Madonna and Child from the collection of Belgium’s King Leopold, and reserved it for the Met. By the time he had returned to New York, however, Fry found the picture hanging in Morgan’s own collection. The banker had evidently purchased the work himself, having misled the dealer into thinking he was buying it on behalf of the museum. (The picture was later sold at auction and now hangs in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.) Fry wrote a stinging letter to Morgan describing “the exact state of the case,” an unconscionable act of insolence from Morgan’s perspective. He was summarily terminated.
Though Fry’s tenure at the Met is regarded by most as a failure on the whole, it did beget a number of crucial acquisitions. The early Renaissance Italian paintings that Fry so favored remain the nucleus of the museum’s department of European Paintings. And many of the pieces Fry fought for unsuccessfully ended up in the Met’s collection one way or another later on; a number are now the centerpieces of those galleries. One painting in particular that Fry did acquire, a Madonna and Child (late 1480s) by Giovanni Bellini, is one of my very favorite paintings still hanging on Fifth Avenue. In Elam’s volume we find an essay by Fry on the very work, written on the occasion of the museum’s purchase. Reading this essay and others by Fry, with the help of Elam’s cogent and illuminating analysis of her subject’s constantly evolving formalist ideas, leaves the impression that it was the Met’s loss to let this brilliant mind go.