The history of American taste is a fascinating subject which is only now receiving the attention it properly deserves: added stimulus to unraveling the skeins comes from the realization that in many respects American collectors and patrons were pioneers in their appreciation of modern art. Some indication of this rapid response to contemporary movements is provided by the experiences in Paris of the American painters John Trumbull and John Vanderlyn, both of whom knew Jacques-Louis David.

Good Bostonians, when they die, go to Paris, said one wag, T. G. Appleton, and this was certainly the belief of many of those who went in for art.

The American relationship with France has been a long and fruitful one and, as barely requires mentioning, increased during the war with England when the young Republic was allied with France. This is an alliance symbolized by Houdon’s famous statue of George Washington. The love of French art was also reflected in the furniture acquired by Gouverneur Morris and Colonel Swan, and it is one that has continued over the years, reaching its apogee, it might be said, in the Paris of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and in the avant-garde collections of the 1930s.

Good Bostonians, when they die, go to Paris, said one wag, T. G. Appleton, and this was certainly the belief of many of those who went in for art. Although German painting found admirers in nineteenth-century America, and Charles Eliot Norton patronized Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the amount of art bought in the French capital by transatlantic collectors was enormous— Salon pictures and Barbizon landscapes poured into America during the 1860s and 1870s. W. H. Vanderbilt, August Belmont, and A.T. Stewart were just a few of the enthusiasts. That some collectors could change their opinions when taste veered in other directions is one of the conclusions that emerges from Frances Weitzenhoffers rewarding book, The Havemeyers, which is correctly subtitled Impressionism Comes to America. This study, which will please both the specialist and the general reader, also provides material for the social and economic historian.

Of all American collectors, the Havemeyers are among the best known, largely on account of their munificent gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both had their own, individual tastes and both came to collecting independently of the other.

Louisine Elder was one of those strong-minded American girls who found their way to Paris in the 1870s to perfect their French. She attended a sort of finishing school kept by Madame de Sartre. Fortunately one of her fellow boarders was Emily Sartain, a young Philadelphian studying painting. She introduced her friend Mary Cassatt to Louisine, who thus had the chance of getting to know this formidable and intelligent artist. As almost goes without saying, she was profoundly influenced by her.

It was Mary Cassatt, as Mrs. Weitzenhoffer shows, who planted the seeds of collecting in Louisine’s mind, and at the age of twenty Louisine had the distinction of being the first American buyer of a work by Degas, acquiring his Ballet Rehearsal, a pastel and gouache over monotype, now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. That she swiftly developed her own taste is revealed, too, by her acquisition of a Monet, a Pissarro, and a Mary Cassatt. J. J. Henner’s portrait of Louisine and the various photographs illustrated in the book reveal her possession of the sort of self-assurance that was likely to appeal to her future husband, Henry Osborne Havemeyer.

When Louisine married Havemeyer she was twenty-eight; he was thirty-five. They had known each other since childhood, but he had first married her aunt, from whom he was now divorced. He had previously had a drinking problem, but Louisine made it a condition of their marriage that he would have to abstain. He did so for the rest of his life. The somewhat unusual circumstances of their marriage led to the Havemeyers concentrating on their collection.

Harry Havemeyer, who was a sugar magnate, had already taken an interest in art before his second marriage, visiting, with Samuel Colman, the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, where he saw and appreciated Chinese and Japanese works of art, becoming especially keen on the latter. In keeping with contemporary taste, he also admired Corot and the Barbizon painters, lending several of his works to the famous New York “Pedestal Exhibition” of 1883 at the National Academy of Design.

Mrs. Weitzenhoffer tells her tale skillfully and places the Havemeyers against the background of the time, one when the gallery owner Paul Durand-Ruel was opening up the American market, all the more vital for him in view of his lack of clients in Europe. The details that are supplied about the early days of Americans collecting Impressionist paintings are intriguing, and much of the information has been virtually unknown. We are given an account of James F. Sutton—co-founder of the American Art Association—arranging a French show which ran into considerable difficulties, not least on account of the problems relating to the import duty on paintings.

It was an exhibition organized by Durand-Ruel and Sutton at the National Academy of Design in May 1886 that led Havemeyer to become a buyer of modern French painting: Mrs. Havemeyer had asked him to purchase a work by Manet if one was available, and he secured The Salmon of 1876, now in the Sheiburne Museum in Vermont. During this period Havemeyer bought two major pictures by Rembrandt, which he offered to lend to the Metropolitan Museum, and a Delacroix. He was usually generous about showing or lending his possessions, but he was never invited to join the board of the Metropolitan. Mrs. Weitzenhoffer suggests, doubtless correctly, that this was due to the fact that Harry Havemeyer, who was the driving force behind the Sugar Trust, had several encounters with the federal authorities. In May 1897 he was charged with contempt of court “because he had refused to answer the questions of a U.S. Senate investigating committee about the exact amounts his company had donated to national and state political campaigns in 1892 and 1893.” Among the lawyers who acted for Havemeyer on this and other occasions was J. G. Johnson, the most celebrated corporate lawyer of his day and a notable collector. Earlier, when Johnson had successfully defended the Sugar Trust against the charge of being a monopoly, he asked his client for only $3,000, but there was a catch: he also wanted a painting from his collection. Much annoyed, Havemeyer refused to agree to the deal, but paid him $100,000. Havemeyer’s various legal battles continued until the end of his life.

The Havemeyers were not only omnivorous collectors of art; they were also patrons of Tiffany, who was responsible for much of the interior of their mansion at 1 East Sixty-sixth Street, which, like most grand residences from this period, has now vanished. However, some of the colorful glass decorations with peacocks that Tiffany designed as a mosaic in the entrance hall have survived and were included in last year’s exhibition, “In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement” at the Metropolitan Museum. The author provides a full account of the imaginative patronage of the Havemeyers in building their house, but both the house and the collection failed to win the approval of Berenson and his wife on their visit there in November 1903. The Havemeyers also owned country properties.

A careful examination of the facts permits Mrs. Weitzenhoffer to chart the development and range of the Havemeyers’ taste. Harry Havemeyer was a great lover of Dutch seventeenth-century painting, which led to his acquisition of notable works by Hals as well as Rembrandt. It is amusing to find that he was eager to persuade his circle to accept the French School, being particularly keen to convert his crony Colonel Oliver Payne. Although the Colonel was a confirmed bachelor, Havemeyer felt that, being susceptible to the charms of pretty women, he would appreciate “feminine subjects by a modern artist such as Corot.” Colonel Payne was to acquire not only a Corot but a superb Degas, The Dance, which (he confessed to Mrs. Havemeyer after her husband’s death) he never appreciated.

The gentle conspiracy to persuade the Colonel to buy modern art was abetted by Mary Cassatt, who suggested that he should call on the services of Sara Tyson Hallowell. This enterprising woman had helped Potter Palmer with his collection and had acted as secretary to the Interstate Industrial Exposition’s art committee in Chicago. In 1890 she borrowed eleven Impressionist paintings from Durand-Ruel for the annual show. She also played an important part in guiding the Potter Palmers around the Paris dealers and in organizing the exhibition of foreign masterpieces for Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893, which was relatively successful.

In 1893 Sara Hallowell, who could step out of the pages of a novel by Henry James, had decided to reside permanently in France, where she acted as the agent for American museums, supplementing her clearly exiguous income by journalism. Mrs. Weitzenhoffer prints a touching letter from Miss Hallowell to Durand-Ruel asking if she could work for the firm: she suggested that this dealer might pay for her to live in a pension, or in a small apartment, but Durand-Ruel was unable to do so. This letter sheds light on the position of the independent woman in the art world and underlines the fact that such women were able to strike out on their own. Her later life is not dealt with in this book; however, her career would be well worth studying in detail.

When the Havemeyers came to Europe, they would meet Mary Cassatt and travel with her. They visited Paris in 1901, when Harry Havemeyer was in need of a rest after a fierce fight with John Arbuckle, who controlled the market in packaged coffee and who had moved into sugar refining. After this struggle, which cost the two tycoons twenty-five million dollars, they reached an agreement.

There was one unfortunate consequence of the Havemeyers’ trip: Mary Cassatt had introduced them to A. E. Harmisch, an artist who had taken up art dealing and who became their agent in Italy. Mary Cassatt swore by his honesty. Harmisch may have been honest, but he had no eye, and the bulk of the paintings he secured for his patrons are not by the artists to whom they are attributed: one exception is Veronese’s Boy with a Greyhound, now in the Metropolitan.

The Havemeyers were on safer ground when they fell in love with Spanish paintings. Havemeyer was stunned by El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz at Toledo, and one of his finest acquisitions was this master’s portrait of Cardinal Don Fernando Niño de Guevara; he also secured Goya’s Majas on a Balcony. (Both paintings are now in the Metropolitan Museum.) The correspondence relating to their transactions in Spain is interesting; at one stage they used as their intermediary Joseph Wicht, who was on excellent terms with the Spanish aristocracy, but he died young. We learn, too, that Durand-Ruel’s Spanish agent was Ricardo de Madrazo.

That Harry Havemeyer had the gift of getting to the heart of the matter is shown by the instructions he regularly issued concerning his purchases, even as he was expanding his commercial empire, acquiring large tracts of land with copper mines in Alaska.

Another instance of his sharp eye was that he spotted the talents of Ambroise Vollard as an art dealer. He helped Vollard financially in about 1900, and purchased pictures by Cézanne from him. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Havemeyer disposed of two of her Cézannes to Durand-Ruel, who sold them to Morozov, the Russian collector. Havemeyer had his preferences and dislikes; he was averse to buying nudes—his wife had no such inhibition—and thus he declined to buy Ingres’s Le Bain Turc, which had been suggested to them by Mary Cassatt as a possible acquisition. (She had heard that the owner, Prince Amédée de Broglie, needed money.)

After Harry Havemeyer’s death in December 1907 at the age of sixty, his widow was disconsolate and her sorrow was compounded by the relentless attacks of the press on the family for its alleged misdemeanors with the Sugar Trust. Much litigation and expense was incurred, but finally a settlement was reached. This took place when Mrs. Havemeyer and her daughter Electra went abroad to France and Spain. Electra had inherited her parents’ love of art, and in writing to her preferred beau (and future husband), J. Watson Webb, she observed that nobody would buy jewels when they could buy works of art.

Although Mrs. Havemeyer missed securing El Greco’s Saint Martin and the Beggar, which went to another emerging American collector, Peter A. B. Widener, she regained something of her pleasure in existence by looking at works of art. Some indication of the sort of life she and her daughter led in Paris is provided by one of Electra’s letters to Watson Webb. “I had,” she wrote, “such an interesting time yesterday. We went to the house of Madame Cassin, the wealthiest courtisane in France, and I met the lady myself. She owns a tremendous house on the Champs Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe as large as the Astoria hotel. She had this marvellous collection of pictures. She is about 70 years old now. Such luxury you have never seen.” It would be intriguing to learn more about this collector and about the sort of pictures that she owned.

The story of the Havemeyer family is no less intriguing than the formation of the collection, and at times it would provide material for “society” novelists such as Edith Wharton or Louis Auchincloss.

Mrs. Havemeyer was a determined old lady and soon turned her mind to her collection. She let it be known that she was still in the market: her interests had broadened to include Gothic sculpture (then a growing fashion), Persian pottery, and antiquities. She took pleasure in showing her collection to such visiting dignitaries as Dr. Ludwig Justi of Berlin, who spoke about it in suitably gracious terms in The New York Times.

During her later years she evinced a special affection for the works of Courbet and of course Degas, and managed to secure masterpieces such as El Greco’s celebrated View of Toledo and Daumier’s Third-Class Carriage, now both in the Metropolitan Museum.

Active to the end, Mrs. Havemeyer played a large role in the suffragette movement in the United States, even getting herself arrested in Washington, D.C., much to the consternation of her family. Her charm and good humor were as evident as her energy, which she put to good use during the First World War. Mrs. Weitzenhoffer sketches the last years deftly, but she does not pay sufficient tribute to Mrs. Havemeyer’s memoirs, which have much to recommend them.

The story of the Havemeyer family is no less intriguing than the formation of the collection, and at times it would provide material for “society” novelists such as Edith Wharton or Louis Auchincloss. On one occasion Mrs. Havemeyer and Mrs. Watson Webb, Sr. took a hand in decorating the house which Electra, who had inherited $4,000,000 from her father, and her husband (whose mother was a Vanderbilt) had built on Long Island. Mrs. Havemeyer commissioned Tiffany and Co. to create Moorish-style pieces to go with the dining room, which was made up of elements from a villa built for Charles V of Spain near Granada. Poor Electra’s mother-in-law introduced stuffed elks’ heads and large, uncomfortable chairs. On another occasion, after Mrs. Havemeyer’s brief incarceration in Washington, one of her sons-in-law, Peter Frelinghuysen, refused to receive the “jailbird,” who had to wait in the car outside his house in Morristown.

The Havemeyers cared little about social life, only entering the grand world when they felt obliged to launch their daughters, which was done in suitable style. Their true love was art, and a memorial to their taste and enthusiasm remains in their collection. Harry Havemeyer’s instinctive response to quality may be observed in his appreciation of Islamic pottery, which he saw at Kelekian’s shops in Paris and New York.

One telling description of the Havemeyers occurs in a letter written by Charles L. Freer to his friend Charles Morse after they had visited Freer in Detroit in September 1906 and been shown selections from his collection—a Chinese painting, a Japanese screen, “an ancient piece of pottery,” and a Whistler Nocturne. He told Morse: “Mrs. Havemeyer’s taste is most exquisite, and, of course, her long attention to artistic matters has equipped her more thoroughly for the enjoyment of fine Oriental things than any other lady I have ever known. Mr. Havemeyer is an extraordinary man. No one can be more deeply touched by beauty than he, provided, he is in a mood to enjoy it. He told me that there are times in his life when he cannot disengage himself from most active material things; then there are periods when music seems the only thing in life, and again times when other fine arts are his sole desire.” This just tribute to their sensibilities firmly places the Havemeyers within the aesthetic movement which reigned in the United States and elsewhere at this time.

It is a striking fact about collectors like the Havemeyers that most, if not all, of their possessions were made available to the public and this at a time when fiscal benefits were not involved. The aesthetes, whether collectors, patrons, or designers, by familiarizing the public with a wide range of artistic styles—Oriental and Islamic as well as Western—did much to ensure that eclectic and open-minded attitude to the arts which is a predominant feature of American civilization.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 1, on page 77
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