Italians Come to America


In the eventful year of 1913, Art in America was founded and more than 70,000 people saw Marcel Duchamp’s nude descend its staircase at the Armory Show. The new journal, however, made no mention of the landmark exhibition of modern art in its pages. Instead, its first issues featured articles on works by Veronese, Matteo da Siena and Donatello, and exactly one essay on an American artist, Whistler.

Conceived as a journal of art historical scholarship that could compete with the major European publications, A.i.A. was, in significant part, concerned with documenting and encouraging the great migration of old-master paintings to America. Now, this may seem like an uncomplicated cause-who could argue with old-master paintings?-but at the time large portions of the art we are used to seeing in museums today were dismissed out of hand, both in the press and at the dinner parties of wealthy collectors. Italian paintings were particularly controversial, especially those medieval works sometimes referred to as “primitives,” as well as works from the early Renaissance. A sense of how strange this art appeared to contemporaries is preserved in Henry James’s 1897 description of a child’s view of the religious paintings in the National Gallery in London, with their “patches of gold and cataracts of purple, with stiff saints and angular angels, with ugly Madonnas and uglier babies, strange prayers and prostrations.” 1 The adult who has taken the child to the gallery tells her that the paintings represent “silly superstition,” and thinks it is an “affectation” to admire “such ridiculous works.” At the turn of the century, Botticelli was most definitely not on everyone’s list of great painters, and an educated American could hardly be expected to know the name Duccio, let alone to have seen one of his tempera panels.

A.i.A. entered the lists with flags flying: in 1914, for example, it published more articles on Italian painting than it did on the art of all the rest of the world combined. The writers for the new magazine faced a number of challenges in arguing for a broader acceptance of trecento and quattrocento art. New collectors and the people beginning to visit America’s museums and private galleries felt uneasy in the presence of works that seemed to them overly mathematical, or disturbingly sensual, or troublingly Catholic. Interestingly, the dismissal of “stiff saints and angular angels” may not have been so far from the way the New York Times wrote off Duchamp’s Cubist-like nude as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” At the same moment Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) was heralding the arrival of modernist aesthetics on American shores, A.i.A.‘s contributors were busy persuading their readers to take seriously a variety of ways of seeing. Not incidentally, these connoisseurs were also stoking a vibrant market for Italian paintings.

The first issue of A.i.A. featured the article “A Nativity and Adoration of the School of Pietro Cavallini in the Collection of Mr. John G. Johnson,” which exemplifies how matters of perception, taste and access converged in the publication. The author of the essay was one of America’s leading critics, Bernard Berenson (about whom I’ve recently written a biography); the collector, John Graver Johnson, was an adventurous American corporate lawyer in the midst of acquiring one of the great assemblages of Italian works outside of Italy.

The article begins with what seems to be a very plain description, but description can assert a viewpoint, too, in its way. Berenson carefully catalogued the Adoration scene, writing:

On a boat-shaped mattress, perilously balanced on the steep ledge of a bluish rock, the Virgin reclines, looking to her left at the coffin-like crib in which lies the Holy Child wrapt in swaddling clothes. By the crib lie an ox and an ass of unusually small size. An angel clings to the right edge of the rock, looking at the Virgin, and on the corresponding side is another angel, while, above the first, a third angel, with a face of ecstasy, greets the rising sun. 2

The oddness of space and figures had long been a source of consternation about medieval painting. Critics said of these works, as they did of Cubist paintings, that they didn’t seem naturalistic or real. In his seemingly straightforward description, Berenson subtly refutes these charges, asserting that all of this-the “boat-shaped mattress,” the animals of “unusually small size” and the bodies that “perilously” recline-belongs to art that is still, as he says later, of great “loveliness.”     

Berenson’s enumerative description served another purpose, too, which was to encourage his readers to slow down and carefully look at the work reproduced in the magazine. Even with a modest circulation of just a few hundred copies, A.i.A. provided an interested general reader with a visual education not available elsewhere. Photographic reproductions of works were difficult to come by, and monographs about individual artists were only starting to be written. The magazine aimed to serve many audiences simultaneously. Writing enthusiastically about the new publication, the New York Times explained A.i.A.’s intention “to combine accuracy of knowledge with due regard to popular interest,” to be scholarly without being “technical,” focusing its attention on the 18th century and the Renaissance.

A.i.A.’s contributors generally had access to the private collections of the business elite, an important resource for art historical research at the time. Berenson noted at the commencement of his six-part series on Venetian painting for A.i.A, “It is already possible for the student whose travels carry him no further north than Boston, no further south than Washington, and no further west than Detroit and Cleveland, to frame for himself, after inspecting original specimens, an idea of the evolution, and even of the value of Italian painting.” 3 But this “student” was someone like the author himself, a connoisseur with an extensive network of connections to wealthy patrons.

Opportunities for the nonspecialist to study Italian paintings were far more limited in 1913. Many of the works that are now essential to our public collections had not yet even been acquired by the millionaires who would eventually donate them. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was two decades away from having its first stones laid, and as Roger Fry, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, noted ruefully in 1906, the Met had “no Byzantine paintings, no Giotto, no Giottesque, no Mantegna, no Botticelli, no Leonardo, no Raphael, no Michelangelo.” 4 Casual viewers interested in Italian painting could see such works in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts and at the recently opened Isabella Stewart Gardner collection, which Berenson had helped to build. And there was the great repository of the Jarves collection at Yale University, the reception of which makes a good illustration of how rapidly tastes were changing in the U.S. 

James Jackson Jarves, regarded by many as the first great American collector of European art, had, what was in the mid-19th century, an unusual passion for Italian primitives and early Renaissance works. In 1859, full of civic dreams for what his magnificent collection of Sassettas and Martinis might mean to the city of Boston, he offered the trustees of the newly formed Boston Athenaeum the chance to buy his 130 pictures at what he thought was about a quarter of their worth. The price of $14,000 seemed steep to the burghers of Boston, who didn’t like the work much anyway. They declined. Eventually, the Jarves collection was purchased by Yale for $20,000.

The difficulties a 19th-century viewer could have with the Jarves works are suggested by an 1869 article written by a Yale undergraduate after visiting the newly acquired collection. “Perhaps you may have been in a dissecting room,” the writer began. “The first time you entered and saw the half-dissected bodies you felt somewhat faint, and would have preferred to be excused from entering again.” So, too, in the Jarves collection “you might possibly see some things among the paintings that crowd the North Gallery that would be extremely repulsive.” One image had been especially disturbing, “a martyrdom scene where the victim, a female, is bound and the flesh in a dozen places pierced with arrows. Such views are very harrowing to my feelings.” The writer concluded that “one hour’s study of Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley [1864] would, for me, be worth more than all this collection.” 5 It was a commonly held belief in America at the time that the purpose of art was to offer a contemplative experience like that of being in nature by faithfully reproducing green hills and reflecting streams.

Even early on, a few contemporary critics recognized the merits of the Jarves collection and laughed that New Haven had walked off with treasures lost to Boston and New York. This view became the mainstream one in a surprisingly short time. Some 50 years after Boston rejected the purchase, in 1914, A.i.A. ran two separate articles on the Jarves collection by budding art historian Oswald Siren; by then Jarves was widely regarded among critics as a model for American art collectors. Evaluating the collection for Yale in this period, Siren estimated, somewhat conservatively, that the paintings were worth $1 million. That same year, Frank Jewett Mather Jr., another frequent contributor to A.i.A., wrote a pamphlet on the collection in which he pointed out that, at least in a moral sense, Yale should consider itself as owing Jarves’s heirs “the price of two or three stadiums.” 6 And, some while later, Berenson would write to Jarves’s biographer, “I have a cult of him . . . the first American who wrote discriminatingly about Italian painting of the early Renaissance.” 7

The study and acquisition of Italian works increased enormously from Jarves’s day through the early years of A.i.A. When Berenson sold Isabella Stewart Gardner the first Botticelli to come to America, in 1898, they both thought the price, of roughly $16,000, was a substantial commitment. And when John G. Johnson began seriously buying Italian paintings, around 1904-05, he did so partly because they were fairly affordable. As counsel to the Standard Oil Company, J.P. Morgan & Company, the United States Steel Corporation and the Pennsylvania Railroad, Johnson was a wealthy man, but he wasn’t in the financial league of the moguls who employed him. The curator of what is now the John G. Johnson collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Carl Strehlke, points out that “it was Johnson’s more modest resources that probably dictated his interest in the then relatively economical field of early Italian paintings.” 8

American collections of these paintings developed in tandem with critical scholarship about them. Italian pictures had often been made in workshops by multiple hands, they were frequently unsigned, and they had been cut out of church altars centuries ago. It required all the subtleties of the new connoisseurship, all the apparatus of photographic reproductions, all the speed of train travel (which allowed for close comparison of distant pictures), and all the exhaustive compendia of new catalogues and monographs to combat the challenges of determining who had painted what.

These developments were important to collectors, too. Among other things, precise scholarship supported the dramatically increasing prices for Italian art. Like other collectors making their way through the labyrinthine European picture market, Johnson was very interested in A.i.A. He owned a complete set of early issues, and may have contributed to the magazine’s finances. American entrepreneurs appreciated the risky quality of the Italian market, with its high potential returns, but they did want to know, as much as possible, just what they were buying. Until attributions could be made with some accuracy, collectors wouldn’t have been willing to gamble much money on Italian art. The potential capital hovering in the background added heat to the critics’ seemingly arcane disputes over whether something was a Cavallini or just “school of.” The painstaking connoisseurship evident in early A.i.A. articles was of value both to art history and to art commerce.

In the 1880s and 1890s, a few English art critics, especially John Ruskin and Walter Pater, had begun to argue seriously for the importance of Italian paintings, but they were still a small minority. By the turn of the century, as the study of the Italian Renaissance fostered new methods and incited raging controversies, a whole generation of talented men and women was attracted to the field. Two of the men central to the founding of A.i.A.-its first editor, Wilhelm Valentiner, and first publisher, Frederic Fairchild Sherman-planned to draw on the new pool of excellent writers available to them. They would feature wonderful pieces on Persian miniatures, on Tang statues, on Winslow Homer, on Rembrandt and Hogarth and art of the American colonial period, but they knew from the outset that everyone would want to write about Italian paintings. In its early days, A.i.A. ran articles on Italian works written by Berenson and his wife and co-connoisseur Mary Berenson, Mather, Siren, Kenyon Cox, Allan Marquand, Wilhelm Bode, Joseph Breck and many more.

These critics relished defending Italian works against the sneers of “ugly Madonnas and uglier babies,” and they delighted in acerbic disputes over attributions. But they also hoped to convey to both general readers and collectors that art might offer other experiences than that of spending an hour with Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, important as it might be.

Many American viewers had first come to appreciate paintings by looking at the works of France’s Barbizon school, especially the landscape paintings of Corot and Daubigny, which had influenced the subsequent works of the Impressionists-also, eventually, popular with American collectors. These artworks conveyed the pleasures of the impression, the sketch, the immediate. To inexperienced viewers, they made good sense; the casual and transitory way of seeing seemed natural. In a 1914 article in which he extols the delights of Winslow Homer’s watercolors, Cox describes, with some reservations, the  taste of the times: “If you share the modern love for facts and have anything of the modern carelessness of art you will ask for nothing more, and will prefer such notes to any possible work of art that might be constructed from them.” 9 A somewhat more caustic tone was struck by Mather in his 1912 book of short stories, The Collectors, which opens with a scathing satire of “The Patron,” and how he “bored us with his new Corot,” even though “the Critic had been writing for a season that the only hope in art for the rich was to emancipate themselves from the exclusive idolatry of Barbizon.” 10

For his part, Berenson-though he admired the Impressionist painters, and has the distinction of being the first American critic to mention Cézanne in print (he said Cézanne had done for the skies what Michelangelo had done for the nude)-wanted to argue for the merits of another way of seeing. In 1915, Berenson offered a complicated case for the significance and beauty of Henry Clay Frick’s recent purchase: the great St. Francis in the Desert (1481) by Giovanni Bellini, today one of the pearls of New York’s Frick Collection. Spectators, he warned, “brought up perchance on impressionist painting,” and expecting a study after nature, “always under the same conditions of light and atmosphere,” could easily miss Bellini’s achievement: “Nature, like everything else in the visible world, was interesting to him not so much for its own sake as for the detail it furnished him to be used in his design.” 11

True, Berenson agreed, “this is not a landscape as a Monet would have painted it, nor even a Sisley or Pissarro . . . yet one will not readily find its superior. If far less a record of one impression than any of these, it is more arresting in detail. Here we have a world we shall not readily exhaust, and even when its own mood-solemn, sober, and meditative-no longer appeals to our consciousness, our spirit can still roam therein at leisure.” 12 This seemingly conservative argument hinged on Berenson’s notion of design. For the critic, celebrating design meant placing primary emphasis on the artist’s intention and inventiveness; the imitation of nature was a secondary concern. Oddly enough, this line of thinking is not so far from the argument Duchamp was to put forward for his famous readymade, Fountain, of 1917: “Whether Mr. Mutt [Duchamp’s pseudonym] with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it,” and in so doing, “created a new thought for that object.”

The changing art world that helped bring A.i.A. into being, and that was in turn recorded and influenced by the new magazine, went on with its rapid transformations all through the Great War. The war affected A.i.A.‘s collectors and contributors in the small and in the large. Bernhard Berenson dropped the h in his name to align himself with the French and against the Germans. After the U.S. entered the war, the magazine’s editor, Valentiner, returned to Germany, and the magazine’s publisher, Sherman, took over as editor. And, as the European elite fled and were bankrupted, a flood of works came onto the market. Americans, grown wealthier off the war, saw other commodities and investments looking shaky. Art became even more attractive. Berenson, who made his living, somewhat clandestinely, by making attributions for the picture market, was asked by the dealer who employed him to pronounce on 26 pictures in 1916; he responded to 250 such requests from that firm the following year.

By 1919, Berenson could note with satisfaction and some astonishment that “the same collector who thirty years ago would have bought nothing that was not Barbizon, who then had no familiarity with other names in Italian art than Raphael and Leonardo and Michelangelo, will now send out runners to secure him Cavallinis, Margaritones, Vigoros and Guidos, Berlinghieris and Deodatis.” 13

Now, when we look back, it seems surprising, and in a way gratifying, as it is gratifying to children to know things of which their parents are ignorant, that in 1913 not everyone saw how important the Armory Show would become. But of the parallel, and possibly related, transformation that made the long-ignored Birth of Venus into an object of pilgrimage that appears on refrigerators around the world, we are hardly even conscious. John G. Johnson died in 1917; his Italian treasures were exhibited in Philadelphia in 1920. More than 137,000 people went to see his school-of-Cavallini Virgin, “perilously balanced on the steep ledge of a bluish rock,” almost twice the number of those who had made their way through the New York Armory Show.

RACHEL COHEN is a writer based in Cambridge, Mass.