The Evolution of Taste in American Collecting

The Evolution of Taste in American Collecting The classic study of American art collecting published by René Brimo (1911–1948) in 1938 was a culmination of nineteenth- and early twentieth- century studies of collectors and collections by Gustav Waagen, Edward Strahan, Wilhelm Von Bode and Anna Jameson, among others, as well as a modern, more systematic, and broader analysis of collecting. Kenneth’s Haltman’s edition makes the book available in English and also provides a rich biographical and intellectual context for Brimo’s work, a most timely contribution to an emerging discipline of art market studies. Haltman’s introduction traces Brimo’s life, the exodus of his father Nicholas’s family from Syria and then from Turkey to Paris, their work in the antiques business and their later specialization ‘in medieval paintings, statuary, reliquary and architectural fragments from the Quercy region’, c.1911. Nicholas had many American customers who visited his gallery, a foreign market on which the family had earlier relied in Ottoman Syria. Brimo’s art education began in the École de Louvre, supervised by Paul Vitry, an expert in sculpture, then at the Sorbonne’s new Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie where Henri Focillon taught. Realizing that American collectors ‘held the key to future commercial success’ and new contacts, Brimo planned to research the evolution of taste in America. In 1933 he received a Fiske Fellowship from Harvard, funds from the Sorbonne and support from the Institute of International Education in New York to write his dissertation on American collecting. He studied with Paul Sachs, then assistant director, Fogg Museum, and professor in Harvard’s Department of Fine Arts in 1927 where he taught an early course in museum studies. Sachs had delivered lectures throughout France and in Bonn and London. Transatlantic exchanges of scholars were not new: Focillon taught at Yale for six weeks in 1933; Germany and France signed agreements with several American universities for exchange professors. While in the US, Brimo networked with dealers in New York and did well in America’s art world. He completed his dissertation in Paris, a process that Haltman details, including its social context and its aftermath amid some controversy, favourable reviews, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the defeat of France. Brimo fought in the resistance in France, survived that ordeal, published articles but died young of tuberculosis in 1948. His book entered American libraries but Haltman's translation makes it much more accessible for those working in the field of art market studies. Brimo’s text is comprehensive. Organized chronologically, his Book 1 covers the colonial period to the Philadelphia Centennial, Book 2 from the Centennial to World War i. Each of the three parts of Book 1 begins with an historical introduction (colonial period; 1776–1840; 1840–1876), as does the single subsection of Book 2 (1876–1919). Adopting a scientific model, Brimo eschews preconceived notions, and asks ‘does taste operate autonomously, evolving in the way that form evolves, in response to internal pressures?’, echoing Focillon’s theory of the evolution of forms. Each book returns to this question after rich historical analyses of collections, international exhibitions, and the development of museums. He cites what appears to be every serious American collector from the eighteenth century and in all major cities, from the cultural density of the East Coast, to the ambitious nineteenth-century Midwest and later to the West Coast. He lists artists and works in each collection and each item's final entry to a public museum, in order to map changing tastes and determine what motivated American collectors. Brimo insisted that collectors were driven not simply by the search for status, or by the hoarding instinct, or—given their extraordinary wealth—by their sheer ability to buy whatever appealed to them. Rather he praised them for their innovative tastes and independence. He acknowledged women collectors and names the wives of couples who collected jointly. He recognized Americans’ shared motive of art education in collecting choices and in donating collections to museums, as he mapped museums’ changing roles from storehouses to promoting contemporary artists, though often tied to those artists’ marketability. He traced connections among collectors, dealers and museums but ignored art agents (e.g., George Lucas), a role still ill-defined in the 1930s. Brimo acknowledged the importance of individuality and of broader social and cultural circumstances, including what art material was available for purchase, how readily Americans could travel, and how dealers and curators influenced collectors. Closing Book 1, Brimo argued that the emergence of museums was ‘an important turning point in American taste’, along with international exhibitions, and tastemakers such as scholar Charles Eliot Norton and collectors James Jackson Jarves, William Walters, William Corcoran, and lesser-known collectors for whom Brimo provided a wealth of information. He acknowledged an analogical approach to taste ‘from like to like’ and its ‘opposite law . . . progress by reaction’ – less a law than an ever-changing set of rules. Political events had less effect on American taste than amorphous cultural factors such as secularism and freethinking and the ‘rationalization of instruction’ during expansionism resulting in a ‘“mechanization” of the business of civilization’. American taste was a product of the collusion between collections and art that gave taste a ‘formal expression’. He cited transatlantic influences between artists in both directions (e.g., William Morris Hunt on Jean-François Millet) and influences of European collections, museums and dealers on Americans. For Brimo, collecting was a creative act. He denied that ‘social, economic, intellectual and artistic factors’ explain the ‘true complexity of evolving taste itself’, but acknowledged one ‘law’: ‘similar attitudes attract’. Thus collections in a given period contain the same styles and artists, as tastes emerge and die, an organic evolutionary description that reflects Brimo’s training and philosophical affinities. © The Authors 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of the History of Collections Oxford University Press

The Evolution of Taste in American Collecting

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Authors 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
ISSN
0954-6650
eISSN
1477-8564
D.O.I.
10.1093/jhc/fhx030
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

The classic study of American art collecting published by René Brimo (1911–1948) in 1938 was a culmination of nineteenth- and early twentieth- century studies of collectors and collections by Gustav Waagen, Edward Strahan, Wilhelm Von Bode and Anna Jameson, among others, as well as a modern, more systematic, and broader analysis of collecting. Kenneth’s Haltman’s edition makes the book available in English and also provides a rich biographical and intellectual context for Brimo’s work, a most timely contribution to an emerging discipline of art market studies. Haltman’s introduction traces Brimo’s life, the exodus of his father Nicholas’s family from Syria and then from Turkey to Paris, their work in the antiques business and their later specialization ‘in medieval paintings, statuary, reliquary and architectural fragments from the Quercy region’, c.1911. Nicholas had many American customers who visited his gallery, a foreign market on which the family had earlier relied in Ottoman Syria. Brimo’s art education began in the École de Louvre, supervised by Paul Vitry, an expert in sculpture, then at the Sorbonne’s new Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie where Henri Focillon taught. Realizing that American collectors ‘held the key to future commercial success’ and new contacts, Brimo planned to research the evolution of taste in America. In 1933 he received a Fiske Fellowship from Harvard, funds from the Sorbonne and support from the Institute of International Education in New York to write his dissertation on American collecting. He studied with Paul Sachs, then assistant director, Fogg Museum, and professor in Harvard’s Department of Fine Arts in 1927 where he taught an early course in museum studies. Sachs had delivered lectures throughout France and in Bonn and London. Transatlantic exchanges of scholars were not new: Focillon taught at Yale for six weeks in 1933; Germany and France signed agreements with several American universities for exchange professors. While in the US, Brimo networked with dealers in New York and did well in America’s art world. He completed his dissertation in Paris, a process that Haltman details, including its social context and its aftermath amid some controversy, favourable reviews, the rise of Nazism in Germany and the defeat of France. Brimo fought in the resistance in France, survived that ordeal, published articles but died young of tuberculosis in 1948. His book entered American libraries but Haltman's translation makes it much more accessible for those working in the field of art market studies. Brimo’s text is comprehensive. Organized chronologically, his Book 1 covers the colonial period to the Philadelphia Centennial, Book 2 from the Centennial to World War i. Each of the three parts of Book 1 begins with an historical introduction (colonial period; 1776–1840; 1840–1876), as does the single subsection of Book 2 (1876–1919). Adopting a scientific model, Brimo eschews preconceived notions, and asks ‘does taste operate autonomously, evolving in the way that form evolves, in response to internal pressures?’, echoing Focillon’s theory of the evolution of forms. Each book returns to this question after rich historical analyses of collections, international exhibitions, and the development of museums. He cites what appears to be every serious American collector from the eighteenth century and in all major cities, from the cultural density of the East Coast, to the ambitious nineteenth-century Midwest and later to the West Coast. He lists artists and works in each collection and each item's final entry to a public museum, in order to map changing tastes and determine what motivated American collectors. Brimo insisted that collectors were driven not simply by the search for status, or by the hoarding instinct, or—given their extraordinary wealth—by their sheer ability to buy whatever appealed to them. Rather he praised them for their innovative tastes and independence. He acknowledged women collectors and names the wives of couples who collected jointly. He recognized Americans’ shared motive of art education in collecting choices and in donating collections to museums, as he mapped museums’ changing roles from storehouses to promoting contemporary artists, though often tied to those artists’ marketability. He traced connections among collectors, dealers and museums but ignored art agents (e.g., George Lucas), a role still ill-defined in the 1930s. Brimo acknowledged the importance of individuality and of broader social and cultural circumstances, including what art material was available for purchase, how readily Americans could travel, and how dealers and curators influenced collectors. Closing Book 1, Brimo argued that the emergence of museums was ‘an important turning point in American taste’, along with international exhibitions, and tastemakers such as scholar Charles Eliot Norton and collectors James Jackson Jarves, William Walters, William Corcoran, and lesser-known collectors for whom Brimo provided a wealth of information. He acknowledged an analogical approach to taste ‘from like to like’ and its ‘opposite law . . . progress by reaction’ – less a law than an ever-changing set of rules. Political events had less effect on American taste than amorphous cultural factors such as secularism and freethinking and the ‘rationalization of instruction’ during expansionism resulting in a ‘“mechanization” of the business of civilization’. American taste was a product of the collusion between collections and art that gave taste a ‘formal expression’. He cited transatlantic influences between artists in both directions (e.g., William Morris Hunt on Jean-François Millet) and influences of European collections, museums and dealers on Americans. For Brimo, collecting was a creative act. He denied that ‘social, economic, intellectual and artistic factors’ explain the ‘true complexity of evolving taste itself’, but acknowledged one ‘law’: ‘similar attitudes attract’. Thus collections in a given period contain the same styles and artists, as tastes emerge and die, an organic evolutionary description that reflects Brimo’s training and philosophical affinities. © The Authors 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Journal

Journal of the History of CollectionsOxford University Press

Published: Oct 8, 2017

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