Old Masters, New World by Cynthia Saltzman

October 21, 2009 at 12:00 am 2 comments

omnwIf you ever want to feel sad about the state of the modern British aristocracy, I recommend you read Old Masters, New World by Cynthia Saltzman. While this feeling of sheer sorriness for the British nobility is an unintended side-effect of the book, Old Masters remains and interesting story about an interesting moment in art collecting. Saltzman refers to it as a brief golden age of “art-buying binging” during the Gilded Age, from the 1890s to the start of WWI. I might refer to it as something closer to a tarnished silver age of art-selling binging, but potayto, potahto.

Saltzman’s book tells the story of how Old Master paintings happily tucked away in the crumbling estates of equally-crumbling European noblemen were purchased by Americans made rich during the Industrial Age and shipped off to the “New World.” It is more a story of personalities than art history since the Americans buying up these treasures were quite the storied lot (including Henry Clay Frick, J. Pierpont Morgan, and, briefly, Arabella Huntington) and the embarrassed Europeans, while treated with dignified near-anonymity by Saltzman, are equally evocative.

But the Anglophile in me was mostly made sad by the story of the fallen Brits who were forced to part with their ancestral treasures to pay for new taxes. I have always found this particular chapter of the British aristocracy’s history rather depressing and this book really goes into the specifics of how they were “willingly” deprived of their Master paintings. Yes, they willing put them up for sale, but only under duress from their own government and more than a little sheepishly.

So if you’re in the mood for a bittersweet tale of art history and acquisition (or if you’re one of the few people on Henry Clay Frick’s side), check this book out. As Katie would say, a book worth borrowing or getting from the library, but hardly one worth buying and lovingly rereading in a few years.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  October 21, 2009 at 8:40 am

    That really IS depressing. Poor old Brits. This reminds me a little bit of the way Margaret Mitchell paints the post-bellum South — all the formerly respectable families watching their ancestral homes crumble around them :(

    Additionally, though, Arabella Huntington is included? I’m a big fan — or at least, I love the art collection at the Huntington (though in kind of a superficial way because I really know nothing about art). It would be really interesting to learn more about how she amassed her collection.

    • 2. Corey  |  October 21, 2009 at 11:44 am

      It is a lot like the tone of GWTW. You get the sense of these deeply proud men and women who are forced to part with bits of what made them great to preserve the whole of their noble identity. It is absolutely not what Saltzman wants you to take away, I think, but it is what resonated with me.

      Arabella is really briefly mentioned a few times, but she is not one of the main portraits. But she is absolutely fascinating! She seriously needs a movie!


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