Upon entering the Morgan Library and Museum at 225 Madison Ave, the building showers its visitors in natural light from a foyer completed as part of renovations and expansions from 2002 to 2006. The museum is based on the collection of John Piermont “J.P.” Morgan (1837 to 1913), incorporated in 1924 and opened in 1928. The museum specializes in intimately scaled objects, with special emphasis on near Eastern seals and tablets, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, rare books and fine bindings, literary and historical manuscripts, and drawings and prints. Its winter offerings this year include an exhibition of jeweled rare books, “Magnificent Jewels,” and selections from its collection of master drawings, titled, “Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection,” which are sketches, schematics, and draughts used for painting masterpieces.
The museum’s permanent collection includes J.P. Morgan’s personal library, which encompasses three large rooms entered through the far corner of the foyer. These rooms feel as though one is stepping into the worlds of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings because of the sheer number of beautifully bound books on the wall-to-wall shelves. The largest of these rooms is the original library, which is a magnificent sight to behold. The room is an ecstasy of shelves and shelves of books. There are walkways for the stacks that are lofted, and this gives the library a feeling like a rain forest village, like the Ewok Village from Star Wars, or the Swiss Family Robinson. The ceiling is painted with divisions of known science, intermixed with astrology, as if to say these ancient books include what is known, and if the books are archaic or outdated like astrology, maybe there’s still something to be learned from them.
The museum’s lower level gallery has an exhibition of American artists who painted 19th-century Florence and Naples in Italy, but one could be forgiven for focusing on the large John Singer Sargent portrait of Jane Norton Grew from 1906. Norton Grew was the wife of J.P. Morgan Junior, aka Jack. This stunning portrait looks like Edwin Austen Abbey’s “Who is Sylvia, What is She?” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, partly because Abbey and John Singer Sargent were friends, and partly because both communicate a simple beauty. Abbey’s painting was of a beauty so great it must have been fictional, but Sargent’s portrait is of a real woman. Here Norton Grew looks at Sargent with simple grace in a humble bow that could belong to a rose or a tulip. Jack Morgan was a lucky guy.
The Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery is a very small room on the first floor of the museum. It currently holds the “Magnificent Gems” exhibit -- medieval books encrusted with precious jewels. Certain precious stones correspond to superpowers of famous ancient philosophers or Catholic Saints, but the discerning art critic might miss the superstitious hierarchy. These books include hand-scripted works of the Holy Bible, and sometimes have holy figures in gold on the surface. Modern art is cynical because jewels and metals often symbolize vanity and the naivety of using them as talismans and amulets, but the books here were gilded for hope, knowledge, and morality. Viewers who would dismiss these books as cheap vanities of the Dark Ages would be dismissing themselves, because the viewers are the ones who are hoped for, the ones meant to be persuaded.
Image Credit: The Morgan Library and Museum. Jeweled cover with silver-gilt repoussé figures of Christ in Majesty and the symbols of the four evangelists, Continental work, last third of the eleventh century. On: Gospels of Judith of Flanders, in Latin; Canterbury, England, ca. 1060. Manuscript on vellum. Purchased by J. P. Morgan, 1926. © The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M. 709, front cover
The museum’s changing exhibition of its collection, “Drawn to Greatness,” comes from the Thaw Collection, by curator Eugene Thaw, a collector and curator closely associated with the museum. This exhibit has the draughts and sketches from hundreds of masterpieces from the 17th century to the 20th century. A viewer would be shocked by Jackson Pollack’s sketches from his early works because Pollack’s famous works are more similar to kinetic dance and improvisation -- 300 years is quite the chunk of time, and the basic innovations here are how standards move and change along with ideals and technology. Jackson Pollack didn’t need to make sketches and prints for newspapers, he was just testing ideas. A grand unifying theory of draughts therefore is sketchy at best. The 18th century artists, such as Degas, were draughts-men for paintings, but also worked in tandem with and reaction against the printing press. Thus, a piece by Degas in this exhibit shows painstaking commitment to the beauty of dancers. Jackson Pollack and Degas are worlds apart, with different motivations, but there is a connection.
Image Credit: Thaw Collection; The Morgan Library and Museum. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (French; 1834–1917) Seated Dancer, 1871–72 Oil paint over graphite on pink paper; 279 × 222 mm 2017.54
Image Credit: Thaw Collection; Morgan Library and Museum. Jackson Pollock (American; 1912–1956) Untitled [Drawing for P. G.], ca. 1943 Pen and black ink and wash, green ink wash, red colored pencil, and orange watercolor pencil, on laid paper; 479 × 613 mm 2006.59
The way artists created sketches for newspapers through the medium of printmaking can sometimes be a relief – from stress! Prior to printmaking it took years to make a single book page by page, as in the case of the “Magnificent Gems” exhibit. In one sketch for a print, artist Daumier’s “Schoolmaster and the Drowning Child” (1856-57), shows a teacher lecturing a student who is drowning in a pond. The humor here is the school teacher should simply save the student and not lecture him about swimming.
Image Credit: Thaw Collection; The Morgan Library and Museum. Honoré Daumier (French; 1808–1879) The Schoolmaster and the Drowning Child, ca. 1856–57 Pen and black ink and gray wash, opaque watercolor, and black chalk; 287 × 256 mm 2010.119
Three draughts for paintings by artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) are ostentatious with intrigue. In “The Tree Man” a mutant looks from the bark of a tree (1895). In “The Spider” (1902), a spider has a freakishly human face, complete with a fearful anxiety. The spider is going to do the wrong thing -- she knows it -- and the lack of self-control is that much more insidious. Redon’s “The Fool” (1877) has contradictions of control. Here, the portrait shows the allegorical fool, from idioms, fables and tarot cards, but in this case he raises his pinky as if in the midst of a scheme. This sketch speaks to the foolishness of evil and how failure can be planned as much as success. The foolishness is the belief in a plan that shouldn’t work, and the evil of selfishness. One feels dirty after looking at the sketch.
Image Credit: Thaw Collection; The Morgan Library and Museum. Odilon Redon (French; 1840–1916) The Fool, 1877 Charcoal with black chalk and fixative on light brown paper; 394 × 343 mm 2010.120
Some drawings in this exhibit are so finished that they are masterpieces of the highest order. The lifelike, “Odalisque with Slave” (1839) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, shows a naked woman, her servant playing a stringed instrument, and a bodyguard in the background. This sketch is about pleasure, such as the pleasure of relaxing, as the woman is doing, or the pleasures of music, as in the musician, but the pained expression of the laying-down woman shows a limit to hedonism.
Image Credit: Thaw Collection; The Morgan Library and Museum. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French; 1780–1867) Odalisque with Slave, 1839 Black chalk and graphite, black and brown wash, with white and gray opaque watercolor; 489 × 616 mm 2017.129
J.P. Morgan was a business magnate who was at the center of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum of New York City, and the Morgan Museum of Hartford Connecticut. His book collection was so grand, his estate turned it into an enormous museum. The Morgan Library makes the audience want to think about the highest possible ideals, asks its viewers to spiritually and mentally stretch just a tiny bit further. Making one think about religion, and then about from the perspective of Charles the Bald from the year 1200; or one can think paintings – and then about the sketches and handwork that went into those paintings. By stretching these limits and teasing them, one might come out of this museum that much more inspired and ambitious. As Theodore Roosevelt or Rudyard Kipling might say, that is a bully good time.
Just a short walk from Grand Central and Penn Station, the Morgan is a major exhibition venue for fine art, literature, and music, one of New York's great historic sites, and a wonderful place to dine, shop, and attend a concert or film.