Even by the over-the-top standards of New York's Gilded Age, John Pierpont Morgan stood alone. Probably the most vilified of the Robber Barons, J.P. Morgan's financial and steel empires were, at their zeniths, the richest and most powerful institutions in the United States and by extension, the world.
But there is another side to this captain of industry - he was a zealous collector of art and literature - and New Yorkers have benefited enormously from his philanthropy in these fields. A visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art will see Mr. Morgan's name listed over and over as donor of treasures from Chinese porcelains to Gobelin tapestries to Della Robbia terra-cottas and Gainsborough paintings. All of the finest quality and all hand selected by Mr. Morgan himself for the sheer joy of owning beautiful objects.
However, Pierpont Morgan is probably best known for the small but very impressive institution that bears his name - The Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue at 36th Street. Competed in 1906 by the architecture firm of McKim, Mead and White, this magnificent structure with the Tennessee pink marble exterior was built as a library to house Mr. Morgan's growing collection of rare books and manuscripts. Even more opulent on the interior, the building featured a rotunda, Mr. Morgan's study, a librarian's office and a library all decorated and furnished with the finest money could buy, and Mr. Morgan had very deep pockets!
A visit to the Morgan Library had always been a rewarding experience. From the permanent collection of three (that's correct, three) examples of The Gutenberg Bible, a copy of The Declaration of Independence, two altar piece panels by Hans Memling and the jewel encrusted Lindau Bible there is always something absolutely fabulous on view. Special exhibitions included a memorable show of French bindings in the 1990's and more recently, a presentation of rare musical scores by Mozart among other luminaries to commemorate the opening of the Renzo Piano designed addition in 2006 (see my blog review).
Today there is something new to celebrate. On October 30, 2010, the Morgan Library re-opened after a short hiatus to restore the interior of the 1906 library to its original splendor. For the first time, visitors can step into the librarian's office, view the inside of the vault, and actually see the full three levels of the library's impressive holdings (see above). Beside extensive cleaning and restoration of the gorgeous ceilings, a new, state-of-the-art lighting system has been installed so visitors can truly appreciate the fine detail and beauty of the architecture. A 19th Century Persian rug now graces the library floor as a replacement for one long lost and original lighting fixtures have been rescued from deep storage and re-hung with care.
The Morgan is showing off these cosmetic improvements with several new temporary exhibitions. In a "Greatest Hits" worthy of a much bigger institution, The Morgan is presenting such diverse subjects as "Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks", a selection of 20 drawings culled from the collection, "Anne Morgan's War: Rebuilding Devastated France 1917-1924" as seen through documentary photographs from the collection, "Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress" featuring 120 manuscripts, rare books. letters, notebooks, diaries, photographs and drawings of and by the author, also from the collection, and finally, "Roy Lichtenstein: The Black-and -White Drawings" the only installation borrowed from another institution and the first time an exhibition has been dedicated solely to the early black and white drawings of this celebrated American Pop artist.
If this isn't enough variety, you have only a short wait until the original red leather bound manuscript of "Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol" goes on view for the holiday season! All this set in some of the most extraordinary surroundings in town, refreshed and ready for the 21st Century!