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How History Shaped the Arts, Final Thoughts

– A blog series by Bill Rau –


Previously, I mentioned my grandfather’s quip that if collecting went back hundreds of years and re-rolled the dice, many things we consider valuable and desirable today might be different. History, religion, theft, inventions, wars and changes of finances all contributed to what we appreciate today.


A prime example of this is the Metropolitan Museum of Art.





I am relatively certain that a great majority, if not every single one of you have been to this wonderful museum.  In my opinion, it is the single greatest museum in the world, as it is the only institution that has wonderful examples of art and antiquities from every part of the globe.  Where it is as nowhere near as strong in Renaissance Art as say the Uffizi, and nowhere near as good as antiquities as the British Museum, and certainly nowhere near as thorough in Chinese antiques as the National Palace Museum, unlike these other world-class institutions, the Met offers great examples of it all.


But how did the Met get started?  The MET was basically begun with two important American collections, those of Henry Osborne Havemeyer and J.P. Morgan.






These fascinating collectors accumulated magnificent objects. They acquired what was exciting to them personally, things that were their taste. Eventually, they gifted their collections to the museum. So, what happened then?


After these gifts, when people would visit the Met, they would often see the taste of a single or two single individuals. When curators of other museums would go to explore the Met, they also would view items that J.P Morgan and Henry Havemeyer had loved purchased. And they would think, I want to collect that, or I want my museum to do a show on this theme.


So with that experience, they would then acquire similar objects.  Had J.P. Morgan not loved Renaissance art but rather had a fascination for Latin American or Eskimo art, it’s a pretty safe assumption that Latin American art and Eskimo art - which are both relatively obscure in today’s collecting world, might be near the top of the food chain. Instead, because of Morgan’s passion for Italian Renaissance Art, as a culture today, most of us buy into the belief that it was art’s true golden age.


So, What is Great Art?




Is it something just that is beautifully painted by an important artist? Something that has historic value and tells the story of the past? Or something that shares the inner life of the artists? The answer to all these questions is, of course, is yes, but often it is a story within the story that defines it and creates its value. And only by placing the art in its full historical context that one can truly appreciate its entire greatness.


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