The Morgan Library is a concoction of magnificence, narcissism, and wealth that succeeds by overpowering visitors with the virtuoso pomposity of its architecture and the quality of its collections.
What is one supposed to make, after all of a building constructed by the wealthiest man of his era as a combination of study and private mausoleum, and that gorges on Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Renaissance influences. It is as if one cultural history was simply not enough to sate the its creator.
The Library could easily have been ridiculous. I actually found it rather affecting . In his study in the library, J.P. Morgan’s desk faces a portrait of himself, painted by the British artist Frank Holl in 1888. To his right, the desk is flanked by another portrait, this time by Frank Owen Salisbury, of Morgan in the red robes of scholar – the result of an Honorary Degree in Law conveyed by the University of Cambridge in 1919. His desk is gilt-embossed with his own initials.
These gestures seem to speak to a need for affirmation, that on the surface is strange from such an unimaginably wealthy man. It is certainly the case that the other titans of the Gilded Age, Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Rockefeller et al accumulated art, but there is something in Morgan’s library that suggests a need to be thought of not merely as a hoarder, but to be respected as a collector and a scholar.
It actually rather humanises the man. On closer inspection many of the objet d’art littering his study do not appear to be his most valuable possessions – suggesting they were selected out of personal affection rather than ostentation.
The collection itself is also clearly a labour of love, and it is superb. The Morgan Bible, the Lindau Gospels, a manuscript copy of A Christmas Carol, three Gutenberg Bibles, a copy of The Declaration of Independence, letters from Austen, Sands, Lincoln and Washington, libretti from Beethoven, Brahms and Verdi, and much much more. Combined with the splendour of the setting the effect can be overwhelming.
Morgan commissioned McKim, Mead and White, the leading architects of the beaux-arts era in New York, to construct the library in 1902. Completed in 1906, the Italian Renaissance inspired building, is now ensconced with a modern entranceway, containing a cafe, additional exhibition and conferences spaces, and joining the original library building to a separate mansion, once also owned by the Morgan family.
The original library itself divides into four sections – the extraordinary main library itself, Morgan’s private study, the rotunda, and a room once used by Belle da Costa Greene, Morgan’s personal librarian, that now houses part of Morgan’s collection of classical antiquities.
Two things to note; firstly, the library is frequently accessible for free, check the internet for details. Secondly, when you do visit, keep an eye out for the secret doors in the main library, that Morgan once used to access the upper stories of his extraordinary collection.