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Sara Tarter: “The Language of the Brush into the Language of Money: John Wanamaker…”


– Moving right along. Our next speaker is Sara Tarter is a final year doctoral student in History of Art at the
University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, of course, whose research focuses
on the sale, display, and circulation of art in French, British, and American department
stores in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 2016, she attended
the Terra Foundation’s summer residency in Giverny
as a doctoral fellow. She also has copublished
an article in the journal Fashion, Style, and Popular Culture on a visitor research study
conducted on the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition
Hollywood Costume. That sounds like fun. Since 2015, she has been a member of the Association for
Art History Student Group, which organizes conferences
and other events for the History of Art students at institutions across the UK. Currently, she is the lead organizer of the next New Voices
Postgraduate Research Conference to be held at the University of Birmingham on January 11th, 2018, on the
topic of Art and Movement. Her topic this afternoon is
The Language of the Brush and the Language of Money: John Wanamaker and the Intersections of
Collecting and Commerce. Welcome. (audience applauding) – Hello everyone. Thank you so much for having me. Am I on? Yes, okay. On March 4th, 1881, John Wanamaker opened a commercial art gallery in
his eponymous department store, which was then, as now,
located on Philadelphia’s Market Street, although
today it is of course run under the Macy’s rather
than the Wanamaker’s name. This opening followed earlier
ones at European retailers, including the 1875 opening
of Parisian department store Au Bon Marché’s famed Galerie de tableaux. But Wanamaker’s gallery was in fact the first in an American department store. Wanamaker’s art gallery
was thus the first step in a long and rich formal relationship between American department
stores and fine art, which was especially
consequential in what concerned the importation and display
of European fine art. Moreover, Wanamaker’s was arguably the most dynamic and impressive of all the American stores
in its displays of art, making it a key case study
in the motivations and realities behind department
store art display in America. Going a layer deeper, it is apparent that John Wanamaker
himself was responsible for much of this dynamism,
for he was strident in his conviction that fine
art and the department store belonged together for
the greater good of both. I don’t know what everyone
thinks about that, but that was his belief. To this crusade, he
lent his own attentions and of course his collection
of European paintings by Europe’s most famous
artists of the time. Wanamaker’s stridency begs
the question of what reasons, beyond enhanced publicity
and sales for his store, may have spurred him to
commit so much time and money to the cause of fine art and its exposure to the American public. This paper will explore
exactly this question via the early history of
Wanamaker’s art collection and the period between 1887 and 1893. This will include discussion
of an intended store gallery for his art collection, which
he planned to open in 1887. It will also consider Wanamaker’s
time as Postmaster General in the administration of
President Benjamin Harrison from 1888 until 1892 and his
use of fine art generally and his collection particularly to further his own commercial interests, which specifically meant the
softening of the strong support for protectionist import
tariffs in the Republican party. Both examples show how
Wanamaker was willing and able to wield fine art as a
tool in the promotion of cultural and economic cosmopolitanism, two principles that were intimately tied to the success of his business through its trade in
globally sourced products. While Wanamaker’s own
rhetoric about his store and his store’s art-based initiatives tended toward the florid, a
close analysis of his actions, and even some of his earlier statements, shows the practical and
commercial considerations which necessarily
foregrounded his activities. As a Wanamaker’s advertisement stated, in reference to the 1881 opening
of the store’s art gallery, the integration of fine
art into the specific commercial system of the department store had the power to translate
the “language of the brush “into the language of money”. I am not contending that
Wanamaker wished art to lose its mystique, much
of which is predicated on its separation from commodities. In fact, department stores very often borrowed art’s innate aura,
to in turn borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, to sell
their industrial products. What I am stating is
that a canny businessman like Wanamaker, even factoring
into his own evident personal appreciation of art and
his interest in its power to culturally legitimize his fortune, would invariably also
employ it as a mutable tool in his ultimate goal to sell the world, whether this meant selling
goods from around the world or selling to everyone in the world. I think he was happy with both. Art was not just something
that could be sold via his gallery or something
that did the selling via his store’s displays,
but also something that could facilitate the
expansion and smooth running of his business by creating an environment that was receptive to it. This paper will thus show how,
in the time of great upheaval that was the late 19th century, Wanamaker used his art
collection to direct both policy and sentiment towards cultural and economic change, but most importantly, toward his own commercial ends. So, now getting into the history. (laughs) Although Wanamaker opened his store’s commercial gallery in 1881,
his own most vigorous period of art collecting began after this point. Significantly, Wanamaker’s
business before this period was far from the stable
empire we now consider it. He only bought and began
to transform the building that would become his department store, an old railway depot in
the then underdeveloped uptown area of Philadelphia, in 1874 and it took him until 1877 to
begin to sell women’s wear, which is the linchpin of the
department store business. The opening of the store’s art gallery, as well as the furniture
business which accompanied it, and really a department store, the evolution to the department store is defined by starting to sell furniture, so it’s really becoming a
department store at this time, signified the solidification
of its dry goods trade, which then allowed it to expand into other areas of merchandise. With his business ticking along and a highly experienced team
headed by Robert C. Ogden to help him run in it in his absence, Wanamaker could turn
some of his attentions to other interests, for instance, art collecting and politics. As the Henry Clay Frick
scholars here will know, Wanamaker joined Frick for a portion of his trip to Europe
in the summer of 1887. Wanamaker and Frick had
business interests in common, as Wanamaker was a major
supplier to the general stores on Frick’s western
Pennsylvania’s minefields. Frick also contributed $20,000 to the Harrison campaign in 1887, for which Wanamaker was
the finance manager. They also shared a fierce
dislike of unionized labor and favored what might be
termed enlightened capitalism to alleviate societal ills. In many ways, both men came
into their own in the 1880s, with their business
interests and art collecting coalescing at almost the same time. Their tastes in art also
reflected each other’s, as well as the greater
collecting practices of the time, although as we’re seeing,
they were also quite diverse. In the 1880s and 90s, Wanamaker
and Frick both stocked what would become their
immense collections with works by the most
popular European salon artists of the time, including Meyer
von Bremen and Tito Lessi. Wanamaker’s most famous
purchase was Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy’s large
scale religious painting, Christ before Pilate, which he
acquired in February of 1887. Much has been written about this painting, including its accordance
to the religious movements of the period and its
connection to one of the era’s most infamous art dealers,
Charles Sedelmeyer. Coverage of this topic
in my thesis focuses on Wanamaker’s decision
to tour the painting across the United States, as Sedelmeyer had toured it across Europe. Yet the tour was not in fact Wanamaker’s first plan for the painting. Originally, it was meant
to be the crowning glory of the store art gallery, a fact revealed in a statement that Sedelmeyer
gave to the American press, and this is that statement. While Sedelmeyer’s statement
was in all likelihood meant as a bit of self-promotion, the details he revealed about the gallery sparked public interest at the time and are to date tantalizing clues into Wanamaker’s intentions
for his collection. And in this statement,
Charles Sedelmeyer goes in, but I didn’t include
it, a bit about the art that he’s selling Wanamaker at this time. He was really Wanamaker’s main dealer. Ogden, Wanamaker’s second in command, also alluded in the press to plans to exhibit the painting
for all of Philadelphia, including crucially its working classes. It seems that Wanamaker intended Pilate to form the nucleus of
a kind of store museum, a separate display space
for his collection that was adjacent to the store and
crucially free to enter. If this space had materialized,
it would have been an indisputable boon for
Philadelphia’s art going public. Before the acquisition and display of the Wilstach Collection in 1892 by the then Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, there was, as I understand it, and I should say, I am very happy to be corrected on this, because I know the experts are here today, few permanent display
spaces for contemporary or Old Master European
paintings in Philadelphia. As Steven Kahn outlines,
the Pennsylvania Museum was founded on the model of
the South Kensington Museum. The museum’s focus on
industrial and decorative arts served Philadelphia’s industrial economy, but it left a gap in its
arts display landscape compared to cities like
New York and Boston, which Wanamaker’s gallery
could have helped to fill. Ultimately, a gallery for
Wanamaker’s collection did not materialize at this time, yet despite the deviation
in Wanamaker’s plans, it is possible to imagine what his gallery would have looked like. In my opinion, Wanamaker
was basing his vision on retailer A.T. Stewart’s
personal art gallery and his collection,
which went up for auction after the death of his
widow, Cornelia Stewart, in February, 1887. It is well known how much
Wanamaker admired Stewart, who he considered the founder of the modern American retail trade. Wanamaker even went so far as to buy Stewart’s Iron Palace for the
New York outlet of his store, which he opened in 1896. Stewart was a keen art collector, with perhaps his most famous acquisition Rosa Bonheur’s The Horse Fair. In this image of Stewart’s home gallery, you can see the painting prominently displayed on the far wall circled there. Wanamaker did not attend
the auction himself, but he did send a representative,
a young Charles M. Kurtz, to the sale with instructions to “buy anything that seems cheap enough.” (audience laughing)
(Sara laughs) Yet despite Wanamaker’s apparent attempt to mold his business and
his collection on Stewart’s, he was stepping beyond the
older retailer’s example and plans to exhibit
art for his customers. Like all of New York’s quote unquote carriage trade department stores, a designation that also
included Arnold Constable and Co and Benjamin Altman, A.T.
Stewart never allowed a gallery in his store for either
the sale or display of art. Wanamaker’s store was
obviously of a different breed, which even Wanamaker himself admitted, when, while comparing the two stores, he states that Stewart’s
had “limited itself “to dry goods of the higher class”. Wanamaker’s and other
large department stores, which blossomed during
the era, notably Macy’s, Abraham and Strauss, Gimbels, and, under Harry Gordon Selfridge’s
influence, Marshall Fields, were pioneering what would
become the mass market, in both the products they sold and the customers they intended to reach. Crucially, these stores were
also those which committed considerable resources to the
sale and display of fine art. The discussed gallery would
not be Wanamaker’s last attempt to bring European art to
the people of Philadelphia. You can seen an example here. After his stint as Postmaster General, Wanamaker ramped up his efforts
with annual importations of art from the Paris salons, for which his stores
became even more famous. In the meantime, Wanamaker
moved his collection to the place where it could arguably make the most impact, Washington D.C. Wanamaker had long held
political ambitions and for years before he
became Postmaster General, was touted as a prospective
Republican senator for Pennsylvania or a
mayor of Philadelphia. Yet, while Wanamaker was undoubtedly one of the most prominent and influential late nineteenth century Republicans, his politics was more ambiguous than his position might indicate. In fact, he often appealed to Democrats as much as Republicans, which is reflected in the fact that disaffected
independent Republicans and canny Democrats
conspired through clandestine midnight meetings to elect him mayor on a cross-party ticket in early 1887. It’s complicated politics. Wanamaker ultimately declined the offer, yet two issues did indeed stand him at odds with the larger Republican party, his opposition to the boss politics and corruption that haunted it and its uncompromising stance
towards import tariffs, which necessarily
complicated his retail trade. While Wanamaker largely
toed the party line in terms of rhetoric on the latter, his business interests often betrayed him. Historian Stephen Skowronek has stated in reference to Wanamaker’s ambitions that he was a “merchant
who had no special interest “in the protectionist
policies that attracted “industrial capital to
the Republican party.” Although Wanamaker could not challenge the party’s position on tariffs directly, he could still through his
position as Postmaster General shape the country’s economic
and cultural outlook. My argument is that Wanamaker did not just do this through policy,
but also through the display of his art collection, which he had moved from Pennsylvania to his personal
residence in Philadelphia. Compared to the White House, with its neoclassical
architecture and state nobility, Wanamaker’s house on I Street burst with bric-a-brac and European flare. Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston spent much of her early
career in Washington D.C. and, as part of a series on the homes of Washington politicians for
Demorest’s Family Magazine, did a photo story on Wanamaker’s house. The article goes into great detail about the objects and art in the house, but also describes its key social function for Washington society. Like William C. Whitney, who
occupied the house before him and served as Secretary of the
Navy under Grover Cleveland, Wanamaker assumed the
role of social organizer for the Harrison administration. The center of this activity
was the house’s grand ballroom, about which Johnston stated, “This room is the far-famed ballroom “added by Secretary Whitney,
and there is hardly an interior “in Washington more talked
about or oftener described “than this same handsome apartment. “With good reason, too, for
with its rich decoration, “wealth of artistic treasures, “and frequent assemblages
of notable people, “it has always been one
of the most famous salons of the Capital.” While Wanamaker retained much
of the house’s furnishings from Whitney’s time, he brought with him the 50 paintings that adorned its walls. With the furniture arranged salon style, the Washington D.C. elite,
which often included President Harrison himself,
would gather in rooms decorated with the most fashionable
European art money could buy. Hung beside the main entrance to the ballroom cum picture gallery, and that’s right there, for instance, was one of William Bouguereau’s
prized religious paintings, depicting the Virgin and child
being serenaded by angels. And that’s the painting right there. Although Wanamaker did not bring Christ before Pilate to Washington, he did bring a smaller
painting by Munkácsy called After the Wedding, and
you can see it right there. This genre scene was the typical and much sought-after work by the artist, who was celebrated as
much for these paintings as for his large-scale religious canvases. Works by the likes of
Millet, Corot, Daubigny, Jules Breton, Alma-Tadema, and
De Tie were among the others hung in the picture gallery
and elsewhere in the house. Many of these paintings
were quintessential examples of each artist’s work, and
together made the house into a veritable museum of
all that was great and good in Europe’s salons and art schools over the proceeding 30 years. And you can see. Besides this plethora of
contemporary European painting, the influence of Stewart’s
collection can be seen directly in a watercolor by Rosa Bonheur entitled After the Horse Fair, which was hung in the house’s dining room. So that’s right up there
and I think it may, I need a better picture of this and there are better pictures in the Frances Benjamin Johnston archive, so I can see actually which this is. I think it might be at The
Cleveland Museum of Art, although I can’t be sure, because I can’t see it well enough. The decoration of Wanamaker’s house would have marked him as
both modern and cosmopolitan to the politicians who visited it. Further, given Wanamaker’s
position in the administration and the importance of his
house as a social center, I think it is possible that
both he and his house influenced a rare softening towards one
of the most controversial policies of the era, the art tariff. This tax was levied on
foreign imported paintings. This tax, which was levied on
foreign imported paintings, was unique in the Western world and considered a scourge by
American art collectors. Perhaps astonishingly,
given the amount of ire directed towards the tariff,
the Harrison administration was the only Republican
government in the period from 1861 to 1909 to see this
controversial tariff lowered. The Tariff Act of 1890, which
otherwise raised import taxes across the board, halved the
art tariff from 30 to 15% and the president himself even advocated for the tariff’s complete abolition. While it is unclear exactly how much sway Wanamaker held over Harrison, although there were pernicious rumors that the president was
in Wanamaker’s pocket, Wanamaker’s Washington
house undoubtedly sent a strong message to both
his colleagues and Congress about the role he believed European art and decorative objects
should play in American life, both public and private. The transmission of this
message was moreover not limited to Wanamaker’s
inner political circle. Wanamaker not only allowed
Johnston to photograph and write about his home for a popular magazine, but also had her article
reproduced in a book he commissioned during his
time as Postmaster General. Called The Story of Our Post Office, it was written by his private secretary at the post office, Marshall Cushing, and distributed to Americans
through agents and, unsurprisingly, department
store book departments. Wanamaker’s efforts to
disseminate images of his house and his art collection
to the larger public through official means are
a clear case of his attempt to not only integrate
himself into the history of the United States, but
also a sense of cosmopolitan consumerism into the nation’s
homes and identities. Through Cushing’s text, the average American
could see how Wanamaker, one of the most influential
men in American, lived. They could moreover copy
to a degree his lifestyle. This is because engraved reproductions of the work of the artist on display in Wanamaker’s own picture
gallery could be bought in his store’s art gallery in Philadelphia or increasingly through
department store catalogs. Like Wanamaker’s paintings,
these engravings marked their purchaser as
worldly and cosmopolitan, even if, unlike Wanamaker, they had not or could not travel to Europe. Thus, although Wanamaker could not openly campaign against protectionism, his personal consumption of European art marked cosmopolitanism,
both cultural and economic, as aspirational and most
importantly, wholly American. After his time as Postmaster
General ended in 1892, Wanamaker returned to his
retail business in Philadelphia, but this time without his art collection. The paintings that had hung
in his Washington house, as well as his massive Munkácsy canvases, were relocated to Lindenhurst, the Wanamaker family home
in Montgomery County. There they stayed until
a fire in February, 1907, destroyed the house and a
portion of the collection, which Wanamaker had added to greatly with Old Master works
by the likes of Titians, Rubens, and Constable,
in the intervening years, although, as always, the
veracity of the paintings and their attribution was
always in question. (laughs) Yet not only was the
collection itself different, but when Wanamaker after the fire decided to move a large
portion of it into his store, it was arguably in a
much different context than if he had displayed
it there 20 years earlier. For one, whereas both Wanamaker’s
commercial art gallery and his intended collection
gallery were pioneering developments for department
stores in the 1880s, by 1907, it was de rigeur for
even smaller regional stores to sell and display fine art. The year 1907 was also
the cusp of huge changes in the Republican party stance towards protectionist tariffs,
with William Howard Taft, elected in 1908, openly pursuing, although not fully
achieving, tariff reform. And crucially it would only
take another four years before, in the Tariff Act of 1913, the loathed art tariff
was abolished altogether. It is apparent that major
changes had taken place in the country’s economy and culture in the 30 years since Wanamaker
first opened the doors of the American department store
to the display of fine art. American historians such as William Leach and Alan Trachtenberg have described exactly this period as
a crucial turning point, when American culture was commercialized, or, in other words, oriented around corporations
and consumption. Leach, in Land of Desire, his
seminal study of the period, even quickly alights on
Wanamaker’s display of art, citing it as a part of the
shift by associating the act of viewing art with
the act of consumption. Yet, by focusing directly on
the display and sale of art, either in department stores or by those involved in department stores, new aspects and impacts of
this history are revealed. For instance, while the glancing focused on the phenomenon of
department store art display and many studies of 19th century America implies that it was a tool
of secondary importance for department stores, it
is clear from the history of Wanamaker’s art collection
and department store that he considered fine
art beside even religion in its power to shape
and mold his main market, which was America and its public. The centrality of art to Wanamaker’s cultural and political
endeavors, but more crucially, the centrality of Wanamaker
to American society in this period, also raises questions about the relevance of Wanamaker’s goals to other art collectors, who went on to endow museums
or open their collections. For instance, while the
nature of Frick’s business did not place him as close
to the average consumer as Wanamaker’s, the two still shared common business interests and views. Moreover, Frick would necessarily
have had a direct concern for the developing culture of the country through its effect on the
economy and labor practices. It is thus in my opinion not beyond reason to consider Wanamaker’s pioneering efforts to expose everyday
Americans to European art and foreign cultures, always of course controlling the message of such exposure, as at the forefront of the evolutions in art museums during
the late 19th century. This is when these modern
institutions of display progressively began to develop the roles as educators and gatekeepers
of culture for all Americans. Wanamaker may not, like his
counterparts Henry Clay Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner,
or even Marshall Field, have left a museum behind in his name, but his houses and stores were arguably museums in their own time. Holding the retailer and his
enterprises as an example followed by other collectors
moreover allows us to see the equally commercial
and transactional roots of their collections, whether
or not, like Wanamaker, they were directly
involved in the business of selling goods to the American public. Thank you. (audience clapping)

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