Henry Gurdon Marquand: The man behind the music room

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In 1891, Henry Gurdon Marquand was proclaimed "the greatest collector in America" by Alfred Trumble, editor of The Collector magazine, "because he collects not for himself alone, but for a whole people and for all the world."

Indeed, Marquand, a New York City financier, and his wife, Elizabeth Love Allen Marquand, of Pittsfield, amassed a private collection of some 2,400 items — decorative objects, paintings, etchings and engravings — that were prominently displayed in their mansion at the corner of Madison Avenue and 68th Street. But it was his philanthropy and his dedication to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that had earned him Trumble's praise.

"He was a very important figure in the the early history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," said Kathleen M. Morris, the Clark Art Institute's director of exhibitions and curator of decorative arts and co-curator of "Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design," which reunites 12 of the original 19 pieces of Marquand's music room.

She added, "He was a driving force behind the creation of a civic museum in New York City. ... He was a founding trustee and its second president. He had a strong feeling that great art should be shared with the public."

From 1880 until the time of his death in 1902, Marquand devoted much of his time to establishing The Met's collections. In 1889, he donated a collection of Old Master paintings, including four works by Rembrandt, a Vermeer and two works by Sir Anthony van Dyck.

"He was very generous, even with the things he kept for himself," Morris said. "He was a very generous lender. 'A Reading from Homer,' by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, was constantly on loan. In 1893, he loaned it to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago."

For artists, such as Alma-Tadema, having work in the collection of someone as prominent as Marquand was important to future success.

"Through a collector, an artist's works could become even better known," she said. "It was especially important if one had their work in the collection of an American collector of this type, one who was not only collecting, but sharing works with museums."

In 1887, Marquand extended a highly unusual invitation, inviting the public into his mansion on Monday afternoons in January to view his newly acquired van Dyck's portrait, "James Stuart (1612-1655), Duke of Richmond and Lennox."

To be invited into the Marquand mansion was to be invited into a small museum. Each room was decorated in accordance with a theme, as was popular at the time. The house included a English Renaissance dining room, a Japanese drawing room, a Moorish smoking room and the Greco-Pompeian music room in which the centerpiece was the Model D Pianoforte, a Steinway grand piano designed by Alma-Tadema and now owned by The Clark.

"The rooms were designed and decorated — all part and parcel — of an overall aesthetic," she said. "The interiors were rich and detailed in terms of the aesthetic of the time."

Following Marquand's death, the contents of his mansion were auctioned off and the contents of the famed Greco-Pompeian music room were widely dispersed. The mansion was eventually torn down and replaced by commercial buildings.

"Alexis [Goodin] and I started this project 10 years ago," Morris said of the effort to recreate the room. "What we are offering is a unique look at an extraordinary room — a lost interior of Gilded Age New York."

Goodin, a curatorial research associate, said the pair tracked down the room's items, beginning with the auction catalogue.

"We used archival photographs, newspaper articles and photos from the 1880s to recreate the room," she said. "The photos do no justice to the amazing craft work of the pieces, which are elaborately designed. We're always discovering new facets to each piece. It's a rich and rewarding experience."

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