Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 9, 2018
René Brimo The Evolution of Taste in American Collecting Trans Kenneth Haltman University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017. 424 pp.; 43 b/w ills. Hardcover $55.97 (9780271073248)

In August 1933, twenty-two-year-old René Brimo traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to research his dissertation in the history of art for the University of Paris. Using Harvard as his base, he planned to study the history of collecting in the United States. His subject, cannily chosen, would enable him to combine academic ambition with commercial interests. In an era of burgeoning internationalism in intellectual circles, he was eager to expand his scholarly contacts. And as the son of a successful art dealer being groomed to head the business, he would have academic license to seek out privately owned works and potential customers.

After two years of research in the United States and two more in Paris, Brimo submitted his dissertation in April 1938 and was awarded his degree with high honors. The following month, the study was privately published as L’évolution du goût aux États-Unis d’aprés l’histoire des collections. It was enthusiastically received at home and abroad, with one critic even demanding that an English edition be made available immediately.

However, until the recent publication of Kenneth Haltman’s translation, the book was available only in French, and Brimo himself was largely forgotten. Serving as translator, editor, and biographer, Haltman reveals Brimo (1911–1948) to have been a fascinatingly cosmopolitan figure, one equally at home in academic and commercial spheres, in the histories of French medieval and American art, in the halls of Harvard and the Sorbonne—and in the underground world of the French Resistance. In translation, Brimo’s text is highly readable; Haltman’s restrained editorial intervention and thoughtful introductory commentary make The Evolution of Taste in American Collecting both a fascinating chapter in the historiography of American art and a useful text in its own right.

Haltman introduces Brimo as the scion of an Armenian family, probably of Jewish origin, that migrated from Aleppo to Damascus to Istanbul, finally settling in Paris around 1900. René’s father, Nicolas, was an antiques dealer specializing in medieval art. His shop was on rue La Fayette, in the heart of the arts district (the Hôtel Drouot was nearby). Nicolas, a shrewd businessman, anglicized the name of his business—La Fayette Art Gallery—to attract the wealthy Americans who increasingly dominated the art market. René was born in 1911, an auspicious time, for it also marked the firm’s first sale to J. P. Morgan.

In 1928, René enrolled at the École du Louvre, seeking an academic grounding for his growing familiarity with the art world and his innate sensitivity to works of art. Brimo became committed to scholarship and curatorial work. In 1929, he enrolled at the Sorbonne to study at the newly established Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie, where Henri Focillon was among his mentors.

During the winter of 1932–33, Brimo attended a series of lectures on American art and art museums given in Paris by Harvard professor Paul J. Sachs. In the lectures, Sachs discussed “the role private collectors in America had played in ‘elevating the cultural milieu.’” His insistence that art historians maintain connections with a “cosmopolitan art world” and that museums strive to collect “original works of art of the highest possible quality” resonated with Brimo, who determined to research art collecting in the United States for his dissertation. Haltman describes the project as “the gathering of intelligence” (19–20); it also reflected Sachs’s teachings and Brimo’s increasing dedication to connoisseurship.

During Brimo’s two years in America, he met with major dealers—Haltman mentions Seligmann, Demotte, and Duveen—and facilitated sales for the family gallery. He took Sachs’s celebrated Museum Course, served as curatorial assistant to Edward Forbes, director of the Fogg Art Museum, and wrote a thesis on Romanesque sculpture for a Harvard MA. In the course of his dissertation research, he approached many collectors (among them the redoubtable Albert Barnes) and visited museums around the country. During this period, Brimo audited Alan Burroughs’s course “Critical Summary of American Painting” (which became Limners and Likenesses: Three Centuries of American Painting) and acquired a substantial knowledge of the literature of American art.

In L’évolution du goût, Brimo examined the history of collecting (and through that lens, the changing attitudes toward art) in the United States from the seventeenth century through World War I. Starting with the colonial interest in portraiture, he traced the broadening of American taste, which eventually embraced non-Western art and modernist abstraction. His description of this development seems obvious today: Brimo argued that Americans first valued works of art as personal documents, then as emblems of broad-ranging intellectual and scientific inquiries (the attitude that shaped the Peale Museum and Salem’s East India Marine Society). Americans gravitated toward narrative art, sometimes historical but more often anecdotal, and preferred realism and exactitude in all genres. By the Centennial, collectors were turning their attention abroad, seeking souvenirs of Europe and, among the wealthiest, a full-bore pursuit of old-master painting. Brimo noted that an inherent puritanism precluded interest in nudes and a hedonistic approach to collecting generally. He described late nineteenth-century eclecticism; collectors venturing into non-mainstream areas; and finally, the growing impulse to pursue works of art for their sensuous, formal properties alone, rather than for their historic or educational functions. Unremarkable though these observations seem now, in 1938 a study of evolving taste in America was unprecedented. Neither simply a catalogue of collections nor a series of collector profiles (some critics regretted the absence of personality sketches), Brimo’s book is a sympathetic analysis of the development of American aesthetic interests and the cultural transformations they reflect.

Brimo’s visit to the United States came during a period of intellectual diaspora: for the first time, European-trained academics—among them Wolfgang Born, Oskar Hagen, Hans Tietze, and Edgar Wind—began to take a serious, scholarly interest in American art. Most were German exiles; their studies signaled new respect for the subject. In contrast, French scholars produced almost no original research on American art. However, a few did come to the United States during this period, among them Brimo’s mentor, Henri Focillon, who encouraged Brimo’s interest in American culture. His ideas concerning the evolution of forms provided the underpinnings for Brimo’s assertion that the development of American taste from “historic-mindedness” and “didactic interest” to “works of art admired in and of themselves, for their intrinsic beauty” (300) was in fact forward progress.

Brimo’s championing of art in America was rare among the French. When they thought about it at all, French scholars dismissed American art as derivative, dull, and mediocre. Brimo shared none of these prejudices. He defended the work of artists as diverse as John Smibert and John La Farge, admiring their accomplishments as tastemakers. He noted the prescience of American collectors in seeking out reliefs from ancient Assyria, for example, or the art of the Far East, or of early Italian painting. He reminded his readers that the only work by Seurat in the Louvre was “the gift of an American collector” (271). Among Brimo’s heroes were James Jackson Jarves and Isabella Stewart Gardner, whom he applauded for their aesthetic sensitivity and adventurousness.

Brimo’s book concludes with a paean to American museums, which he saw as “the center, the very emblem, of intellectual life in the United States” (293). He praised the educational mission of American museums as serving both the social and intellectual elites and the general public. And whereas he found European museums somewhat parochial and exclusive, he commended American museums for their encyclopedic collecting and their broadly appealing and instructive displays.

Brimo has been well served by his translator. Haltman’s graceful translation is respectful; at the same time, he has done a yeoman’s job of sorting out perplexing, overly general, or vague footnotes, supplying missing references when appropriate. He has corrected factual errors, inconsistencies, and misspellings, though a few of Brimo’s mistakes did creep through undetected: the California financier is Darius O. Mills (not Darius O’Mills, 137); the Harvard archaeologist is George Reisner (not Reisener, 235); the Pennsylvania Academy was founded in 1805 (noted both correctly, 115, 125, and erroneously as 1790, 117). The list of artists supported by collector John Gellatly contains a real howler: helpfully adding first names when Brimo didn’t supply them, Haltman makes the Boston School painter Edmund Tarbell (listed in the original simply as “Tarbell”) into the renowned journalist Ida (264). Some errors occurred in the course of production: The translated text of an early chapter, “Encyclopedic Spirit,” contains 62 footnotes (Brimo’s text has 51), but there are only 51 in the notes section at the back. And when Brimo’s plates were reproduced, one (6a/b) was printed twice, as both 5a/b and 6a/b; Brimo’s original 5a/b (illustrating the Marquand collection and a view of the Centennial) was left out.

These complaints are minor. Brimo’s book is a remarkable, groundbreaking investigation of America’s evolving artistic tastes, a compendium of collectors—individual and institutional—and the cultural backdrops for their interests, an early history of museums in America, and a comprehensive overview of the literature of American art up to his time. Haltman’s translation makes this significant scholarly achievement more widely available and, thanks to his judicious editorial interventions, more reliable. His introduction brings to light—and to life—an intriguing personality. In an era increasingly interested in the history of collecting, Haltman restores to our attention a pioneering work in the field.

Carol Troyen
Kristin and Roger Servison Curator Emerita of American Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston