The Woman Behind the Morgan Library: Belle da Costa Greene
by Olivia Del Vecchio
Belle da Costa Greene stands as one of the most influential scholars and enthusiasts of illuminated manuscripts, one who engaged with and then sought to entice the larger public to appreciate and study medieval books. Moreover, this librarian acted as the first Director of an artistic institution that draws scholars and tourist to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum. Yet, Belle da Costa Greene is little known. Just as Greene would come to obscure her racial identity, the public has obscured the name and the legacy of one of the few female and black figures in the study of art history.
Belle da Costa Greene was born in 1879 in Washington, D.C., and spent her childhood between Washington and New York City. After her parents separated, Belle, her mother, and sisters began an existence “passing” as white, a mode of circulating through society, that would affect Greene the rest of her life. Greene purposefully dropped the ‘r’ in her last name, Greener, to fashion a new identity for herself, separate from her father’s. Greene began her career working at the Princeton University library, going directly from public school to work as she could not afford to pay for a college education. At Princeton University, she came to the attention of Junius Spencer Morgan II, a student at Princeton University and a nephew of John Pierpont Morgan. This connection would eventually lead to her employment with financier and banker J. P. Morgan starting in 1905 as Junius introduced Greene to his uncle.
Even as a young girl, Greene had ambitions higher than the top shelf of the bookcase, as she felt drawn to work with rare books since she was just twelve years old. The ambition and passion for this intellectual pursuit not only ensured that Greene would succeed in her day-to-day tasks as a librarian by learning the trade, but also that she would mark out her place in history, as a preeminent scholar of illuminated manuscripts and as the first Director of the still-standing Morgan Library and Museum. Despite a lack of a college education, Greene excelled in her professional career, finding opportunities to learn within the field. Beginning in 1908, Morgan trusted Greene’s competence enough to send her to Europe on his behalf to acquire more objects for his ever-growing collection.
At Mr. Morgan's Library
John Pierpont Morgan was a man of immense wealth, having inherited and expanded the family banking business and investing in U.S. industries, including railroads and steel manufacture. J.P. Morgan began to collect on a massive scale starting in 1890, amassing an encyclopedic collection of art works, from Old Master paintings and drawings to illuminated manuscripts. Initially he based his vast trove in London, but by the turn of the century he put his focus on his New york residences and sought to move the collection to the shores of the new world. By 1902, Morgan dreamed of creating a space for his rescues that would “be a simple, classical structure set in a garden with ample space for his growing collections and a study in which he could meet with business colleagues, art dealers, and friends”, and thus began construction on a library to house his works on Madison Avenue. Morgan sought out architect Charles F. Kim to help construct his personal library in a classical revival style for the facade. Only a richly decorated interior space could match the splendor of the collection, including early purchases like the Lindau Gospels which in 1901 was Morgan’s first significant purchase in the realm of illuminated manuscripts.
Greene’s position at the Morgan library included more than simply cataloguing and maintaining the condition of prized manuscripts and rare books. At the time that Greene worked, the task of the librarian included also “purchasing agent, personal reader, companion, and more.” This “more” seems to have included the task of being a chief advisor on illuminated manuscripts and rare books. In a word, Greene was indispensable to Morgan as a collector of visual arts. Her intellect, excellence, and proficiency, as well as her vivacious personality, ensured that Greene would become a prominent and invaluable figure to one of the richest men of New York’s Gilded Age. This relationship was not romantic, but still deeply intimate as their bond combined “many shared interests” and both “spent long hours together talking about almost everything: books, people, politics, finance, the Library, Morgan’s family.”
At the Auction
One of Greene's greatest acquisitions was the Da Costa Hours by Simon Bening, a Flemish minaturaist who lived between 1483 and 1516, purchased during her early years with Morgan.. The richly colored illuminations of the cycles of the season in the scenes accompanying the manuscript’s calendar surely would have attracted anyone’s eye. But the the uncertainty over the identity of the artist behind the miniatures most likely made this work noticeable only to someone as passionate and knowledgeable as Greene.
Bernard Quaritch (1819-1899), a prominent bookseller of the late nineteenth century, noting Flemish style of the figures, wrongly attributed the work to Hans Memling (1430-1494) and Gerard David (1460-1523), rather than the much later Flemish illustrator Bening. If Morgan was interested in a Eurocentric collection that contained masterpieces from prominent and accomplished artists, he would be persuaded by names like Memling and David, even if the attribution turned out to be incorrect. An interesting or exalted provence, including ownership by a distinguished Portuguese family like the Da Costa clan, can enhance the appeal of a work of art that even the beautifully illuminated miniatures cannot parallel. In the curatorial description of the Da Costa Hours, the “rounded Gothic book-hand” is prized for its beauty, exemplifying the style of the early 16th century, which is a detail that only a rare-book expert such as Greene would note. Greene’s note about the paleography indicates that substance as well as the flash and drama of the beautiful pictures were important to Greene as a scholar and a buyer. And as Morgan cared not to comment on what guided him in his purchases and was not a “scholarly connoisseur” of the objects he managed to acquire, one can assume that Greene’s praise of the work, found in the curatorial description, lead to its acquisition.
It seems that Greene’s reputation was built not only on her having an incredibly sharp eye, but also on an overwhelming and impossible-to-ignore demeanor at auction. Her methods could be considered brash and unconventional, especially for a young woman at the time, like spitting on the page of a manuscript to see if pigment would run off revealing a forgery. Greene also did not seem to be intimidated by the great power stemming from J. P. Morgan’s massive fortune; In fact, she used it to full advantage. In the year 1911, the tenacious Greene confidently placed a bid of $50,000 dollars (roughly over $1.75 million today) for Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur on which she had her eyes set. Nevertheless, Greene’s profound knowledge of illuminated manuscripts and determination to amass spectacular pieces despite hefty costs expanded J.P. Morgan’s collection once Greene became the sole buyers of works for the financier.
Wearing a Disguise
Greene constructed for herself a fantastical narrative that obscured her racial background. She attributed her dusky skin tone to Portuguese ancestry, opting to conceal her ties to the African-American identity and with her famous father, Richard T. Greener, the first black man to graduate from Harvard University. Within the affluent circles through which she danced as librarian for Morgan, Belle became a “theoretical white,” a person passing for white by adopting and assimilating into white culture, which is perpetuated by those in power. With this so-called passing, Belle did not have to shoulder the burden of representing the black race to the public. Instead, however, she may have created a hardship for herself hiding her true identity while her appearance and skin color set her apart and exoticised her in rooms filled with pale-skinned white people.
Greene dreamed of sharing the illuminated manuscripts that she cherished so deeply with others, which is why she fought for the works “to be available to the public, not locked in the vaults of private collectors.” Her passion for medieval manuscripts and her determination to make these works accessible to those beyond scholars or friends of the owner lead to the development of a public institution, the J. Pierpont Morgan Library. For, after the death of JP, the magnate, son J.P. Morgan Junior, or Jack, kept Greene on as Librarian. In 1924, Jack converted his father’s private collection into a public constitution in memorial to his late father, with Greene acting as the first Director. The Library underwent a renovation in 2006 and now is known as the Morgan Library and Museum. Still today this institution acts a resource and a point of visitation for people in New York City with an interest in the medieval era.
Ultimately, Greene’s long held desire to make Morgan’s Library “pre-eminent, especially for incunabula, manuscripts, bindings and the classics,”would come to fruition and the public will forever be indebted to her, even if one does not know her by name or if her contributions have been neglected (or downplayed) by past scholarship. Greene, indeed, had an aura of mystery. Morgan did not know her exact age when she was first employed, she fashioned an ambiguous racial identity for herself, and this intensely private woman did not preserve her personal correspondence as she burned many letters shortly before her death. Despite the mystique surrounding Belle da Costa Greene in her personal life, Greene’s professional contribution as a librarian and scholar of illuminated manuscripts cannot be ignored anymore.
Ardizzone, Heidi. An Illuminated Life : Belle Da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege. New York :W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.
“Curatorial Description of MS M. 399” The Morgan Library and Museum, accessed November 8, 2017. http://corsair.morganlibrary.org/msdescr/BBM0399a.pdf.
Lott, Eric. “White Like Me: Racial Trans and Culture of Civil Rights” in Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism, 119-137. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017.
Louchheim, Aline B. “The Morgan Library And Miss Greene.” New York Times, (1923-Current File), Apr 17, 1949. Accessed October 10, 2018.
Strouse, Jean. “J. Pierpont Morgan, Financier and Collector”, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 57 (3) (Winter 2000), 1-64.
Strouse, Jean. Morgan: American Financier. New York: Random House, 1999.
Quartich, Bernard. Description of a very beautiful Book of Hours, illuminated probably by Hans Memling and Gerard David, with reproductions in photogravure of 11 representative miniatures. London, 1905, 10.