The Taste of Angels

An art and director who received his training at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, JAMES S. PLAUT resumed his duties as Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, after four years’ service in the Navy. As Director of the Art Looting Investigation Unit, OSS, he was responsible for uncovering the works of art collected by Rosenberg, Göring, and Hitler and hidden in Germany.



FRANCIS HENRY TAYLOR, who became a museum director in his twenties and hurtled in ten years to the pinnacle of his profession, is the enfant terrible no less than the golden boy of the American art world. On being made Director of the Metropolitan Museum in 1941, he accepted stewardship of our greatest storehouse of cultural material at the moment of our greatest national crisis. Assuming the weighty responsibility for the physical preservation of vast treasure, he has also had occasion to ponder the true place of our museums in the public domain. His conclusions, as published and openly expressed, have not always been palatable to the rank and file of his colleagues. In Babel’s Tower: The Dilemma of the Modern Museum (Columbia University Press, 1945) he berated the art historians (a genus of scholar peculiar to our century) for their aridity in research and their preoccupation with the inconsequential trappings of learning.

Taylor has always had a healthy anxiety about cut-and-dried academic procedures. As an undergraduate he was something of a renegade, and took time off from Pennsylvania to have a fling at teaching English in a French lycée. His advanced studies were decidedly exploratory; in three years he ran the gamut of the Sorbonne, Florence, Barcelona, and the American Academy at Rome, and for a time medicine or finance seemed likely to claim him. (He came by these tendencies honestly, for his father was a prominent Philadelphia physician and his mother a Newbold, of the banking family.) At twenty-five, presumably with some sense of compromise, he was installed as Curator of Medieval Art at the Philadelphia Museum and three years later became the Director of the Worcester Art Museum.

Intellectually an ardent Francophile, he prefers the intuitive weaving of Gallic criticism to ponderous German metaphysics. A humanist, he finds the guessing game of “attribution,” so popular among the art scholars, tedious and smug. As a realist, he delights in throwing frequent barbs at the cultists of abstraction and surrealism. On the whole, his reputation has been secured through activation rather than contemplation.

He has, to be sure, a cordial dislike for the strenuous outdoor life, finding his exercise in the written word, the conversational skirmish, and the sharp anecdote. Some years ago he turned a phrase nicely expressive of his own outlook, something to the effect that “the only thing I hate more than sports is the people who like them,” and he has badgered his friends with it ever since at the slightest provocation.

Mistrusted and misunderstood by those who conceive of a museum director as an artist or at least “artistic,” he has been an able, aggressive administrator, somewhat in the manner of a college president or competent government official. A strong flair for figures is said (perhaps apocryphally) to have prompted one of the Metropolitan’s senior trustees to observe that he wished “Taylor would act more like a museum director and less like a banker.”

No matter how atypical, there is nothing inconsistent in Francis Taylor’s preoccupation with money, for it is common knowledge (and common sense) that the economic survival of our free institutions is a matter of grave concern to those who are responsible for them. And it is possible that an early realization that art has always been the handmaiden of money inspired him to embark, twelve years ago, on the writing of the first history, in the English language, of art collecting. His ambitious undertaking has now crystallized, with the publication of The Taste of Angels: A History of Art Collecting from Ramoses to Napoleon (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $10). This is a monumental work in itself, but Mr. Taylor is already at work on Volume II of the history, which “will deal with European collectors of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of collecting in America.” He has also expressed privately the disarming thought that the third and last volume (which one surmises will have to do with collectors and collections in our time) must await posthumous publication.

In a notice to the reader, Mr. Taylor supplies a key to his text. “Spengler and Toynbee, to name but two,” he writes, “have recognized the interplay between social history and the rise and fall of capital. Money has suddenly seemed to come into its own in the academic world. But the history and criticism of art have been curiously exempted from the impact of economics and the social sciences. Writers and teachers of the humanities have been content to abide by time-worn conclusions and formulae.”

“Collections,” he continues, “are the tangible illustrations to the ordinary processes of economic history and show the trends of historic taste. . . . What I am suggesting is that the economy of each nation will shed a revealing light upon the direction of its national taste and artistic styles.”


The Taste of Angels is, as I have said, a monumental work. It runs to six hundred pages divided into ten “books”: on the early collections, from the ancients through the Middle Ages; the Italian Renaissance; the Hapsburgs; France, England, and the Netherlands in the sixteenth century; Spain and the Low Countries in the seventeenth century; Baroque Rome; France from Louis XIV to the Revolution; England from the Georgians to Waterloo; the German courts of the eighteenth century; and the Napoleonic age.

There are chapters on the great personages and the stirring episodes of collecting. Mr. Taylor inquires into the instincts and motives of a galaxy of amateurs, and peers attentively into their purses and politics. The parade is impressive: the Medici of Florence and the Fuggers of Augsburg; the collector-popes Paul II, Julius II, and Leo X; the royal collectors Philip II of Hapsburg, Charles I, and Francis I; Isabella d’Este, Christina of Sweden, and Madame de Pompadour; Richelieu and Mazarin, Buckingham, Arundel, and Walpole.

Intriguing passages are devoted to the curious phenomena of collecting, such as the German Wunderkammer of the sixteenth century, that fabulous catchall for a vast and odd assortment of objects — illustrated books, astronomical instruments, perfume bottles, games and clocks, and an infinite miscellany of fossils, bird’s eggs, and natural relics.

“To the Teutonic mind,” writes Mr. Taylor, “it seemed that the work of art was important only for the value of the materials . . . or because it represented some phase of cosmic curiosity.”

He re-creates the artistic climate of the great courts and capitals in authoritative detail and with ingratiating insight. Of Spain under Philip II he writes: —

The continued wars of Charles V and of his son had impoverished not only the court but the nobility of most of Europe. The new middle-class millionaire or profiteer offered a ready market to the princes who had inherited over several generations the cream of the artistic production of the Renaissance. Moreover, the inflation of credit during the first half of the sixteenth century, through the operations of the free Bourse at Antwerp, demanded new and more mobile collateral than the cumbersome and obsolete mortgages on real property then current. Quite suddenly the third and fourth generations of Renaissance patrons found themselves obliged to put a value on the pictures and other objects of art which they had inherited and to sell them as dearly as possible to replenish the family fortunes.

Thus it is safe to say that modern collecting as we know it today dates from the crash in 1557 which followed the frenzied stock market boom of the midcentury. For the first time since the days of ancient Rome do we see in operation the law that high prices are paid for works of art in inflationary periods and collections are liquidated in deflationary periods. Spain under Philip II had reached the point at which the United States has now arrived — of having cornered the gold supply of the earth. But then, since navigation was too primitive to reship it to America and put it back in the mine (for the idea of burying gold and forgetting it at Fort Knox had not yet been thought of), there was nothing to do with it but plaster it on the altars of churches and upon the screens and ceilings of private chapels. It is not by chance that the style of architecture of Spain and Portugal in the later sixteenth century derived its name of plateresque from plata, the Spanish word for plate.

Of the French court at the end of the Grand Siècle:

The court, accustomed to spending the better part of the year in small attic rooms at Versailles, dancing attendance on the king, transplanted this life of small apartments to Paris. The great hôtels particuliers gave way to a new kind of immeuble, the large apartment house of the faubourg. The scale of life of the nobility was very much reduced. Formal living took on another aspect which required a new type of decoration; the bibelôt came into its own and, as the old aristocracy gradually were obliged to sell the major works of art acquired by their ancestors, a vogue was established for the lighter and less pompous styles of the later Louis.

But it was the economic disaster caused in 1720 by the bursting of John Law’s “Bubble” which more than any other factor set the seal upon French fashion. For in this speculative orgy virtually the entire court was ruined. Once more the nobility were forced to sell their works of art abroad and when, at last, under the reckless encouragement of Madame de Pompadour, they again turned to the pleasures of collecting, it was to the frivolous productions of their contemporaries rather than to the pompous old masters so highly prized by their parents and grandparents. The furniture of the ebeniste and ciselevr, the bric-abrac, the porcelain decorations from the monopolistic factories of the crown, took the place of the more solid financial investments of Renaissance art; it was so to speak an inflation of the paper currency of art against an ever-thinning gold reserve.

And, with singular lightness of touch, this passage on the art trade of Imperial Rome: —

A whole quarter of Rome in the vicinity of the Villa Publica was devoted to art dealers, booksellers and antiquarians — a quarter which was rife with the time-honored practices of falsification and forgery, of “phony” restorations and rigged auction sales. All of the practices of Fifty-seventh Street, for better or worse, appear in the writings of the satirists. Suetonius describes a scene in a Roman auction room which in the days of Mr. Hearst might have had its counterpart in New York. The Emperor Caligula, who was constantly in need of money, announced a sale of the spurious objects of his collection in which he himself would act as auctioneer. All of the members of his court were invited to be present and were obliged to buy well beyond the reserve price. One poor courtier fell asleep and Caligula thereupon called the attention of the barker to the fact that every time the man nodded in his sleep he raised his bid. When he awoke he had acquired some $5,000.000 worth of trash from the Emperor’s collection.

The final chapters, on the Napoleonic conquest, are a vivid evocation of the grand prototype for Nazi looting as we have recently known it. The appendices, which deal with the value of money and various subjects essential to the text, are hardly less provocative — for once — than the text itself. The book is happily designed, copiously and well illustrated.

In his foreword, Mr. Taylor warns that The Taste of Angels is “addressed neither to the art historian nor to the businessman, but to those who care for art and have a curiosity about those who likewise cared before them.” He apologizes for “inquiring into many divergent fields in which no single person can have universal competence.”The author thus recognizes the fundamental danger in the book’s concept and structure: that of attempting to reconcile and integrate the separate strains of history — social, political, economic, and artistic — which do not always fall conveniently into a rhythmic pattern of parallels. His history will probably not appease the specialist’s hunger. Essentially, what Mr. Taylor has given us is a chronicle — rather than an analysis—of taste. It might be argued that the Director of the Metropolitan should have indulged more liberally in aesthetic judgments, but this will not lessen the general reader’s appetite.

Mr. Taylor’s documentation is thorough and ordered. Upon a scholarly foundation he has superimposed a rewarding layer of lively history, written with a sure, human touch and with personal appreciation of the qualities and deeds of men who have prized art through the ages.

Occasionally his amiable interpretation of history reflects in astonishing degree his predilections as director of a great museum — his Latin orientat ion; his pragmatic sense of the inextricability of art from the complex web of human attainment, (and his impatience with the contemporary separatists and mystics); his determination to make the lessons of art lucid and profitable to all who would look and listen. If this spells corruption, where is the historian who is less guilty?

The Taste of Angels is popular history in the best sense. It has a warm message for the patron of princely aspirations and for the modest young collector; for the reader of Defoe and Vasari, the student of Taine, Keynes, or Toynbee — in fact, for the many to whom the fabric of man’s progress remains endlessly fascinating.

“These works of art,” Mr. Taylor concludes, “ have been preserved and handed on from one generation to the next because the ideas that lie behind them are, and have always been, considered vital to the abundant life. They are the very things which distinguish the adolescence of one nation from the intellectual maturity of another. ... It remains for our generation to decide whether we shall guarantee the ebb and flow of these spiritual values, or, whether we, the temporary custodians, shall bear the responsibility of debasing the one remaining currency of civilized man.”