Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture
On April 2, 1771, at a meeting of the recently formed New York Chamber of Commerce, Treasurer William Walton recommended that, “as there is now a good limner in town,” the group arrange to have a portrait painted of its patron, New York Colony lieutenant governor Cadwallader Colden, to “be hung up in the Chamber in memory of their Gratitude for granting them a Charter of Incorporation.” With this act, he launched a tradition of portrait commissioning, collecting, and display that was to continue for precisely two centuries. Between 1772, when Matthew Pratt’s full-length portrayal of Colden was deposited with the Chamber, and 1972, when the faltering institution commissioned its final portrait, the organization amassed a collection of nearly three hundred images of members and other notables with whom the group identified—or wished to. These were installed en masse, tier upon tier, in the vast Great Hall of the sumptuous building that was erected in 1901 in large part to accommodate them.
Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture gathers together fifty-one of the best portraits from the now-dispersed collection in a dense, Salon-style installation evoking their former majestic display at the Chamber of Commerce Building near Wall Street. Interpreting the collection in terms of its changing function and meaning within and beyond its institutional setting, the exhibition explores the ways in which portraiture was used by a wealthy and powerful group to fashion an identity that promoted its corporate, civic, and ideological agendas while also reflecting, through its evolving use, the successive concerns of the organization, its members, and the wider world they inhabited.
From its inception in 1768, the Chamber regulated and codified commercial practice, provided business concerns with a unified means of forming and advancing their interests, and consolidated and elevated the status of its members and of business, generally. By linking commercial development to social and cultural progress, portraiture did much to support these ends.
The portraits acquired a rich legacy of uses and meanings over their long histories, at different times serving disparate and even antithetical purposes. At the beginning, the portraits were a means of establishing and strengthening group affiliation and underscoring the authority of the young organization. As portable symbols of the Chamber’s legitimacy, moved from one location to another during its early years of roving tenancy (it occupied unprepossessing places such as coffeehouses), the portraits communicated an image of power that was crucial for a group intent on influencing government policy and arbitrating commercial disputes. At the same time, in asserting a common, quasi-ancestral relationship to the individuals they depicted, the portraits unified the Chamber’s members in a clan-like kinship, with concomitant duties of recognition and rectitude toward each other.
As the Chamber evolved, it faced the paradox of creating a portrait collection of capitalist leaders in an American culture that was founded in opposition to European aristocratic traditions and shaped by the homogenizing forces of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, with their imperative toward assimilation. How, exactly, is distinction conveyed—how is power pictured—in a culture defined by democratic, egalitarian ideals? How could the veneration of select portraits of powerful individuals not seem at odds with core national values? The notion of equality was so firmly ingrained as the nation’s original, essential feature that French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville observed early in his travels, “The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived and the central point at which all my observations come to a head.” In such a climate, the inherently aggrandizing act of commissioning, posing for, and collecting portraits seems at odds with the ideals—however episodically or irregularly applied—of a culture set against European hierarchical conventions.
At the Chamber, one solution was to abandon grandiose allegorical forms and princely accoutrements. Instead of interpreting their subjects via elaborate costumes, settings, and symbols of wealth and power, these portraits employ more modest means of representing character, such as focusing on a physical feature to connote a particular personality trait. Gone are the trappings of aristocracy—instead of a gold-hilted sword, these sober American gentlemen might hold a book or papers, or merely sit in confident repose. Such unassuming typologies, when multiplied repeatedly, in time provided the resolution to the Chamber’s dilemma: a portrait collection of relatively understated, similar images that achieved their impressive effect only collectively, in the aggregate. These images sidestepped the paradox of picturing American power, even as the scores of portraits lining the Chamber’s walls transmitted an overwhelming message of authority and command.
Further complicating the representation of powerful businessmen was the shifting and ambivalent relationship that Americans have had with business itself. This relationship reflects crucial and enduring tensions in American culture—contests between the pursuit of individual wealth and the common, or “greater,” good, and between egalitarianism and the social hierarchies engendered by the accumulation of capital. From the beginning of the nation’s history, citizens wrestled with the conflict between a respect for self-made individuals and a fear of creating a moneyed class that would simply supplant the hierarchical culture left behind in England. In representing the human face of business, the Chamber portraits—both in the representational strategies they individually adopt and in the various uses to which they were collectively put—situate themselves at the heart of these tensions.
Dispersed in the 1980s by the faltering Chamber of Commerce, much of the collection has been repurposed today in a culture of corporate collecting that similarly uses art to project a positive image.
In 1985 nearly fifty of the Chamber’s best portraits were acquired by Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette (DLJ), a securities investment company founded in 1959. The historical ambiance the portraits could impart was something singular among the preponderance of companies collecting contemporary art. Unable to lay claim to the extended institutional pasts of most of its competitors, DLJ chose to project a corporate image that made clear its respect for history and tradition. In 2000, DLJ was itself purchased by Credit Suisse. For a firm whose very name refers to another country, the appeal of portraits of hometown business leaders might seem questionable. Yet in New York—arguably still the financial center of the world—Credit Suisse chose to display the paintings of
J. Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and Andrew Carnegie prominently in the lobby of its headquarters, suggesting that, given the right context, the Chamber of Commerce’s portraits of long-deceased businessmen have life in them yet.
Picturing Power takes place this spring alongside Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, an exhibition that similarly addresses issues of portraiture and representation and provides an instructive counterpoint to the gender and racial exclusivity of the Chamber portraits. These compelling presentations inform one another, together composing a distinctive and cohesive season of exhibitions at the Museum.
Curator of American Art