The High Renaissance in Italy looms disproportionately large as the greatest age of art patronage. Such is the princely glitter, still, of the Medici. Then baronial wealth and churchly wealth vied--and often combined, in the single figures of the Medici Popes--in commissions for great artistic projects. It was much simpler then. There were no museums, no art dealers. If you had a lot of money and a strong taste for art, you went directly to the artist in his bottega and you bought it or ordered it. And then you had art's satisfactions, not the least of which, then as now, was prestige.
Actually, there has always been a lot of art patronage--a surprising amount, indeed, considering how little real general knowledge there has ever been as to what art is all about. There have been lulls when interest has turned to the past. There have been bad times when optical machines have been invented to do part of the artist's work: the camera for portraiture, the stereoscope for three-dimensional "scenery," the cinema to dramatize history. But the artist has always found something new, and probably better, to do; has found it, often, before the machine was even invented.
Then there would be a new movement that would be ignored until it could be ignored no longer; taste would finally catch up and make amends. One of the great facts of art history is that the layman, proudly practical as he may be, is eternally fascinated by art and by the artist. This fascination runs deeper than a sideshow interest. A bearded lady and an eight-foot man are patent, even if engaging, facts, and are so looked at. But art is the kind of fact that language is, which is more than a mere collection of sounds: it challenges understanding.
It happens today that we have an art that, more than ever before, challenges understanding. We have, too, some pretty big and fancy art patronage. It is possible, even likely, that the two facts go together.
Modern art from Europe, as we have observed, attracted early and powerful support in America from the very moment that it first penetrated the walls of our isolation. Support for a new art comes usually from a certain chain of agencies. First comes the intellectual advance guard: artists, amateurs, critics, and laymen, a group seldom with much buying-power, but highly articulate. The advance guard argues, talks it up, and publishes little magazines--and it all adds up.
Soon a brave dealer or two arises who on the one hand supports the new artist, often out of his own pocket, while on the other he waits as the market slowly grows. The dealer is the sub-patron. Next comes the private collector of means, who buys from the dealers. With him come the big private collections hung out of the general ken in mansions as they once were in castles. At last comes the general desire to see these pictures, these sculptures. Then we have the museum. It is all a little more complicated than it was in the days of the Medici, but ours is a more complicated age.
Here in America, however, the chain of agencies got jumbled about in order. We had the advance guard, all right, with whom Stieglitz must be grouped because, actually, he carried little weight as a dealer. Then, almost instantly, we had a huge public indoctrination through the Armory Show, and the great private collections were actually started before the dealers could enter the field. In fact, by March 15, 1913, as the Armory Show closed, America had had its first big look and was ready for a public museum of modern art, no matter how small.
Had anyone realized it then, we would have today nearly every great masterpiece of modern art and most of the lesser ones--an accumulation of readily negotiable wealth which might easily reach ten figures of dollars (and that is a billion) in value. And it could have been bought in the early stages on a shoestring. For there was a time when the French openly laughed at the "rich American fools" who bought the work of Matisse and Picasso. For a long time, however, they have been coming here to buy it back, muttering about the coercive Yankee dollars that spirited such treasures from France.
Our patronage of modern art came first, mainly from the only aristocracy we recognize: the powerful and wealthy. In America that means wealth made at one time or another from trade or industry. Ours was the first great industrial aristocracy. In this light, the early acceptance by our industry of modern design principles--which came originally from the painters--is actually no more remarkable than our tycoons' buying of the art itself at that early day when cubism, like Henry Ford Tin Lizzie, was a joke laughed at in the streets.
There was considerable talk here during the 1920's that modern art was being secretly subsidized by the French government, a gigantic fraud whose aim was to lure American dollars to war-torn and impoverished France. The rumor spread and took hold. "All that dough going for that stuff," the uninformed would say and then ask, "but does one cent come back to pay the war debts?" It was a neat theory without a shred of truth in it. The actual fact was that modern art was being subsidized in the main by American businessmen in their private capacity as collectors. The scions of a generation that had carted palaces over the sea and set them up here stone by stone were now buying the cubist "atrocities" at which their fathers had guffawed.
One millionaire bid against another; the rivalry was intense, and from the early 1920's on, prices, obeying the ancient law of supply and demand, rose high, higher, and higher still. Modern art, far more than horse-racing, became the sport of kings. The kings made it so. Read a quick, partial roster of the names: Dr. Albert C. Barnes, Miss Lillie P. Bliss, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., Stephen C. Clark, Chester Dale, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Marie (Mrs. Averell) Harriman, Samuel A. Lewisohn, Samuel Marx, Duncan Phillips, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., John D. Rockefeller III, Nelson Rockefeller, Cornelius J. Sullivan, Edward M. M. Warburg, Wright Ludington, Leigh Block, Ferdinand Howald, and John Hay Whitney.