The Original Library
With its three-story inlaid walnut bookshelves and magnificent ceiling, the East Room was designed as a treasury for Pierpont Morgan’s remarkable collection of rare printed books. The sixteenth-century Netherlandish tapestry over the mantelpiece depicts avarice, one of the seven deadly sins, personified by the mythological King Midas. Two staircases, concealed behind bookcases, provide access to the balconies. Paintings by H. Siddons Mowbray adorn the upper reaches of the room, and the signs of the zodiac are depicted in the ceiling’s hexagonal spandrels. (Morgan was a member of an exclusive dining club that admitted only twelve members at a time—one for each sign of the zodiac—and the arrangement of the signs in his library’s ceiling may carry a hidden meaning related to key events in his personal life.) Allegorical depictions of the arts and sciences alternate with portraits of figures from Socrates to Michelangelo, identifying the library as a place for the preservation of art and ideas.
Literature, Art, and Music from the Middle Ages to the Present
On view in the East Room are examples from The Morgan Library & Museum’s extraordinary collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts, rare printed books and bindings, and handwritten manuscripts of great writers, artists, and composers from the Renaissance to the present day. While some of the items on view were purchased by Pierpont Morgan, others have been acquired in the century since his death. Selections are changed regularly, but a seminal work is always on view: one of the Morgan’s three copies of a Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455. With Gutenberg’s Bible, the painstaking process of copying books by hand gave way to an innovative new technology—movable type—that facilitated the exchange of art and ideas in all spheres of human endeavor.
Taking another look at The North Room, before leaving. The Rotunda
In Morgan’s day, visitors to the library passed through a pair of monumental bronze doors into a rotunda replete with opulent detail: variegated marble columns, an ornately patterned floor, and fine mosaic panels that line the curved walls. The ceiling paintings, by American artist H. Siddons Mowbray (1858–1928), depict three of the major literary epochs represented in Pierpont Morgan’s collections—the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.
This portrait of Mrs. Morgan was on view at the Lower Level (and not in one of the rooms surrounding Mr. Morgan’s library, as I would have expected). John Singer Sargent, Florence 1856-1925 London
Portrait of Mrs. J.P. Morgan, Jr.
This spirited portrait depicts Jane Morgan (neé Jane Norton Grew, 1868-1925), the wife of Pierpont Morgan’s son, J.P. Morgan, Jr. (1867-1943). Although the portrait is inscribed 1906, it appears that Mrs. Morgan sat for Sargent in 1904-5, when she was still living with her husband in London. The Morgans returned to New York in 1906. The following year Sargent declined the opportunity to depict Pierpont Morgan. Shortly thereafter he relinquished his practice as the leading portrait painter of high society in order to focus on landscapes and murals.
The Morgan Library & Museum