“No price is too great,” John Pierpont Morgan once declared, “for a work of unquestioned beauty and known authenticity.” Indeed, the financier spent half his fortune on art: Chinese porcelains, Byzantine reliquaries, Renaissance bronzes. His London house was so decked out a critic said it resembled “a pawnbrokers’ shop for Croesuses.” Morgan also commissioned a number of portraits of himself—but he was too restless and busy making money to sit still while they were painted.
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Which was why, in 1903, the painter Fedor Encke hired a young photographer named Edward Steichen to take Morgan’s picture as a kind of cheat sheet for a portrait Encke was trying to finish.
The sitting lasted just three minutes, during which Steichen took only two photographs. But one of them would define Morgan forever.
In January 1903, Morgan, 65, was at the height of his power, a steel, railroad and electrical-power mogul influential enough to direct huge segments of the American economy. (Four years later he would almost single-handedly quell a financial panic.) Steichen, 23, an immigrant with an eighth-grade education, was working furiously to establish a place in fine-art photography, which was itself struggling to be taken seriously.
Steichen prepared for the shoot by having a janitor sit in for the magnate while he perfected the lighting. Morgan entered, put down his cigar and assumed an accustomed pose. Steichen snapped one picture, then asked Morgan to shift his position slightly. This annoyed him. “His expression had sharpened and his body posture became tense,” Steichen recalled in his autobiography, A Life in Photography. “I saw that a dynamic self-assertion had taken place.” He quickly took a second picture.
“Is that all?” Morgan said. It was. “I like you, young man!” He paid the efficient photographer $500 in cash on the spot.
Morgan’s delight faded when he saw the proofs.
The first shot was innocuous. Morgan ordered a dozen copies; Encke used it to complete an oil portrait in which Morgan looks more like Santa Claus than himself.
But the second image became a sensation. Morgan’s expression is forbidding: his mustache forms a frown, and his eyes (which Steichen later compared to the headlights of an express train) blaze out of the shadows. His face, set off by a stiff white collar, seems almost disembodied in the darkness, though his gold watch chain hints at his considerable girth. In this image, Steichen later said, he only slightly touched up Morgan’s nose, which was swollen from a skin disease. Yet Steichen denied having engineered the image’s most arresting aspect: the illusion of a dagger—actually the arm of the chair—in Morgan’s left hand.
Morgan tore up the proof on the spot.