J. P. Morgan as Cutthroat Capitalist- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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J.P. Morgan sat for two minutes; one of the resulting portraits defined his reputation. (Edward Steichen)

J. P. Morgan as Cutthroat Capitalist

In 1903, photographer Edward Steichen portrayed the American tycoon in an especially ruthless light

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Steichen, on the other hand, was elated.

“It was the moment when he realized that he had something that would allow him to show his talent to the rest of the world,” says Joel Smith, author of Edward Steichen: The Early Years.

And when the great banker bristled before the photographer’s lens, “Steichen learned something that he never forgot,” says Penelope Niven, author of Steichen: A Biography. “You need to guide or surprise your subject into that revelation of character. You have to get to the essence of that other individual, and you do it at the moment...when the individual is disarmed.”

Yet some critics wonder whether Steichen’s genius lay more in exploiting the public’s prejudices; Americans were deeply resentful of robber barons (just as they tend to resent Wall Street titans today). Smith, for one, believes that no matter how Morgan behaved at the shoot, Steichen intended to reinforce his reputation as a hard-driving capitalist—“someone charging out of the darkness, who embodied aggression and confidence to the point of danger.”

The photograph does reflect aspects of the real man, says Morgan biographer Jean Strouse. “He looks like a well-dressed pirate,” she says. “Photographs don’t lie—there is that in him.”

But Morgan was also a man of “many dimensions,” Strouse says—rather shy, in part because of the effect of rhinophyma on his nose. He avoided speaking before crowds and burned many of his letters to protect his privacy. He had a tender side that made him something of a ladies’ man. His love of art was sincere and boundless. And while he profited wildly from the industrializing American economy, he also saw himself as responsible for shepherding it. He functioned as a one-man Federal Reserve until he died, at age 75, in 1913 (the year the central bank was created).

Morgan apparently held no grudge against photographers per se. In 1906, he gave Edward S. Curtis a whopping $75,000 ($1.85 million today) to create a 20-volume photo series on American Indians. And years after the Steichen face-off, Morgan decided that he even liked that second portrait—or at least that he wanted to own it.

“If this is going to be the public image of him, then surely a man who was such a robber baron and so smart about his art collecting and in control of so many fortunes would want to be in control of this,” says photography critic Vicki Goldberg.

Morgan offered $5,000 for the original print, which Steichen had given to his mentor, Alfred Stieglitz; Stieglitz wouldn’t sell it. Steichen later agreed to make a few copies for Morgan but then procrastinated for three years—“my rather childish way,” he later allowed, “of getting even with [him] for tearing up that first proof.”

Staff writer Abigail Tucker also writes about the Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo in this issue.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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