Just because I’m a librarian…

Talking about illuminated manuscripts led us to the story of the Spanish Forger which leads us to the fascinating Belle da Costa Greene. A little background to begin…

The Beaux-Arts architect Charles Follen McKim finished the magnificent Boston Public Library in 1895.


There are so many wonderful details and decorations inside, you really have to visit it to see. Never mind the fabulous collections housed there. Bates Hall is the main reading room and is recognized by architects as one of the most important rooms in the world.


Around this time in New York, J.P. Morgan started collecting medieval manuscripts to go along with his books and art.  He kept his collection mostly in England, because of a 20% tax in the U.S. on imported art, but also had many things in storage at the Lenox Library on 5th Ave. at 70th St.in NYC. And he had many pieces at his home on Madison Ave. at 36th.

He wanted to consolidate the collections to properly house and display them, and in 1902 he asked McKim to build him a library adjacent to his home, and the result is regarded by many as McKim’s masterpiece.


Now, he needed a librarian to organize, catalog and expand the collection, and in 1905 he hired the 21 year old Belle da Costa Greene, who had been introduced to him by his nephew, a Princeton student.  She had been working in the library at Princeton, and had gained some expertise with illuminated manuscripts.

Greene has been described as smart and outspoken as well as beautiful and sensual. It’s often said she lived with “Bohemian freedom” – I’ll leave it for you to imagine what that’s actually a euphemism for. She moved with ease in elite society, and was known for her exotic looks and designer wardrobe. She said, “Just because I am a librarian doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”

She was one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. She became Morgan’s most trusted confidante and cultivated a wide variety of art dealers, critics and museum curators. It’s easy to understand why, given her knowledge, style, personality, and the unlimited resources of J.P. Morgan.  She held the job for 43 years.

The story of the Spanish Forger began with “The Betrothal of St. Ursula,” a painting that had been ascribed, based on its style, to fifteenth-century Spain. In 1930, Belle da Costa Greene refused to support its purchase for New York’s Metropolitan Museum because she suspected it was a forgery. She was the first to identify the Spanish Forger’s distinctive characteristics and gave him his name.


The Betrothal of St. Ursula

Later, the St. Ursula panel  was tested using neutron activation analysis, and it was discovered that the green pigment in the painting was copper arsenite a.k.a. Paris Green, which was not available before 1814, confirming Greene’s suspicions.  Because French newsprint has been found behind some of his panels, it is suspected that he actually worked in Paris, but the name Greene gave him has stuck. In 1988, the painting that gave the Spanish Forger his name was given to the Morgan Library and Museum.

Greene’s achievements are even more remarkable when you factor in the need to overcome the racism of the day – she was the daughter of African American parents, but concealed her background and invented Portuguese lineage to take its place.

An amazing woman. If you want to know more about her, check out this biography.


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