Provenance of the The Morgan’s Journal des dames et des modes Plates

The Morgan Library & Museum’s collection of nearly 500 Directoire-era costume plates, originally published in the influential Journal des dames et des modes (JDM), are a veritable treasure trove, highlighting the radical shifts in French fashion that transpired during the turbulent years between 1797 and 1804.

(Letter from Ludovic Badin to J.P. Morgan, May 18, 1905, The Morgan Library & Museum)

J.P. Morgan, American financier, benefactor, and avid collector of paintings, books, manuscripts, prints & drawings, acquired 18th-century costume plates in May 1907 from a Parisian bookseller named Ludovic Badin. Correspondence preserved in The Morgan’s archives tells us that J.P. Morgan had begun acquiring manuscripts, Books of Hours, and costume plates from Badin’s eclectic holdings as early as 1905.

(The Morgan Library & Museum)

In addition to acquiring and selling rare books, manuscripts, and objets d’art to wealthy Americans and Europeans, Ludovic Badin worked as the Assistant Managing Director of the luxurious couture house of German designer Gustave Beer on the Place Vendôme in Paris. Badin may even have met some of his clients, including Morgan, through Beer. A June 21, 1906 bill of sale written on Beer letterhead for 93,500 francs worth of’objects’ purchased by Morgan from Badin indicates the monumental scale of Morgan’s quest to fill his New York library.

(The Morgan Library & Museum)

Though not described specifically as engravings from the Journal des dames et des modes, a bound volume of “coloured ‘Directoire’ costume plates” is included on a list of items purchased from Badin by J.P. Morgan in Paris in May 1907. Most interestingly, the list has been annotated by Morgan’s young librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, whom he hired in 1906 to manage his burgeoning collection. She signs and dates the list on September 2, 1907, meaning that the costume plates have already made their way to New York.

(Photograph of Belle from 1911 by the American photographer, Clarence H. White, Princeton University Art Museum)

Belle da Costa Greene worked for the Morgan family for nearly fifty years, helping J.P. Morgan and his son amass an unrivaled collection of rare manuscripts, books, and art. In 1924, when the Pierpont Morgan Library was incorporated by New York State as a public institution, the Board of Trustees appointed her its first director, a post she held until her retirement in 1948. Born Belle Marion Greener in 1879, she was the daughter of Richard Greener, a lawyer, Republican Party activist and the first black graduate of Harvard College. Belle was a remarkable woman, an African American passing as white (her mother changed their surname from Greener to Greene and claimed nonexistent Portuguese ancestors), an expert librarian with a vast knowledge of illuminated manuscripts who began her career at Princeton University, and only the second woman elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, among her many notable achievements. For more on Belle’s life, see Koppelman, Constance. “Greene, Belle da Costa (1879-1950), library director, bibliographer, and art connoisseur.” American National Biography.  February, 2000. Oxford University Press, 2019. 

(Chronicling America: America’s Historical Newspapers, Library of Congress)

Belle was famous in her day, not merely with booksellers, collectors, and fellow librarians, but with the wider public, making headlines with each major purchase she completed on J.P. Morgan’s behalf. The New York Herald Tribune claimed, perhaps exaggeratedly, in an October 1948 story about Belle’s career: “She is reputed to know the value of nearly every rare volume in existence and probably has passed judgment on more precious manuscripts than any other woman.” Another article, published on March 16, 1921 in the Omaha Daily Bee, shares her astonishingly large salary and her fearless approach to bidding at auction, including the daring (and successful) last-minute bid she made for the Caxton Morte D’Arthur, paying a whopping $42,800.

(Princeton University Rare Books and Special Collections, Graphic Arts Collection, Firestone Library)

Belle da Costa Greene was revered for her intellect and she enjoyed a prominent position in elite circles thanks to her close relationship with J.P. Morgan, but she was also heralded as a great beauty with impeccable style. Her designer wardrobe was legendary and it is easy to imagine Belle encouraging J.P. Morgan to acquire costume plates as he built his collection, given her taste for high fashion. Belle’s connoisseurship extended to her personal library, for which she commissioned a lovely etched bookplate by the artist Edward Gordon Craig in 1911.

(Wikimedia Commons)

A 1913 pastel portrait of Belle by French artist Paul César Helleu captures her elegance and glamor, including the iconic feather in her hat. Her 1950 obituary in the New York Herald Tribune describes her “great plumed hats” and how “the sight of them in an auction room was enough to agitate every other bidder present.”

(Wikimedia Commons)

It is worth noting that, perhaps not coincidentally, the venerable Journal des dames et des modes was restarted in 1912 to once more showcase French fashions and lifestyles. The design of the 20th-century JDM plates is astonishingly similar to that of the original 18th-century plates so there is no mistaking the influence of the earlier publication on the new iteration of the Journal. The new JDM stopped publishing in 1914 after the outbreak of WWI, but it seems very plausible that Belle da Costa Greene was among the many fashionable women who could have looked to the JDM for the latest trends and style guidelines. The fashions in this plate from 1913, the same year as Helleu’s pastel portrait of Belle, bear a striking resemblance to her portrait outfit, from the feather in the hat to the fur wrap around the neck, to the lines of the coat, telling us that Belle was indeed, as they say in Paris, très branché.