Few people realize that many of the greatest pieces of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s amazing collection were purchased with sugar money that was made right here in North Brooklyn. For decades, North Brooklyn was the largest sugar refining region on planet earth and hundreds of millions of dollars were made in its dozen or so refineries that once lined the banks of the East River. Simply put, local sugar production funded the purchase of many of the greatest works of art in the Met, and without Brooklyn sugar money the museum never would have become one of the greatest art collections in the world.
In the words of the Met:
The Havemeyers were not only the premier American patrons of late nineteenth-century French painting—Mrs. Havemeyer was perhaps the first American to buy a Monet—but also pathbreaking collectors in such uncharted fields as Spanish painting, for which they created a demand and established a taste among their contemporaries. Few know that Mr. and Mrs. Havemeyer’s collecting zeal extended beyond European painting to embrace Asian art, an area in which their taste was extremely broad, as well as decorative arts, a realm in which they cast a wide net over different cultures, periods, and media. Thus their splendid legacy enriched.
The genius behind the amassing of the amazing collection that made the Met great was America’s “Sugar King” Henry Havemeyer, whose family started the Kent Street refinery that would later be renamed Domino.
In 1887, Harry Havemeyer, as he was known to friends, was the driving force behind setting up the “Sugar Trust,” an illegal combination of local refiners, modeled on John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust. At one point the “ Sugar Trust” controlled more than ninety percent of all the sugar refined in the United States and allowed its stockholders to become millionaires.
Havemeyer was a ruthless businessman, who treated his workers callously, but he was one of the greatest American collectors of art and he had impeccable taste. He fell in love with the French Barbizon School of painting, buying his first Barbizon canvas in 1876. The same year, Harry developed a friendship with the renowned landscape painter and interior designer Samuel Coleman, who was one of the earliest collectors of Chinese and Japanese art. Coleman shared his love of Asian art with Harry, especially Japanese textiles and Chinese porcelain, and Havemeyer fell in love with these art forms too.
Coleman brought Havemeyer to the Centennial Exhibit in Philadelphia in 1876, where Harry was awed, buying carved ivory figures, Japanese lacquer boxes and silk brocades. Harry especially treasured Japanese textiles, and by age twenty-nine he became a discriminating collector of Japanese porcelains, rugs, textiles and gold or silver brocades. All these Asian gems would one day form the basis of the Met’s Asian collection. Coleman also introduced Harry to the legendary New York designer Louis Comfort Tiffany and they became good friends. Quickly, Tiffany also began advising Havemeyer on art purchases.
In 1883, Henry Havemeyer remarried, wedding his ex-wife’s niece, Louisine Havemeyer, who had grown up in Paris and had an appreciation for the greatness of French impressionism. The couple shared a common love of collecting art and his interest in painting developed slowly thanks to his wife, and her advisor the American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. The couple would amass one of the largest and most significant collections of artwork in America, and it was soon accurately reported that the Havemeyer home had more great artwork than any American museum.
After 1890, Harry became adept at hunting up available masterpieces still belonging to European aristocrats and was willing to pay considerable sums for paintings he wanted. In 1890, Harry purchased Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man, and what he believed to be a Rembrandt, The Portrait of an Old Woman for $50,000. By February of 1892, he owned five Rembrandts in addition to works by Hals. Teniers, and De Hooch. He also had a painting each of Van Dyck, Watteau and Gainsborough. He continued to buy oriental porcelains and pottery for the new Fifth Avenue home. He also collected precious ancient Greek figurines and bronzes.
In June of 1892, a dealer bought him a pair of Rembrandt paintings of a Dutch admiral from a cash strapped princess. He then purchased from the same woman Rembrandt´s Portrait of a Young Man in a Broad-Brimmed Hat. Havemeyer soon had a room with eight Rembrandts, and his library was called “the Rembrandt Room.” By 1889, he was buying Manets thanks to the help of Cassatt, who soon led them on to buy works of Degas, Cezanne and Monet. Harry and Lousine began to travel to Europe each year to buy art. They also fell in love with the great Spanish artists El Greco and Goya, although few collectors in America appreciated the Spanish giants.
Havemeyer died in 1907 and Louisine died in 1929. The terms of her will left a few choice paintings to the Met. The final bequest, made possible by the generosity of her children, included nearly two thousand works that enrich nearly every segment of the Met’s collections. A retrospective of the art the couple donated has been aptly called “ A Splendid Legacy,” by the Met. While giving due credit to the Havemeyer family, the retrospective made no mention of the thousands of Brooklyn sugar refineries who toiled and even died refining sugar to create the wealth that allowed the Havemeyers to assemble their amazing art collection.