A Noble Bequest: Howard Noble and Carnegie Museum of Art
To collect the “Old Masters of tomorrow,” Andrew Carnegie’s famous exhortation to his newly founded arts institution in Pittsburgh, then named the Department of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute, had a number of ramifications. For one, it spurred the purchase of “contemporary” art from the yearly Carnegie International exhibitions, often with spectacular results: the first two purchases the museum made were Homer’s The Wreck and Whistler’s Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate. Early purchases of European art proved equally inspired: Sisley’s View of Saint-Mammès was purchased in 1899 and Pissarro’s The Great Bridge, Rouen (Le Grand Pont, Rouen) in 1900. The pattern, if not always the quality of the acquisitions, continued, so by 1960, the museum had amassed, both by purchase and donation, a body of works that represented a solid, though by no means comprehensive, view of the art created during the previous century or so.
But little in the permanent collection galleries or, indeed, in the collection itself represented the artistic accomplishments prior to the mid-19th century in any substantial way. With a few notable exceptions, such as the donation in the 1920s of the Dalzell collection of primarily 18th and early 19th-century British portraits, Herbert DuPuy’s 1927 gift of his collection of miniatures, and scattered examples of Old Masters donated or purchased, among them the wonderful The Toilet of Venus by Simon Vouet, which had belonged to Mary Cassatt and donated to the museum by her niece, and acquisition of single canvases by Benjamin West and Jacob Ochtervelt, the museum did not actively seek to collect works by Old Masters, especially paintings, in a substantive way.
To be fair, early on the museum did acquire Old Master works on paper (for example, Albrecht Dürer’s The Life of the Virgin woodcut series, a gift from Mr. Carnegie himself) and held exhibitions that included or, in some cases, were devoted entirely to Old Master works. But, in retrospect, it’s clear that Mr. Carnegie’s dictum about the focus of his art institution’s collecting had a long-lasting influence on the decisions of both museum staff and potential donors.
But let’s get back to the early 1960’s, when several factors precipitated a turning point, so that within a little more than a decade, the museum was able to add a number of important Old Master paintings to its collection. First, in 1961, Mrs. Sarah Mellon Scaife ramped up her already extraordinary generosity to the museum by gifting a pair of important Old Master paintings, purchased at the famous auction of the Erickson collection in New York City: St. Augustine with Members of the Confraternity of Perugia by Perugino and Pieter Cornelisz. van der Morsch by Franz Hals. She also, around the same time, donated to the museum from her personal collection an important British full-length portrait, The Honorable Mrs. Trevor (Viscountess Hampden) by George Romney. We’ll address the transformative contributions of Mrs. Scaife and family in detail in a later essay.
Shortly thereafter, the Pittsburgh collector Howard A. Noble bequeathed to the museum his entire collection of Old Master paintings, 27 in all, plus one Flemish tapestry. Added to the small number of such works already in the collection, the Noble bequest provided the museum with a critical mass of works in that area. But, perhaps even more important, was Mr. Noble’s bequest of a percentage of his residuary estate to the museum to buy more Old Master works. In 1965, when this residuary was distributed, it amounted to more than $800,000. This was a substantial sum, especially at the time, for new acquisitions of Old Master paintings. It allowed the museum to buy ten works, among them some of the highlights in this area of the collection.
Important benefactor to the Carnegie Museum of Art though he undoubtedly is, Mr. Noble remains sort of an enigma. The basic biographical facts are known and these are enriched with a few additional details. We know what he collected and, by inference, the artistic areas he favored. We also can surmise from some available correspondence that he carefully and methodically considered potential acquisitions. However, we have no direct information about his collecting persona from personal documents or recollections. That makes a rare interview given by Mrs. Noble in 1944 especially important and informative; her remarks on the subject are quoted later in this essay, after some basic biographical information.
Howard Agnew Noble was born in Pittsburgh in 1873, the son of Daniel Cram Noble and Elizabeth H. Noble. He received a bachelor degree in engineering from MIT in 1897, though records show that he also attended classes in mechanical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh at some point during 1896. Mr. Noble was a member of The American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He joined Pittsburgh Spring and Steel Co., which had been founded by his father in 1902, becoming Vice-President of the company by 1915 and eventually President until his retirement in 1945. He was also director of the Dollar Savings Bank, as his father had been.
Mr. Noble married Katherine Babcock (born ca. 1880) of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on December 7, 1910. They lived on Shady Avenue, as did his parents, and belonged to prominent clubs, such as the Duquesne Club. Beyond that, it appears that they led a rather quiet social life. Mrs. Noble was a violinist, who performed in a piano trio and as part of other musical ensembles in Pittsburgh area musicales in the 1920s and 1930s; she was also active in the Music and Art Committee at the Twentieth Century Club. The Nobles traveled widely in the United States and visited Europe regularly, often for extensive periods.
It appears that Mr. Noble did not start to collect seriously until his late forties (or even early fifties, if one newspaper account of his first Old Master acquisition is correct.) During their travels, the Nobles were avid museum and gallery visitors and many of the works in the collection were acquired during the couple’s trips to Europe. As collections go, it was formed in a relatively short period of time (about 20 years) and it remained essentially unchanged over many years. The Noble collection, in large part, was documented in the Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive in November 1939 and it was complete by April 1944, when all of the works in the bequest were shown publicly for the first time at Carnegie Institute’s Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of Howard A. Noble.
The collection included, among others, works by Simon Bening, Ambrosius Benson, workshop of Lucas Cranach the elder, Gaspard Dughet, Nicolas Maes, Jan Massys, Miguel Alcanyís, Giusto Suttermans (a portrait in a spectacular baroque carved frame), Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Adrien Ysenbrandt, and two paintings attributed to Rubens. Below is an excerpt from the foreword to the exhibition’s catalogue, written by Walter Read Hovey, at the time head of the Department of Fine Arts, University of Pittsburgh:
[The Nobles] have bought carefully, not because they felt they must round out a certain interest, but because they wanted to be sure that the work would satisfy through a long time. An important collection is always a great tribute to the collector. It takes more than money and time; it takes that quality which amid the distractions of the age seems ever more rare, discrimination. As the examples which they have collected represent phases of art not often seen in Pittsburgh, we are especially fortunate in having them on view at the Institute.
Virginia E. Lewis, Department of Fine Arts, University of Pittsburgh, elaborated on the personal aspect of the collection in the spring 1944 issue of Pitt, A Quarterly of the University of Pittsburgh:
Apparently from the beginning acquiring their things has been for the Nobles, a game, for the pleasure they derive from their exquisite possessions is evident. Their attitude is one of personal love which needs no justification in the eyes of the world by means of great or important names.
In an April 14, 1944 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on the occasion of this first public exhibition of the Noble collection, Mrs. Noble added some important insight into the Noble collecting process. According to the article, the couple studied art as enthusiastic amateurs, especially in European libraries and museums, particularly in The Hague, Amsterdam, Brussels, and London. It is clear that Mr. Noble was the dominant force behind the choices of the works in the collection, though Mrs. Noble is reported to have perhaps influenced the purchase of Jan Massys’ Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John the Baptist, her favorite in the collection. “Of course we always received expert advice before making any purchase” she is quoted as saying. “The Flemish paintings especially please my husband because their exquisite detail appeals to his engineer’s mind. Making our small collection has been an excellent hobby, furnishing a relaxation from business for my husband and giving us both a general objective in traveling.” In the same article, Mrs. Noble also provided this amusing anecdote about a work in the collection, Christina by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. The couple had seen it in the 1938 Tiepolo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, to which it had been lent by the London dealer Tomas Harris. “We saw her in the Chicago museum….And my husband decided that she looked so well in this country that he wanted to give her a home here.” Happily, the Nobles did give Christina a home in Pittsburgh, first in the dining room of their home and, since 1964, in various CMOA galleries.
Mr. Noble died on April 30, 1964 at the age of 90. Mrs. Noble had died a decade before that, in 1954; she had bequeathed the important furniture and decorative arts objects in their Shady Avenue home to the Carnegie Institute subject to life estate of Mr. Noble. Within days of his death, the objects of Mrs. Noble’s bequest together with the art collection were transferred to the museum. Though much of the furniture was later deaccessioned (with the proceeds used to acquire important objects), the Noble Old Master collection remains nearly intact, with 25 of the 27 paintings in the bequest still part of CMOA’s collection.
As mentioned above, the Noble monetary bequest allowed the museum to acquire a number of important works. Among them are such highlights as Jean Siméon Chardin’s Glass of Water and Coffeepot, Domenico Beccafumi’s The Miracle of St. Michael on Mt. Gargano and The Appearance of St. Michael on the Castel Sant’Angelo to Pope Gregory the Great, Francesco Francia’s Madonna and Child with Angel, Nicola di Maestro Antonio d’Ancona’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with SS. Leonard, Jerome, John the Baptist, and Francis, and Madonna and Child with Musical Angels by Master of the Legend of St. Lucy. All of these works, as well as many from the original Noble collection, are currently on view in various CMOA galleries, a fitting testament to a collector’s aesthetic and dedication to his hometown.