Morgan’s philanthropy seemed to know no bounds, and a complete listing of his charity would require volumes. One can learn much about the man, however, from a careful study of five of his favorite philanthropic causes.
While most of history tells the story of Morgan’s financial acumen, it often leaves out the other aspects of his character and interests. Sent abroad to study as a young man, Morgan was educated in Switzerland and Germany as well as the United States. He was fluent in multiple languages and an avid student of literature and the arts. During a tour of Rome at the age of 19, he began collecting art. His life took him around the world, and his travels added to his growing collection.
His love for the arts propelled him to act as a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1888-1904) and later as its president (1904-1913). By the early 1900s, his voracious collecting habits had allowed him to accumulate thousands of works of art. To this day, Morgan is considered one of the top two or three art collectors in American history. Many of his pieces were donated to the fledgling museum, and under his leadership, the museum instituted a robust acquisition program.
One need only walk the halls of the Met to see evidence of Morgan’s love for the institution. His name adorns many of the museum’s greatest treasures—thanks to both his generosity and his eye for art. He is credited with bringing Chinese porcelains, Merovingian and Germanic antiquities, medieval tapestries, and more to the museum, providing Americans with the opportunity to see treasures from around the world.
After Morgan’s death, his son allowed an exhibition of his personal art collection to be shown at the Met, and he ultimately donated more than 7,000 pieces from his father’s collection to the museum. This impressive assortment of works included Ottoman tile panels, enameled glass, and carpets.
Morgan served on the board of trustees for the American Museum of Natural History for over 40 years. His tenure lasted from the museum’s inception in 1869 to his death, providing another insight into his eclectic interests. He served in various positions on the board, including treasurer, vice-president, and finance committee chairman, demonstrating his fondness for its work. When the museum had the opportunity to purchase a collection of gems and precious stones during an exhibition in Paris, it was Morgan who provided the $15,000 in necessary funds to do so. This unique collection became known as the Tiffany-Morgan Collection, after Morgan and the small firm, Tiffany and Company, they purchased it from.
Through the course of Morgan’s work with the American Museum of Natural History, he was also one of its primary donors. In addition to gems, his donations included prehistoric South American relics, fossil vertebrates, and a mummy.
A religious man, Morgan was an active member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, where he attended services faithfully. However, he was also active in the workings of the greater Episcopal Church. As part of his work with the larger church, he was appointed to serve on a committee to revise the Book of Common Prayer, which he reportedly had memorized. His generosity paid the salaries of dozens of clergymen throughout Manhattan, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan was built, in large part, with his donations.
His philanthropy included more than financial donations, however. Morgan would spend three weeks every third year discussing matters of faith and theology with Episcopalian bishops. During the years that Morgan spent as senior warden of St. George’s, local congregants referred to the church as “Morgan’s Church,” a testimony to his far-reaching influence.
In addition, Morgan helped bring in church leadership that worked to improve the neighborhood surrounding St. George’s by instituting urban ministries with an emphasis on social services for the poor.
A lover of culture, Morgan was a patron of the Metropolitan Opera during the 1880s. By that time, a growing community of opera enthusiasts had stretched the number of box seats to capacity, creating the need to relocate to a larger facility. The group spearheading the plan for a new building included J.P. Morgan, as well as members of the prominent Vanderbilt and Roosevelt families.
After the Opera’s reopening in 1883, Morgan continued to serve as an influential patron, donating to fulfill various needs and helping to bring new and innovative shows to audiences. His influence is recorded in an anecdote that notes Morgan’s displeasure at what was considered a scandalous performance. Due to his displeasure, the remaining shows were cancelled.
During the latter years of the 1800s, a group of American artists joined together with the intention of forming an academy for the arts. This institution began in Rome as a place for American artists to study their craft and hone their skills. After several reorganizations, the American Academy in Rome applied to Congress for approval as a “national institution.” With this stamp of legitimacy, the academy began an endowment with gifts of $100,000 from some of America’s wealthiest citizens, including J.P. Morgan. His contributions to the American Academy in Rome also included financing for the construction of the main building and the purchase of adjacent properties for the academy’s use. It was fitting that he helped to establish a place for artists to learn and study in the same place his own love of the arts was born.
At Morgan’s death in 1913, the value of his estate was reportedly $80 million, which would total approximately $1.7 billion today. Fellow business magnate John D. Rockefeller, alluding to the far greater wealth Morgan’s businesses had generated, remarked, “He wasn’t even a wealthy man!” Perhaps as astonishing as the “paltry” sum of money left in Morgan’s estate is the amount of money that he gave away, demonstrating that his priorities included more than amassing wealth.
Morgan was of the firm belief that there was a balance between finance and philanthropy. He could be both shrewd and generous, as shown in the legacy he left. His name adorns the sides of banking institutions and art museums alike, leaving generations to marvel at both the wealth he acquired and his largesse in giving much of it away.