Sebastian Smee was the first on the scene to re-discover Murdock Pemberton, the New Yorker’s first art critic and a man who was never meant to be a member of the cultural vanguard. Smee was approached by Sally Pemberton, Murdock’s granddaughter, who discovered his “archives” in her mother’s attic and set about creating a lavishly illustrated “scrap book.”
The massive tome, Portrait of Murdock Pemberton is now available but perhaps some background is necessary. Here’s Smee on the unlikely conversion of Pemberton to cultural crusader:
Pemberton was a master of breeziness, and he wrote for the magazine’s general – and generally affluent – readership with a good deal of drollery and cultivated ingenuousness. But somewhere along the line, Pemberton had caught the modern art bug. And over the years he became a passionate crusader for modern art, both European and American.
This must have taken a good deal more courage than his casually offhand columns suggest. It’s easy to see, in retrospect, that the country was on the cusp of a great change in its attitudes toward modern art. But for a courageous pioneer of modern art like Alfred Stieglitz, for dealers like Valentine Dudensing and Erhard Weyhe, for critics like Henry McBride and Pemberton, and above all for America’s first wave of modern artists, all this was a question of faith.
Pemberton was also a great puncturer of pretension, goading the Metropolitan Museum and harassing Lord Duveen, Andrew Mellon and the plans for Washington’s National Gallery of Art. We’ll have more on Pemberton and the National Gallery’s other great benefactor, Chester Dale, in later posts.
Through the Eyes of Murdock Pemberton (Boston Globe)