Diana Tittle Author of The Severances
Dudley P. Allen
Three years from now the Cleveland Museum of Art will mark the centennial of its incorporation. At their first meeting in December 1913, the new board of directors made a decision whose import endures to this day. The representatives of the museum’s founding trusts unanimously resolved to elect Dudley P. Allen as the first “outside” trustee.
A prominent surgeon, Allen had collected art since his student days at Oberlin College in the 1870s. His connoisseurship, wisdom, and energy were cited later as the reasons for his board selection, and he quickly involved himself in the development of the inaugural exhibition and collections for the 1916 building, whose construction was then under way. The role that Allen played in the cultivation of two individuals now counted among the museum’s greatest patrons—his wife, Elisabeth, and her brother, John L. Severance—has gone undocumented, I discovered in conducting research for my recently published biography, The Severances.
The heirs of Standard Oil Company of Ohio treasurer Louis H. Severance, John and Elisabeth did not feel called to advance the cause that had animated their father’s philanthropy: the conversion of the world to Christianity. A leading benefactor of the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions in the early 1900s, Severance had contributed millions (in today’s dollars) to help spread Presbyterianism. Higher education and world travel had taught his children to appreciate other cultures and religions as they were. In forging their own philanthropic identities John and Elisabeth took their lead from Dudley P. Allen, who had chosen to devote his retirement to enlarging the dominion of art in the lives of his fellow Clevelanders.
Allen believed that art museums had a greater role to play in society than merely serving as “cold-storage house[s] for sculptures and paintings,” as one of his eulogists put it. During his postgraduate medical studies in Europe, Allen had been impressed by the positive influence that the museums of Germany exerted on the level of craftsmanship and the quality of commercial design in that country. In the United States, the ascendancy of the machine age had contributed to the devaluation of items fabricated by hand. Allen, who was named to the museum’s accessions committee in July 1914, urged the museum’s first director, Frederic A. Whiting, to assemble a collection of “artistic implements and articles of common use” to serve as “models for the handicraftsmen of Cleveland.”
Whiting needed little encouragement along these lines. A former secretary of the Arts and Crafts Society of Boston, he had independently concluded that a general art museum serving an iron and steel manufacturing center should display inspirational examples of metalworking, and he planned to collect wrought-iron furnishings and cast-bronze sculpture. He also set out, quixotically, to acquire a collection of medieval arms and armor that would rival the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Whiting recognized that such an armamentarium would lure audiences with nominal interest in the visual arts into the museum.
By late fall 1914 the director had identified an important private armor collection that he hoped very soon to secure. Whiting shared with Allen his idea that the armor should be displayed in the high-ceilinged gallery that would be laid out to the east of the museum’s main rotunda. The large rectangular space had originally been intended for the display of plaster-cast reproductions of Renaissance and medieval sculpture, but these instructive materials could no longer be acquired from Europe because of the outbreak of World War I the previous June. The director now thought that the sandstone-walled gallery would be perfect for a court of armor. “The walls will be covered with important tapestries and the whole effect can be made very splendid,” Whiting wrote in mid-November to Allen, whom he considered his “stalwart ally in every effort to make the Cleveland Museum of Art a popular institution.”
Then a resident at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City, Allen hosted but did not attend a dinner held several days later in Cleveland for the museum’s board and new advisory council. The members of the latter body included John L. Severance, who had recently begun to collect old master paintings.The museum hoped to secure underwriting for its inaugural exhibition from the prominent businessmen Allen had assembled at the Union Club downtown, and the evening indeed produced the first subscription—from Severance, who stepped forward (probably in accordance with a prearranged plan) to pledge $5,000. Meeting again two weeks later, the trustees and the advisory council reached a formal consensus that the museum should mount the most important inaugural exhibition possible. The gentlemen backed up their ambitious resolution with subscriptions and donations of art.
Meanwhile, Allen had been mulling over Whiting’s idea for an armor court. As he and Elisabeth made the rounds of the New York art and antique dealers, looking for old master paintings and period furnishings for their new home in Cleveland Heights, they asked to be shown tapestries. “I . . . think it possible to secure something highly desirable along this line,” Allen reported back to Whiting at the end of November. At W. French and Company on Madison Avenue the Allens had come across a set of 17th-century Flemish weavings of captivating beauty. Over the next several weeks they returned to the dealer’s art gallery several times to study the eight monumental weavings illustrating the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas from The Aeneid, the epic Roman poem by Virgil. The tapestries had hung in the Barberini Palazzo in Rome since their commissioning by Barberini family member Pope Urban VIII.
Allen’s unexpected death in early January 1915 seemed to spell the end of this initiative. Then, in early May, the museum’s board president received a letter from Elisabeth Allen on stationery edged in black. “Immediately upon the Doctor’s going, the thought came to me that I should like to do something in his memory which would symbolize some of the great desires which he had for the Museum,” Elisabeth explained. She had consequently made an offer for the Barberini tapestries and now wished to donate them to the Cleveland museum, provided that the gift was acceptable to the accessions committee.
That summer Frederic Whiting enlisted Elisabeth’s help in identifying potential underwriters of the desired armor purchase. Probably with her encouragement, Whiting approached John L. Severance, who had been elected in June to fill the seat on the museum’s board left vacant by Allen’s death. Severance (who would go on to serve as board president from 1926 to his death in 1936) understood the responsibilities inherent in his acceptance of the prestigious position. Furthermore, Whiting’s desire to introduce Cleveland audiences to ironwork exemplifying the “high-water mark in the fabrication and decoration of this difficult material” touched a responsive chord in John, who liked the idea of spreading appreciation of the incomparable craftsmanship of the High Middle Ages that he himself had gained during a Grand Tour of Europe. Feelings for his sister and his late brother-in-law also came into play. Severance agreed to underwrite an armor collection for the museum. The story of the dramatic next phases in the genesis of the museum’s beloved Armor Court has been well told by CMA’s curator of medieval art, Stephen N. Fliegel, in his 1999 book, Arms and Armor (revised in 2008).
Their commitment to the museum’s advancement now cemented, the childless John and Elisabeth had each decided by the early 1920s to leave their esteemed art collections to the museum. Thereafter, the siblings sought to acquire works that would fill gaps in the CMA’s holdings. The transfer of this corpus of important European paintings, sculpture, furniture, and decorative arts from the 14th through the 19th centuries to the museum’s stewardship, completed by the mid-1940s, helped to secure the national standing of the late-blooming regional institution. Just the gifts of the paintings alone would be the envy of any general art museum in the world.1
Allen’s bequest of $100,000 to endow an art acquisition fund set another example for the Severances. Elisabeth, who died in 1944, left endowment monies to support the museum’s operation, while John emulated his late brother-in-law in endowing a purchase fund that has since helped to underwrite the acquisition of more than 3,000 objects. Recently the museum began tapping into income from the John L. Severance Purchase Fund for an unanticipated but critical purpose. Up to $75 million of the revenues generated by the Severance Fund and three other sources of art-acquisition monies can be applied (the Cuyahoga County Probate Court has determined) toward completion of the museum’s $350 million expansion and renovation project. The legacy of the Severance-Allen clan, whose personal history is inextricably linked with the rise of Cleveland, now includes significant contributions to the city’s renewal and reinvention.
1 Included were Renaissance paintings by Fra Angelico, Andrea del Sarto, Pintoricchio, and Hans Mielich; 17th-century Dutch landscapes by Meindert Hobbema and Aelbert Cuyp; two Rembrandt portraits; a portrait by Dutch baroque painter Gerard ter Borch, a contemporary (and, some art critics believe, the equal) of Vermeer, that may be the most significant of Elisabeth’s former holdings; 18th-century English portraits by Thomas Gainsborough, Gainsborough Dupont, Joshua Reynolds, and Thomas Lawrence; a French romantic painting by Watteau contemporary Nicolas Lancret, a 19th-century French landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and an early 20th-century Barbizon landscape painting by Henri-Joseph Harpignies; and John’s greatest acquisition, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834, by J. M. W. Turner.
Cleveland Art, November/December 2010