Tuesday, October 18, 2011

PS 42: Just Who Was Benjamn Altman?

Altman Funeral
Benjamin Altman (1840–1913) was born and died in New York City. He was the second of three children. His parents, Phillip and Cecilia, were Jewish immigrants from Bavaria who came to America around 1835, and settled on the Lower East Sideof Manhattan in a flat on Attorney Street where Benjamin was born. His father had established a modest dry goods store which provided Benjamin with his earliest experiences in shopkeeping and trade. After a day's lessons at a nearby public school, Benjamin's attention tumed to the work of tending the counter, serving the customers and doing whatever chores needed to be done in the family store. He found this kind of work fascinating. By the time he was 12 years old, Benjamin's formal education had come to an end. In a pattern familiar to youth of that time, the boy withdrew from school to work full time in the family enterprise; he was no longer a child. In 1865, Altman founded B. Altman & Co. opening a store on Third Avenue and 10th Street in NYC. In 1906, he moved the business to Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. Benjamin Altman died without heirs. Shortly before the death, he founded the Altman Foundation. Until 1985, it owned B. Altman & Co., which latter closed the last store in 1990. Benjamin Altman was an avid collector of Rembrandt paintings and china, much of which he acquired through art dealer Joseph Duveen. Upon his death, he donated the collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is a portrait of Altman in the New York State Museum in Albany; it was painted by the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) and donated to the New York Chamber of Commerce by Michael Friedsam. Müller-Ury knew Altman personally as a client of art dealer Henry Duveen. He was compelled to paint from a photograph after Altman's death. He first completed a 50 x 40 inches portrait of Altman seated in his gallery with a Rembrandt behind him and a Chinese vase on a table beside him, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for whom this had been painted, chose a far weaker portrait of Altman by Ellen Emmet Rand also made from a photograph, and Müller-Ury's larger work went to the Foundation offices; it has since disappeared.

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