Belle da Costa Greene and Edward Curtis’s
The North American Indian

Clarence H. White (1871–1925), Portrait of Belle De Costa Greene, 1911. Waxed platinum print. Princeton University Art Museum. The Clarence H. White Collection.

J.P. Morgan may have funded Edward Curtis’s multi-decade ethnographic project, The North American Indian, but he might never have heard of Curtis or his dream have if Curtis hadn’t made it past Morgan’s librarian, archivist, first Director, and cultural gatekeeper, Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950.) Greene was a fascinating woman and her story continues to intrigue. Born Belle Greener into a prominent Black family in Washington, D.C., her father was the first Black Harvard graduate. Greene, who was light-skinned, changed her name, told everyone she was of “Portuguese stock, and hinted at royal blood.” (Egan, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, p. 110) She graduated from Princeton, acquired expertise in illuminated manuscripts, and charmed her way into Morgan’s orbit. Once there, Morgan rarely purchased a book, manuscript, or work of art without Greene’s approval. Greene was a celebrated beauty, and though she never married, she had a long relationship with Renaissance art scholar Bernard Berenson, perhaps the era’s most important art critic, advisor, and tastemaker.

Clarence H. White (1871-1925), Belle da Costa Greene, 1911. Platinum print Image. Princeton University Art Museum. The Clarence H. White Collection.

After Curtis’s initial meeting with Morgan, it was Greene who would correspond with Curtis, keeping tabs on the work and arranging for the funds that would keep him going. After J.P. Morgan’s death in 1913, Greene continued to work for his son—and to oversee Curtis’s endeavor. Before her death in 1950, she burned all her personal papers, taking her many secrets to the grave. Greene had an unerring eye for objects of superb cultural value and beauty, as is evident in the legacy that is perhaps as much hers as her employer’s: the Morgan Library and Museum—and, in a very real way, Edward Curtis’s The North American Indian. A just-published novel, The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, fictionalizes Greene’s incredible life story.