Bottles Belle Greene:
by Bonnie Jean Garner
"There are many people who may have contemplated the treasures of the Morgan Library without ever meeting personally its erstwhile director, Belle da Costa Greene. But no one there could have been unaware of her taste, her intelligence, her dynamism. For it was Miss Greene who transformed a rich man's casually built collection into one that ranks with the greatest in the world."
Aline B. Louchheim
"Duchamp was apparently paid by the Morgan Library through Belle Greene, and this somewhat unusual arrangement took care of his financial needs for the next two years."
The sound of Belle Greene's name brings to mind a recent unpublished fact about Duchamp's Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette (1921), an assisted readymade using a Rigaud perfume bottle with an altered label. The label features a Man Ray photograph of Duchamp dressed as a woman. It reads "Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette" [Beautiful Breath, Veil Water], and Duchamp signed the accompanying perfume box "Rrose Sélavy."(See Illustration 1)Recently, Rhonda Roland Shearer discovered that Duchamp altered the perfume bottle, (1) by changing the bottle's original peach color to green — and it is important to note that peach was the only color ever used for Un Air Embaumé, the particular Rigaud perfume that Duchamp appropriated. (See Illustrations 2A of the standard Rigaud bottle color with box. In illustration 2B, the tint has been washed off a Rigaud bottle with water, leaving clear glass.
Shearer notes, "By looking carefully at Duchamp's green bottle, one will see peach color remaining in the cracks at the bottle's bottom.") Furthermore, Shearer noticed that Duchamp depicted the color of his green bottle as red in New York Dada (1921) and that the bottle later appears in the original peach color in The Box in a Valise (1941). (See Illustrations 3A, B, and C)
Duchamp changed the color of the perfume bottle, a fact that no one noticed even after it was first exhibited in 1965. (2) In addition, any degree of underlying meaning or ironic suggestion intended by passing a common readymade peach-colored bottle for green likewise remained unknown. What new relationships could emerge when considering this new information of Duchamp's green colored bottle actually having a peach past?
While reading a short passage about Belle da Costa Greene and Duchamp, I began combining this new information with Duchamp's propensity to play with sounds and meaning. (3) The action of dying the bottle and the resulting color was, for me, a path to Belle Greene: Bottle Dye Color Green, Belle Da Costa Greene. My curiosity was piqued. I wondered if Belle da Costa Greene was Duchamp's inspiration for the mysterious artwork Belle Haleine.
First, who was Belle da Costa Greene? (see Illustration 6) Belle Greene became J.P. Morgan's librarian in 1905, and following his death she became the director of his library, working there for a total of forty-three years. Empowered by J.P. Morgan, and then by his son Jack, Greene spent millions of dollars buying and selling rare manuscripts, books and art.
One piece of information draws an amazing parallel between Belle Greene and the color change of Duchamp's Belle Haleine bottle. Belle Greene was a black woman who denied her color to pass herself as white. (8) Evidence indicates that whispers and rumors about her passing circulated around her throughout her life. People like Isabella Gardner, society patron of the arts with close ties to Harvard and a peer of Morgan's, wrote that Belle Greene was a "half-breed" in a private letter (1909) to Bernard Berenson and his wife, Mary, saying, "But first you must both swear secrecy. If not, please do not read anymore of this." (9)
Bernard Berenson, a Harvard-trained art historian, also Belle Greene's lover and later a friend for many years, reportedly said to his next paramour that Greene was "handicapped only by her part-Negro inheritance." (10) (As so often happens, sworn secrecy is no match for the seduction of perpetuating rumor.) Cleve Gray, translator for Duchamp's mathematical notes and close friend of Duchamp's brother Villon, reports that when he was a student at Princeton he visited the Morgan Library, met Belle Greene, and was aware of the rumors. (11) (Cleve Gray, being a Princeton man, was an exception, as everyone in Belle Greene's circle seemed to be Harvard men, including Morgan himself.) Apparently, these rumors persisted even after Greene's death. Jean Strouse's richly-detailed, well-researched biography of Morgan is the first published account of Belle Greene that throughly investigates her background. These rumors eventually served as successful guides for Ms. Strouse's research. (12)
In order to pass, Greene and her mother decided to change their name. (Actually, you could say that they altered their label.) They added "da Costa," claiming to be part-Portuguese to account for their dusky appearance, a common strategy used for passing. True to the rumors, not only were they black passing for white, but Belle Greene's father was the distinguished lawyer and public figure, Richard Theodore Greener, the first black undergraduate to receive a degree from Harvard. (13) (See Illustration 7) Jean Strouse writes that in an issue of the Harvard alumni news, Greener and his daughter, Belle Marion, are both mentioned. Obviously, being the first black graduate of Harvard would draw a lot of attention, especially since he worked in politics and wrote on controversial issues such as Irish rights. After he retired and settled in Chicago in 1908, he continued to write on these topics and was a member of the Harvard Club. (The Harvard connection for Duchamp began with Walter Arensberg, a Harvard graduate who was Duchamp's host when he first arrived in New York in 1915. Arensburg immediately included Duchamp in a group of Harvard alumni chess players and soon became his great patron.) (14)
In order to further distance themselves from the famous African American Richard Greener, Belle and her mother dropped the ‘r' from their last name. (15) When passing for a woman, Duchamp absurdly adds an ‘r' to become Rrose Sélavy, whereas for Belle Greener, to pass as a white, she drops the ‘r' from Greener. Is there a connection?
In 1921, Duchamp chose to change the spelling of Rose Sélavy to Rrose Sélavy, resulting in our attention being drawn not only to the added ‘r' but also to the act and idea of an absurd change in spelling itself. (16) Fundamentally, the choice of adding or subtracting the ‘r' of her last name was the critical move that determined whether or not Greene lived in a white (Belle Greene) or a black (Belle Greener) world.
Looking at the full title of this work, Belle Haleine: Eau de Voilette, more connections emerge. If we combine literal translations and the sound of the title, we get Eau de Voilette, which means "veiled waters." "Da Costa" also means "the coast" (along the water). In effect, Belle used da Costa, the coast along the water, to veil, mask or conceal her identity. Belle Haleine also sounds like Belle Hélène, the classic French dessert whose basic ingredient is a chocolate-covered pear. (18) (See Illustration 8) A chocolate-covered, shapely pear reflects an image of "the beautiful slim-waisted sensual figure" (19) of Belle Greene. To our list of analogies and reversals, we can add a peeled, white pear (previously green-skinned) passing as chocolate. Belle Hélène, the dessert, works now in reverse, a white (pear) passing for black (chocolate), or if you prefer, a pair (Belle Greene and a pear) both dipped in chocolate.As previously mentioned, we see an image of Duchamp dressed as Rrose Sélavy on the label of the perfume bottle. The box for the perfume carries her signature. The difference between the Belle Haleine version of Rrose Sélavy and later ones is striking (for comparison, see the Man Ray photographs previously illustrated). Rrose Sélavy (on Belle Haleine) wears what looks like pearls, a fancy hat, a grand collar on her dress, lots of make-up and a haunting, stern look. Pearls, in 1921, were a very expensive status symbol. Beautiful pearls were five to ten times more expensive than they are today. The pearls, the hat, the look of this
The Rrose in Belle Haleine certainly seems to approximate the style and look of Belle Greene. The report of her stating, "just because I am a librarian doesn't mean I have to dress like one," (21) did not prepare me for the descriptions of Greene at work. One scholar writes, "glamorous and heavily-perfumed, and dressed in Renaissance gowns adorned with matching jewels." (22) Another writer states, "she always carried a large green silk handkerchief that she used for dramatic effect." (23) Apparently Greene liked pearls, too. The author of The Book of the Pearl (1908) inscribed a copy to Belle Greene. (See Illustration 9) (24) More importantly, she was photographed wearing her long pearl necklace. (25)
She obviously dressed to accentuate her power, glamour and access to wealth through her femininity. At other times it is reported that Belle dressed to express her power and access to wealth in a surprisingly opposite masculine style. "She would stride about in a tweed suit, throwing colorful remarks offhand over her shoulder. Or, with her jacket removed she would stand belligerently while she talked with you…" (26) (Imagine what ‘standing belligerently' might look like and consider the severe facial expression of Rrose on the label of Belle Haleine.)(See Illustrations 10 and 11)
There is some uncertainty over which art object Duchamp first signed with the double ‘r' (Rrose). It may have been on the perfume bottle box or on a painting Picabia invited many artists to sign, L'oeil cacodylate (1921), a Dada collaboration. However, scholars agree that the Rrose Sélavy with the extra ‘r' was first published in Le Pilhaou-Thibaou (July 10th, 1921), the illustrated supplement of Francis Picabia's Dada magazine 391. (See Illustration 12, Duchamp's pun as it appeared in Le Pilhaou-Thibaou) Rrose's signature appeared under a pun that Duchamp had originally sent to Picabia from New York, in an undated letter of January, 1921.(27)
Si vous voulez une règle de grammaire: le verbe s'accorde avec le sujet consonnament: Par exemple: le nègre aigrit, les négresses s'aigrissent ou maigrissent. (28)
["If you want a rule of grammar: The verb agrees with the subject consonantly: For Example: the Negro embitters, the Negresses become embittered and thin."]
Significantly, we can interpret this pun as describing Belle Greene's and her mother's relationship to Richard Greener. The black man (Greener) has caused the black women (Belle and her mother, the former Mrs. Greener) to become hostile (bitter) and their name without the ‘r' (thinner). See Stephen Jay Gould's informative discussion about the relationship of this pun to Belle Greene in the text box below.
The Un Air Embaumé Rigaud label text and box reminded Shearer of Duchamp's emphasis on the death and mausoleum storage of art in museums, with its coffin-like box shape and the alternative reading of Embaumé as "embalmed." (See illustration 14 the Rigaud box coffin-like appearance) Shearer offers that perhaps Duchamp wanted to preserve (as Egyptions use perfumes to embalm) Belle Greene's lie for posterity. (29)
Gould writes more on Un Air Embaumé Rigaud punning. See text box below.
In addition, Duchamp would know Belle Greene to be caustic and hostile ("bitter" as in the pun) from both her reputation and from direct experience. Duchamp worked for Greene, although not for long. Her reputation then was for being mercurial in temper, demanding and, at times, ruthless. One man, who worked as an assistant director at the Morgan Library under Greene, said, "She (Belle) was a real tartar. You'd have to work under her to know it." (30)
Before Duchamp sailed for America in 1915, on April 2, he wrote to his friend, Walter Pach, "I would willingly live in New York. But only on the condition that I could earn my living there. 1st. Do you think that I could easily find a job as a librarian or something analogous that would leave me great freedom to work (Some information about me: I do not speak English [...] I worked for two years at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève as an intern)" (31)
After receiving this letter, Pach arranged for his father to provide a letter of introduction to Belle Greene so that Pach could see if Greene knew of any work for Duchamp. During the spring, she reported to Pach that she was unable to find any work anywhere for Duchamp. After Duchamp arrived, in the summer of 1915, Pach brought Duchamp to the French Institute. (Illustration 14 and 15 depicting the ship Duchamp sailed on and Duchamp's appearence in 1915)Duchamp made friends with one of the workers who told Duchamp that they thought a position might open up and that Belle Greene would be in charge. Pach had just written to Quinn (another member of the Harvard (Law) circle) to ask his advice about his (Pach) approaching Greene again, or to see if it would be better if Quinn contact her himself. Duchamp next told Pach about the news that he had just learned about a possible job opening at the French Institute. The next day, Pach wrote to Quinn with the new information and made a direct request for Quinn to appeal to Greene on behalf of Duchamp.
Quinn then wrote to Greene, who agreed to meet with Duchamp at the Morgan Library. After the first meeting, Duchamp wrote Quinn that his hopes were surpassed as Greene said she would ask the president of the French Institute for part-time work at $100 per month (the equivalent today of about $1,600). The night of their first meeting, Greene wrote to Duchamp, who later shared this letter with Quinn and was in a happy mood. The following week Greene introduced Duchamp to Hawkes, president of the French Institute. All seemed to go well. Duchamp met with Greene the next day and together they went to the French Institute where she gave him provisional work. He was told that the position was temporary, pending the decision of a committee that was scheduled to meet in one month. Duchamp started work on the 14th of November, 1915. On the 18th Hawkes wrote to Greene. On the 26th Greene wrote a short, two-paragraph letter to Hawkes with an apology for her delay in answering him. Both paragraphs are about Duchamp, stating that he was not progressing as fast or as well as she hoped or desired and she very much feared that he would not suit their purpose. She ended the letter indicating that on the following day she would definitely determine whether or not to keep Duchamp. She concluded with a statement to the effect that she would bear the expense of the ‘try-out' with Duchamp. (32)
Six weeks later, on January 12, 1916, Duchamp was let go by Greene. She paid him $60 for each month (not the hoped-for $100). Duchamp wrote to Quinn that Greene would write to him, as she instructed him to wait until he hears from her. After two weeks passed, Duchamp wrote Quinn to say that he had "not yet heard from Belle Greene." (33) Greene had apparently handed Duchamp a "don't call us, we'll call you" firing and good-bye message.
Given the tone of Greene's letter to Hawkes, it is probable that she and possibly Hawkes had the power to make the decision to hire or fire Duchamp, and it is likely that there never was a committee's decision to wait upon, a fact that could be established by Duchamp's contacts at the French Institute. Greene was known for her outspoken behavior and her indiscretion. Resulting rumors could only have embarrassed Duchamp further.
It is more than likely that Greene was aware of the fame around this young artist. Before beginning his work for her, Duchamp had appeared in five newspaper interviews. Since he had experienced notoriety in New York, he likely would have found Greene's ill treatment beneath his status. After all, even his arrival in 1915 attracted the press -- they were waiting for him at the dock! Young, handsome and charming, Duchamp clearly rode the wave of being the French artist of the Armory Show fame, but even so, Greene would have recognized, and been sensitive to, his lack of financial or academic substance. (34) (See Illustration 16 of a nattily attired Duchamp in the country sometime during 1917) Greene, in her early 30s, was a liberated, independent, intelligent and beautiful woman with a focus and discrimination tuned to success. Although their art interests ran in different circles, there was overlap. Greene was a friend of Alfred Stieglitz and was invited to contribute an article to his famed magazine. (35) (See text box "What does 291 mean to me?" by Belle da Costa Greene, Camera Works, January 1915).
Like Greene, Duchamp courted and was courted by the wealthy and powerful in art circles. So, each had his/her own sense of entitlement and perhaps confronting it in the other may have proved too much for both of them, or at least for Duchamp. If their personalities clashed, her criticism of his work at the Institute would be beside the point. However, what we do know is directly from letters by Greene, Quinn, Pach, and Duchamp. The bottom line resulting from the circumstances of Duchamp's employment, strange as they may be (for example, why was Duchamp paid for his ‘trying-out period' by Greene and not the French Institute? Moreover, why was Greene firing him at the Institute? How did she know, as soon as Duchamp began, that he would not ‘suit our purpose'? And why didn't she want him there?), is that Duchamp was canned by Belle Greene. Perhaps my case now reveals that Duchamp, though he used restraint by not exhibiting the Belle Haleine bottle while Belle Greene was alive, had his private revenge for Belle da Costa Greene through his Belle bottle dyed green. (See Illustration 17)
1. In November 1999, Shearer privately informed me of her unpublished discovery. See Rhonda Roland Shearer's "Marcel Duchamp's Impossible Bed," part I and Part II for her general arguments about how the readymades are not readymade as Duchamp presents them or as scholars have believed. A letter that Duchamp wrote to his good friend and New York socialite Ettie Stettheimer, August 10, 1922, suggests that, on more than one occasion, he used green dye and hinted at Belle Green being connected to his Belle Haleine dye job. Duchamp writes: "a marvelous, raincoat-like, dark bottle green" . . . "I am waiting with impatience that you come to NY to show off Rrose Selavy in bottle green." (From Ephemerides On or About Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy 1887-1968 by Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.)
2. Duchamp waited to exhibit the green bottle of Belle Haleine until the 1965 exhibition, Not seen &/or Less Seen of/by Marcel Duchamp/Rrose Sélavy 1904-1964 at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, New York (January 14-Febuary 13, 1965). Before 1965, only the New York Dada (1921) image of Belle Haleine in red, the Boîte-en-Valise version (1941) in peach, and the Man Ray photograph of the label were exhibited.
3. Tomkins, Calvin. Duchamp, A Biography. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 154-155.
4. In his Marcel Duchamp: The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Ghent, Amsterdam: Ludion Press, 1999), Francis M. Naumann questions the time of the work's signature (p. 94, note 49). In an e-mail to Thomas Girst of 2 April 2000 Naumann writes that he is now inclined to accept Duchamp's stated version of when the work was signed. Arturo Schwarz reports in a fax to Rhonda Roland Shearer (4 April 2000) that Duchamp told him that he signed the label on the box of Belle Haleine after 1945.
5. Casfield, Cass. The Incredible Pierpont Morgan, Financier & Art Collector. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 152. Although this statement is published, this may be part of the myth surrounding Belle Greene. In a conversation with Jean Strouse, she said she found nothing in her research to support this statement. In keeping with both Greene's ability to develop and live with a myth (and her sense of humor), I suspect that if this "horse story" is not true, Greene might have enjoyed perpetuating or possibly originating such a prestige-evoking story of wealth.
6. Chernow, Ron. The House of Morgan. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990),117.
7. Samuels, Earnest. Bernard Berenson, The Making of a Legend. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 286.
8. Strouse, Jean. Morgan, American Financier. (New York: Random House, 1999). This book contains a detailed and fascinating account of Belle Greene.
9. Letter dated December 18, 1909. Strachey, Barbara and Jayne Samuels, eds. The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1887-1924. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 462.
10. Secrest, Meryle. Being Bernard Berenson, A Biography. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 249.
As per private conversation, January, 2000, Ms. Shearer relayed to
me what Cleve Grey told her in a personal conversation.
12. Strouse, Jean "The Unknown JP Morgan" in The New Yorker (March 29, 1999).
Strouse, Jean. Morgan, American Financier, 512.
14. It is interesting to note that Duchamp was a frequent guest of the Stettheimer sisters. (It is to Floriene Stettheimer that Duchamp wrote his hint of ‘Rrose in bottle green' mentioned in note 1) along with Carl Van Vechten, and his wife, actress Fania Marinoff. The Van Vechten's promoted black performers and writers and knew the obstacles prejudice placed before them. (In fact, he was friend as well a literary sponsors of Nella Larsen and she dedicated her acclaimed novel Passing to the Van Vechtens.) Emily Farnham. Charles Demuth, Behind a Laughing Mask University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, Oklahoma. 1971.
15. Strouse, Jean. Morgan, American Financier, 512.
16. To explain the why, where and when of the added ‘r', Duchamp offers us the same explanation in Dialogues with Duchamp (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), an interview by Pierre Cabanne, that he states in another interview with Katherine Kuh in 1949 (Katharine Kuh. The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists. New York: Harper & Row, 1962). In essence, Duchamp explains that when he was about to sign Picabia's L'Oeil Cacadylate (1921) he was inspired by the double ‘r' in the word arrose. In addition, he said to Katharine Kuh that he, "thought it clever to begin a word, a name with two ‘r's like two ‘ll's in Lloyd." To Cabanne, Duchamp ends the same story with, "All of this was word play."
I include Berenson in this list for a few reasons. Berenson would
hold a place of special interest for Duchamp. It was through connections
provided by Berenson that Duchamp's brother, Jacques Villon got caught
making forged Constables (and narrowly escaped big trouble). From
1899 to 1902, Villon was known as a "speed Constable painter." He
apparently provided forgeries for a friend, an art dealer and a man
named Van Kopp. (See Simpson, Colon. Artful Partners. New York:
Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986.) Art authenticator and art historian
Bernard Berenson would likely have remained a dubious character for
Duchamp due to his connection to Van Kopp and his brother. (More on
this subject by me in a forthcoming article.)
18. Esscoffier, A. The Escoffier Cook Book. English translation by Guide Culinaire. Originally published in 1903. New York: Crown Publishers, 1973.
19. Secrest, Meryle. Being Bernard Berenson, A Biography. (New York: Random House, 1979), 290.
20. Schwarz, Arturo. The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, Volume Two. (New York: Delano Greenidge, 1997), 693.
21. Strouse, Jean. Morgan, American Financier, 510.
22. Casfield, Cass. The Incredible Pierpont Morgan, Financier & Art Collector, 152.
23. Secrest, Meryle. Being Bernard Berenson, 290.
24. Kunz, George Frederick & Charles Hugh Stevenson. The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems. New York: Century,1908.
25. A beautiful picture of Belle Greene with her pearls is featured in Jean Strouse's article "The Unknown JP Morgan."
26. Auchincloss, Louis. J.P. Morgan. The Financier as Collector. (New York: Harry H. Arbam,1990), 19.
27. Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont, "Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy," (July 10, 1921,) in: Pontus Hulten (ed.), Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life, Cambridge: MIT, 1993.
28. in: Le Philaou-Thibaou: Supplément Illustré de 391 (July 1921), n.p.
29. It is interesting to note that Greene uses the phrase "the Metropolitan Museum is but a morgue" – a remark similar in nature to Duchamp's philosophy – in a statement for Stieglitz' Camera Works, January 1915.
30. Secrest, Meryle. Being Bernard Berenson, 291.
31. Naumann, Francis M. "amicalement, Marcel: Fourteen Letters from Marcel Duchamp to Walter Pach," in: Archives of American Art Journal (vol. 29, no. 3-4, 1989, pp.36-50) p. 39.
32. From the Pierpont Morgan Library Archives.
33. New York Public Library, Manuscript and Archives Division: Quinn Letters. All dates and information are from letters in this archive. (Other sources for the Greene letter and Duchamp's letter to Pach have been previously cited.)
34. Senda reported to her brother Berenson that Belle said her that she did not wish to marry but if she did it would be for "money—much money." (Bernard Berenson, The Making of a Legend, Ernest Samuels. page 119.) Apparently, Berenson was not rich enough for Belle Greene.
35. Strouse, Jean. Morgan, American Financier. (New York: Random House, 1999)