Wall Street wizard Jay Gould reigned supreme in a post-Civil War business world dominated by the laissez-faire rules of Social Darwinism. His acumen and ruthlessness ruined several partners (one even committed suicide) and earned him the corporate-wrecking title of Mephistopheles. Though other "robber barons" were richer and more successful, critics singled him out as the example of what had gone awry with business in America.
The National Portrait Gallery's exhibit, "Jay Gould: Mephistopheles of Wall Street," tells the story of his rise from humble origins to wheeler-dealer extraordinarie.
The show focuses primarily on the roguess and reformers in the financial world whose paths crossed with Gould. Included are sober and dignified portraits of Gould, his first partner (and some say victim) Charles Leupp, William Henry Vanderbilt and his father, the wily Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. After unsuccessfully locking horns with Gould for control of the Erie Railroad, it was the senior Vanderbilt who warned fellow financiers that "it never pays to kick a skunk."
There is also a painting of the aristocratic railroad reformer, Charles Francis Adams (who called Gould a five-foot-tall megalomaniac). Backed by government support, Adams took control of Gould's Union Pacific Railroad only to find he couldn't rescue it from the huge floating debt his nemesis had created. Adams gave up after seven frustrating years and Gould once again took over.
"He is an infernal scoundrel, a moral monstrosity," Adams wrote bitterly. "But he is astonishingly quick. But again so was Napoleon."
Adams wasn't alone. Judging from the 14 scathing editorial cartoons on display - by Nast, Keppler, Opper and Graetz, Currier and Ives - Gould was constantly under attack. The cartoons produced today look tame by comparison.
Gould's reputation as a financial devil was confirmed after the 1869 crash known as Black Friday. Aided by his gregarious partner "Jubilee Jim" Fisk, Gould drove the price of gold to an all-time high. With advance knowledge of President Grant's intention to flood the market with government gold and consequently lower the price, he secretly unloaded his share while advising others to buy. Hundreds of investors were ruined. It was a long time before Gould felt secure enough to appear on Wall Street without a bodyguard.
When not finagling control of some corporation, Gould spent most of his free time at Lyndhurst, his neo-Gothic estate in Tarrytown, New York. The mansion was modest by tycoon standards but still splendid. The exhibited photographs of his children, drawing room, art gallery and greenhouse show another side of Gould - a homebody devoted to his family. Frequently he was found nestled among his rare books or tending to his orchids in his immense greenhouse.
It is ironic that this bold financial adventurer was in no way unique or daring when it came to art collecting. The paintings in his gallery were safe, representational European works. The drawing room furniture on display from the estate was quite fashionable - neo-Grec tables and chairs with a myriad of wood inlay and ornate carvings - but certainly not innovative.