Theodore C. Marceau (1859–1922), Belle da Costa Greene, May 1911
Biblioteca Berenson, I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies
To mark the 2024 centenary of its life as a public institution, the Morgan Library & Museum will present a major exhibition devoted to the life and career of its inaugural director, Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950). Widely recognized as an authority on illuminated manuscripts and deeply respected as a cultural heritage executive, Greene was one of the most prominent librarians in American history.
She was the daughter of Genevieve Ida Fleet Greener (1849–1941) and Richard T. Greener (1844–1922), the first Black graduate of Harvard College, and was at birth known by a different name: Belle Marion Greener. After her parents separated in the 1890s, her mother changed the family surname to Greene, Belle and her brother adopted variations of the middle name da Costa, and the family began to pass as White of Portuguese descent in a racist and segregated America.
Greene is well known for the instrumental role she played in building the exceptional collection of rare books and manuscripts formed by American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who hired her as his personal librarian in 1905. After Morgan's death in 1913, Greene continued as the librarian of his son and heir, J.P. Morgan Jr., who would transform his father's Library into a public institution in 1924. But her career as director of what was then known as the Pierpont Morgan Library―a leadership role she held for twenty-four years―is less well understood, as are aspects of her education, private collecting, and dense social and professional networks.
The exhibition will trace Greene’s storied life, from her roots in a predominantly Black community in Washington, D.C., to her distinguished career at the helm of one of the world’s great research libraries. Through extraordinary objects―from medieval manuscripts and rare printed books to archival records and portraits―the exhibition will demonstrate the confidence and savvy Greene brought to her roles as librarian, scholar, curator, and cultural executive, and honor her enduring legacy.