Martha Codman in 1928 shocked and titillated East Coast high society when she married an immigrant Jewish opera singer, Maxim Karolik.
She was 70. He was 35.
Moreover, she came from several old, old, wealthy New England families. He didn’t even pretend to. He called himself “Maximum Karolik, but not at minimum prices.”
He once wore a mink-lined overcoat to the exclusive Somerset Club in Boston. His host told him gentlemen don’t wear furs. He replied, “Who ever accused me of being a gentleman? I am a tenor!”
But with his wife and, later, alone, he collected thousands of pieces of paintings, drawings. sculpture, portraits, silver, furniture, prints, engravings, and donated it all to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
And as author Carol Troyen pointed out, Maxim Karolik brought more distinction to the Codman family than the family itself had done in 200 years.
Martha Codman Karolik
Martha Codman was born July 24, 1858, the only surviving child of John Amory Codman and Martha Rogers. Martha’s ancestry included a collection of Brahmin names: Derby, Crowninshield, Pickman, Amory and Codman.
Her mother’s great-grandfather, Elias Haskett Derby, was a Salem shipping merchant and one of the richest men in America. Her father, John Amory Codman, was a wealthy artist from the storied Amory and Codman families. He had a mistress, Violet Kimball, who he visited on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for 14 years — at least according to her love letters, which provoked much amusement when read out loud in court.
Proper New England ladies were supposed to keep their names out of the newspaper except at birth, death and marriage. Martha Codman and her mother ignored that rule in a big way.
John Amory Codman died in 1886 and left an estate worth an estimated $400,000. It included a hefty bequest to Mrs. Kimball. The will was challenged by Martha and her mother (“La Femme Terrible,” according to Mrs. Kimball). The case made newspaper headlines for several years. Finally, the ladies settled, giving Violet Kimball $15,000.
Martha’s mother already had wealth of her own, including industrial stocks and large real estate holdings in Boston and Newport. Martha Codman lived with her mother until she was nearly 50. They both had an interest in their family history, and they traveled throughout Europe together collecting family records. Together they kept up an active social life among the elite in Boston, Newport and Washington, D.C.
Martha Codman, On Her Own
La Femme Terrible died in 1905. Martha Codman, then one of the richest women in America, began to build mansions – the Codman-Davis in Washington, D.C., and then Berkeley Villa (now Bellevue) in Newport R.I.
She hired her cousin, society decorator Ogden Codman, to design both.
In 1927, she invited Maxim Karolik to sing at a gathering in Washington.
Maxim Karolik had arrived in the United States five years earlier with few possessions but his charm and his voice. Born in Russia on Nov. 21, 1893, he studied opera at the Petrograd Grand Opera.
He made a living performing at evening entertainments – kind of a “singing waiter,” according to Troyen.
After that concert in Washington, Martha invited him to spend the summer at her Newport house, filled with silver, heirlooms and 20 Siamese cats. She asked him to join her on a trip to Europe. He said yes. Then she asked him to marry her. He said yes to that, too.
They married on the French Riviera. The December-May union of a Brahmin heiress and Russian Jewish émigré horrified her relatives. They insisted she stay in Europe for a year with “the singing bridegroom.”
Martha wrote to her aunt, the one relative who sent her a wedding gift, that Maxim was a gentleman with a wonderful mind, a lovely disposition and a splendid voice.
“Of course, I know what people will say, but I am determined not to pay any attention to that, but get all the happiness and pleasure out of what remains to me of life,” she wrote her aunt.
Martha already had an interest in 18th century art. She had already inherited exquisite early American furniture, silver and paintings, but she needed more to furnish her mansions. She bought other heirlooms from family members with little interest in them.
Maxim encouraged her to collect 18th century art beyond her family treasures. In 1935, they decided to form the M & M Karolik 18th century American arts collection at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
It debuted on Dec. 2, 1941, five days before Pearl Harbor. The New York Sun reported the crowd “panted and sweated and fainted and exclaimed aloud at the beauty revealed.”
To explain the collection, Karolik penned an Atlantic Monthly essay in 1942, as much about his marriage as about the 18th century art.
“The concept that all men are born equal was to the men of 1776 no mere phrase…it implied a deep faith in the common man,” he wrote. Back then, wrote Karolik, the artist and the merchant stood on an equal footing with the soldier and the statesman. Karolik – no doubt thinking of himself and Martha – noted that Benjamin Franklin was friends with clockmaker Edward Duffield, George Washington was friends with Boston cabinetmaker Benjamin Frothingham and Thomas Jefferson was friends with Benjamin Randolph, the Philadelphia cabinetmaker who made the desk on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence. They acknowledged an “aristocracy of mind and spirit,” he wrote.
The Karoliks then moved on to the 19th century. Their first collection represented the fine and decorative arts of the urban, colonial elite. The second, more middlebrow collection, included art that didn’t cost a whole lot.
They decided to avoid brand-name painters, and instead to focus on art they liked. “Our motto is, ‘Tell me if the painting is good, and I won’t care who the painter is’,” Maxim liked to say.
Much 19th century art had fallen out of favor by collectors. Works by such artists as Eastman Johnson, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Cole were stored in attics and could be picked up for a song. Martha, getting on in years, let Maxim do much of the legwork.
Martha died at 89 on April 21, 1948. Maxim continued to shower the museum with forgotten paintings from the Hudson River school. He also discovered Boston luminists Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Henry Lane and folk art. In 1951, the M. & M. Karolik collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865 went on exhibit.
After Martha Codman Karolik
Karolik loved an audience and spent a great deal of time in the museum. The museum’s director, Perry Rathbone had to keep Maxim’s ego “in a permanently polished condition,” wrote Rathbone’s daughter.
Rathbone made Karolik an honorary curator, which meant he spent every weekday from nine to five in the museum. Wagging his forefinger, he made pronouncements to visitors and remined Rathbone of the collection’s greatness. Rathbone once wrote that Maxim sometimes made him regret his love of American art.
In 1962, the third and final phase of the M and M Karolik collection went on exhibit, M. & M. Karolik collection of American Water Colors & Drawings including sculpture, 1800-1875.”
Maxim in the News
Time magazine reported on the event – and on Maxim:
[He] divides most of his time these days between his late wife’s summer mansion in Newport and the Ritz in Boston. At the Ritz he usually lunches alone, but every few bites he springs across the room to greet in heavily accented English some acquaintance at another table.
His “batonlike index finger” accompanies an avalanche of talk, “which is usually about Maxim Karolik,” the magazine reported. Both in Boston and Newport,
…he is like a character out of an old Russian novel—a tall, exuberant figure with a penchant for astrakhan-collared coats or pea jackets with mink collars and cuffs. “In Newport,” he says in a typical Karolik maxim, “I am prominent. In Boston, I am important.”
Maxim Karolik died at the age of 70 on Dec. 20, 1963. In the end, he and Martha gave the MFA more than 2,000 high-quality, diverse objects.
Carol Troyen, writing in American Art, summarized the impact of their generosity: “Without the M. and M. Karolik Collections, the holdings in American art of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, would compose merely an extremely fine provincial collection.”
With thanks to The Boston Raphael: A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Museum in an Era of Change & a Daughter’s Search for the Truth by Belinda Rathbone. And Fitz Henry Lane and Maxim and Martha Karolik: A Tale of Two Love Stories, a lecture by Carol Troyen.
Images: By AgnosticPreachersKid at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17984196. This story updated in 2023.