NEW YORK—We love looking at ourselves—it’s only human nature. We also love looking at images of the rich and famous, even if the individuals themselves turn us off.
Featuring over 60 works of art, “Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America” at the New-York Historical Society explores high society in the late 19th and early 20th century America.
Oil portraits of notable New Yorkers make up the majority of the works.
We have singer Emma Thursby, Mrs. William Waldorf Astor, Mary Barrett Wendell, Reverend Henry Codman Potter, and Mary Gardiner Thompson, whose fortune gave birth to the New-York Historical Society, the oldest of New York’s museums.
The sitter for a John Singer Sargent portrait, Mrs. Jacob Wendell, would become grandmother to the mistress of Highclere Castle, as Downton Abbey fans will appreciate.
The long hall of portraits asks us to consider, “what granted these individuals entry into high society?” In some cases it was familial ties, philanthropic work, talent, or success in business. But many of them were counted among the Four Hundred, a club concocted by Ward McAllister, a San Francisco lawyer who moved to New York and married an heiress.
According to exhibition curator Dr. Barbara Gallati, the Four Hundred was “a rather arbitrary and self-serving catalogue of the ‘best’ members of Gilded Age society that was supposedly based on the number of people who could be accommodated in Caroline Astor’s ballroom.”
Ward leaked the list to The New York Times in 1892. The rules of inclusion were “ultimately fairly flexible, determined by who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ at the time,” wrote Gallati in an email.
Peter Marié was a member of this club and commissioned 270 portrait miniatures—watercolor on ivory—of society women. He dubbed the collection his Gallery of Beauty and initially showed it during evening entertainments at his home. In 1894, part of the collection was included in a public exhibit and gained substantial press attention.
A selection of the Gallery of Beauty is on display in the present exhibit. Not all the women pictured were extraordinarily striking in appearance, but many of them were writers, philanthropists, or moral exemplars.
“As for Marié, I can imagine that his collection of miniature portraits satisfied his Romantic notions of womanhood and also functioned as a means to enhance his own social currency,” wrote Gallati.
The presence of the portraitists themselves cannot be ignored. American and European painters of great talent competed heavily for commissions from New York’s mighty families.
Among the artists represented in this exhibition are Carolus-Duran, Alexandre Cabanel, John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, and William Bouguereau, who was in demand among the banking elite in Paris. His luminous portrait of the young Cortlandt Field Bishop begins the exhibition and is a peek into his portraiture, a small portion of his oeuvre.
“Gilded Age New York was arguably at the center of the nation’s art production—the home of major artists, art museums, and schools,” wrote Gallati. “This was not by accident since New York was also a financial hub, where some of the country’s wealthiest families were based.”
All the portraits were drawn from the NYHS permanent collection and were bequests of the sitters themselves or of their estates.
This exhibition is part of a larger effort to have the objects in the museum’s collection return to exhibition condition. Many of them have not been seen for over a hundred years, said NYHS director Linda Ferber.
“Most of the collection needs cleaning or conservation,” she said. “I call it a rehabilitation for the New-York Historical Society.”
Because the NYHS has a large collection but little gallery space, many of its exhibitions travel around the world as part of its program Sharing a National Treasure. The exhibition’s first stop after New York will be the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Fl.
The Big Questions
Curator Dr. Barbara Gallati suggests the following questions to consider when viewing commissioned portraits:
1) Most of these portraits shown were privately commissioned for display within domestic spaces, not public ones. How do they demonstrate personal taste and the aspirations of the commissioners and/or sitters?
2) How and why did these portraits become part of the museum’s collection? What does that say about the idea of cultural legacy?
3) Just what is beauty? Is it located in the artist’s ability to manage the chosen medium to create a compelling image or object, in the sitter’s physical appearance, or in the personal accomplishments or integrity of the sitter?
4) Given that portraiture is a genre that inherently demands the creation of likeness, what are the special challenges that the artist faces? Essentially, what makes a great portrait as opposed to a mere likeness?
Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America
Through March 9, 2014
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West at 77th Street