A Beautiful Time: American Art in the Gilded Age
“It is a time when one is filled with vague longings; when one dreams of flight to peaceful islands in the remote solitudes of the sea, or folds his hands and says, What is the use of struggling, and toiling and worrying any more? let us give it all up.” – Mark Twain
Heather James Fine Art in Montecito presents an intimate exhibition of American art created by artists of the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was an important moment in American history. Stretching from the end of the Civil War, overlapping with Reconstruction, and ending roughly with the outbreak of WWI, the Gilded Age is the period in which the character of the modern U.S. was formed. Industrialization, population shifts, immigration, political unrest and more shaped the era.
The World’s Columbian Exposition, tied to the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, occurred towards the end of the age and is a microcosm of the U.S. and time. The fair placed the U.S. on a new level. With 27 million visitors and 65,000 exhibits, the fair introduced a variety of art and architecture, new technological innovations, and cultural touchstones like Aunt Jemima with which we still grapple. Even at the time, great thinkers like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, pondered the history of the U.S. that was told. Politically, it opened up the idea of the U.S. as an imperialist power. Thus, the fair, like the era, was both grand and turbulent, the roots of our current nation sprouting in that time.
During the Gilded Age, art flourished, bolstered by the newly rich and reflecting the seismic shifts in the socio-political spheres. Artists of this time looked to capture the changes in America, solidifying the country’s thoughts of itself as it grew and took an increasing global role. New York became the focus of American art. Bolstered by the burgeoning collectors and proliferation of auctions, galleries, and art clubs, New York established itself on the international scene. From the Vanderbilts to the Rockefellers and even those on a more modest budget, collectors amassed major works by international and American artists. Industrialists like Henry Clay Frick would leave their important collections to form museums.
Some artists, like Frederick Frieseke and Childe Hassam, became influenced by French Impressionism, formulating a uniquely American take. Their works depicted the rich and growing middle class. Paintings highlighted the beautiful, the opulent, the elegant. The exquisite painting in this exhibition demonstrates Frieseke as one of the leaders of the American Impressionists and exemplifies his primacy amongst the Giverny Group. Celebrated for his light dappled paintings, Frieseke utilizes a combination of brushstrokes to create distinctions of pattern and light in this work. This piece was commissioned by department store magnate and founder of the Professional Golfers Association Rodman Wanamaker as part of a mural for the Grand Deluxe Shelburn hotel in Atlantic City. The mural was later divided into seven pieces that were displayed in the hotel dining room. Both Frieseke and Hassam proved the point that America could produce art and artists at the same level as Europe.
The Gilded Age aligns with the so-called taming and closing of the American West. Artists headed out to document the landscape, giving shape to a country’s ideas of itself as it settled lands and displaced original Native Americans. These paintings give both a sense of something gained and something lost. Many, such as Granville Redmond and William Wendt in this show, would form the exceptional California Impressionists.
Others, including Winslow Homer and N.C. Wyeth, forged a new American identity in searching for the character of the nation through its people and its landscapes. Homer is considered one of the greatest of American realists; his influence and recognition is widespread, and his process marked a turn away from the divinely infused works of earlier landscape artists.
One of most noteworthy American illustrators and himself influenced by Homer, N.C. Wyeth is also the patriarch of one of the most esteemed artistic dynasties including his son Andrew and grandson Jamie. Wyeth produced around 3,000 paintings and illustrated 112 books; his popular illustrated series for publishing company Charles Scribner’s Sons came to be known as Scribner’s Classics and remain in print to this day filling our imaginations.
A Beautiful Time: American Art in the Gilded Age brings together some of the best and brightest in art. These paintings offer a vision of America as it faced new opportunities and new challenges. If the nickname for the era hints at a thin veneer hiding a tumultuous time, these paintings offer both the surface beauty and profound meaning that characterized the era.
For a response to New York as the center of American Art, visit our virtual exhibition, California Here We Come: The California Impressionists.