A Beautiful Time: American Art in the Gilded Age
Heather James Fine Art 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.
AN ERA OF GROWTH
During this period, the U.S. factory output increased by nearly 600 percent. A sense of enthusiasm and optimism spread but even as wealth boomed, the numbers of people trapped in poverty. New waves of immigrants came to the country in search of opportunities, helping to contribute to the economic prosperity even as laws were enacted to restrict not just immigration but specific groups of people. New technology including electrification and skyscrapers swept the country but in its shadow were the impoverished workers that built it. This tension of progress and retrogression is neatly surmised by a world’s fair.
The World’s Columbian Exposition, tied to the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, occurred in 1893 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 complicated 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. as it 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.
A GOSPEL OF WEALTH
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 and as seen below, John and Lewis Wanamaker, would amass art collections surpassing many American museums of the time. They would donate works or leave their important collections to form museums.
Some artists, like Frederick Frieseke, became influenced by French Impressionism, formulating a uniquely American take. His works depicted the rich and growing middle class. Paintings highlighted the beautiful, the opulent, the elegant. Up until now, there was no better period for American artists to depict the rich and elite. The wealthy pumped their money and time into opera, theatre, and art, and they had money to spare. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once threw a party for her dog; the dog arrived to the affair wearing a $15,000 diamond collar.
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. Frieseke and his contemporaries proved the point that America could produce art and artists at the same level as Europe.
FROM COAST TO COAST
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 including William Wendt in this show would form the exceptional California Impressionists.
Many of the California Impressionists were immigrants like Wendt, showcasing another marker of the time period which saw a new wave of migration to the US and from coast to coast. California provided dramatic landscapes and a sense of freedom away from the rigidity of the East Coast and Europe. For more about the California Impressionists, visit our exhibition, California Here We Come: The California Impressionists which challenges the idea of New York as the center of American art.
FORGING AN IDENTITY
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. For more about Wyeth and the forging of American identity, visit our exhibition, Meeting Life: N.C. Wyeth and the Met Life Murals.
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.
Tom Venditti, Director of Heather James Fine Art Montecito speaks about our exhibition A Beautiful Time: American Art in the Gilded Age.
“Chapter 1 | The Gilded Age” from PBS. Meet the elite of the lavishly wealth Gilded Age.
“Gilded Age Politics” from Crash Course. Famed author John Green teaches about the Gilded Age.
“Gilded Moment: Life and Art at the End of the Nineteenth Century” from the Saint Louis Art Museum.
“Exploring the Gilded Age Art Market through a Digital Lens” from The Frick Collection.