The New-York Historical Society recently opened Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America (September 26, 2013-March 9, 2014). The exhibition—curated by Barbara Dayer Gallati, curator emerita of American art at the Brooklyn Museum—explores the popularity of society portraiture across the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. It focuses in particular on the dominant figures of New York society, an area in which the holdings of the New-York Historical Society are especially strong.
New York City is a laboratory ripe for adding rich layers of experience to this kind of exhibition. Gilded Age New York remains still very much in evidence today, from the Fifth Avenue mansions that have been turned into museums (the Frick, the Morgan, Cooper Hewitt, the Jewish Museum, and the Neue Galerie, to name just a few) to the private clubs, churches and other associations. The museum smartly offered two walking tours of Gilded Age New York—both of which promptly sold out.
I wondered as I walked through the show what else they could do to enliven the social history behind these portraits. I imagine that there is a lot of material culture in the Historical Society’s collections—silver, clothing, jewelry, furniture, menu cards, photographs, and the other kinds of things these families often donated to this institution and the Museum of the City of New York. Just doing a quick search on James Hazen Hyde, one of the more colorful Gilded Age figures featured in the show, turned up a lot of rich material, including some wonderful images of a four-horse public coach that Hyde maintained between New York and Lakewood, New Jersey, and a scale copy of the amazing Augustus Saint-Gaudens statue, The Puritan, one of many objects that Hyde bequeathed to the N-YHS.
Via the museum’s press office, I was able to ask the curator, Barbara Gallati, some questions:
How did you make the selection you did? Were there many portraits that you could not include? When you mention the growing industrial economy fueling fortunes in the Gilded Age, people typically think of Frick, Carnegie, Huntington, etc., who are not represented in the show.
There are many portraits in the N-YHS collection that were under consideration for the checklist. Those that ultimately made it to the checklist were chosen on the basis of aesthetic quality and how, as a group, they would convey the ideas at the foundation of the project (i.e., legacy, social and family connections, the resurgence in portraiture, the varied notions of beauty).
Of course, portraits of men like Frick, Huntington, and Carnegie would figure in a larger loan exhibition. However, given that the exhibition is drawn exclusively from the N-YHS collections, we worked with the aim of making the same essential points that a portrait of Frick would make through the inclusion of portraits of such sitters as Henry Baldwin Hyde and Charles Tracy Barney, for example.
The label text does a good job of linking the portraits to each other when possible, and also drawing in other extant resources in New York (such as the Dyckman Farmhouse, for example). Was there other material culture in the New-York Historical Society collection related to the people in these portraits that you considered including?
Yes, there is a wealth of material in the Society’s collections that relates to Gilded Age New York. For example, a series of photographs of guests in costume for the 1883 Vanderbilt Ball, posters and advertisements for cosmetics and fashion, additional drawings and photographs of sitters in the paintings, and, of course, a remarkable range of objects donated to the Society by the families of the sitters represented in Beauty’s Legacy.
Did the N-YHS consider a website component on the Gilded Age in the collections, or other means of exploring more of the social history behind the portraits?
A lot of online development resources were dedicated this year to The Armory Show at 100: armory.nyhistory.org. Beauty’s Legacy is accompanied by a catalogue from Giles, so folks outside of the museum can still discover and learn more about these incredible works.
Will you be offering any more Gilded Age walking tours later in the run of this exhibition?
We actually added a second Gilded Age walk this fall due to the incredible demand. Our walking tours and architectural talks with Barry Lewis are always very popular, and you’ll see more of those in the spring (though I’m not sure if they’ll be Gilded Age specific).
How museums with origins in the late-19th Century use Gilded Age material culture to support richer investigations into their history remains of great interest to me. While writing the history of the Andrew Carnegie mansion (which will be published in fall 2014, coinciding with the reopening of the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, after an extensive renovation), I had the opportunity this summer to examine a fantastic material treasure of the Gilded Age: the Carnegie tablecloths.
Andrew and Louise Carnegie had an incredible tradition at their dinner parties of having each guest sign the white damask tablecloth in pencil. Servants would later embroider these names into the cloth, creating an indelible portrait of Gilded Age society. The Carnegies enjoyed hosting authors, scientists, and statesmen (much more than fellow businessmen or bankers). Guests such as Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson, Jacob Riis, can be found on the tablecloths, as well as many other literary and artistic figures no longer well known today.
Two such tablecloths are in the collection of Cooper Hewitt; another one exists at the Museum of the City of New York, the gift of Carnegie Corporation of New York. One of the Cooper Hewitt cloths is especially interesting in that it documents a single 1896 dinner, held in honor of Polish pianist Jan Ignacy Paderewski, who was then performing at Carnegie Hall. The other tablecloths were used for multiple dinners and contain lots and lots of names. So while it’s fairly impossible to tell who was at a specific dinner, the list of names offers a rich window into the social circles the Carnegies traveled in. I look forward to exploring in a later post the ways in which Cooper Hewitt chooses to investigate the history of the Carnegie Mansion.