Spencer Museum of Art

University of Kansas / Lawrence, KS




The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum


"The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum," an exhibition that captures the sophistication and elegance of American art from the 1870s through the 1920s, is on view at the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, September 23 through November 19, 2000. The 60 major paintings and sculptures shown are by the most important artists of the day, including Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

"We are excited to share with the region the marvelous Gilded Age exhibition," said Spencer Museum Director Andrea Norris. "These glorious paintings and sculptures represent some of the most characteristic and favorite American artists."

The phrase "the Gilded Age" arose from the title of a 1873 popular novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner about America's "golden road to fortune" that contrasted shallow materialism with the golden age of Greece. The period from the 1870s to World War I became identified as the Gilded Age. Throughout the era the United States was on the rise to power and taking a place on the international stage politically, economically, and culturally. Against this backdrop a new and important collaboration developed between wealthy American patrons and artists, based on European Renaissance ideals.

"Great ambition characterized this period in America," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Artists and patrons rose to new heights, as the 1876 Centennial engendered a strong sense of national pride and eagerness to match Europe's aristocracies." (Broun is a KU alumna and former acting director of the Spencer Museum.)

A heightened sophistication permeates the portraits in the exhibition. Society portraitist John Singer Sargent posed "Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler" (1893), (see left) whose family was heir to John Jacob Astor's fortune, flanked by old-master paintings. Cecilia Beaux portrayed her brother-in-law Henry Sturgis Drinker, a hard-driving corporate railroad lawyer, as relaxed and casual in "Man with the Cat" (1898), resplendent in a cream-colored suit and pink shirt.

This was also an international age, when artists and their patrons traveled widely to visit exotic cultures. Louis Comfort Tiffany's "Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangiers, Morocco" (1873) signals this interest and foreshadows the artist's later development of opulent interiors

Vast fortunes amassed during the Industrial Revolution led to a wave of elegant townhouses, and these were settings for fine collections and decorations. "Apollo with Cupids" (1880-82), a decorative panel by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John LaFarge, once adorned the dining room of Cornelius Vanderbilt's Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City. The work is embellished with African mahogany, hammered bronze, colored marbles, mother-of-pearl and ivory.

American sculptors mastered the art of bronze casting during this period. The twelve bronzes in the exhibition range from Daniel Chester French's patriotic and restrained "Concord Minute Man of 1775" (modeled in 1889) to Adolph Weinman's moody "Descending Night" and exuberant "Rising Sun" (1914-15). The most famous sculptor of the period was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, represented here by several works, including an early model for the "Diana" (1889) that once graced the top of New York's Madison Square Garden.

Four rare paintings by the visionary artist Albert Pinkham Ryder in the exhibition are each a story of betrayal and redemption based on literary sources. The complex technique Ryder used causes his paintings to be unusually fragile, so the museum rarely lends his works. Special humidity controlled packing and shipping technology allows these works to be shared throughout America.

Winslow Homer, like Ryder, probed beneath the glitter of the Gilded Age to explore undercurrents of anxiety. "High Cliff, Coast of Maine" (1894) is among the greatest of Homer's late seascapes, a canvas filled with waves pounding on a rocky shore. These opposing forces of nature resonated in a society struggling with economic instability, labor unrest, and controversial new theories of Darwin, Freud, and others. The intimate world of women and children at home, seen in "An Interlude" (1907) by William Sergeant Kendall, offered refuge.

Artists and their patrons shared an ambition to present American civilization as having grown past provincialism to full maturity, equal to Europe's much-admired culture. Evocations of music abound, as in Childe Hassam's woman at a piano called "Improvisation" (1899) and Thomas Wilmer Dewing's allegorical "Music" (about 1895). Spiritual themes -- countering fears that Americans were overly materialistic -- appear in Abbott Handerson Thayer's four paintings in the exhibition, including the ever-popular "Angel" (1887).

Overall, the ambitions of individual artists and patrons, and of the nation at large, combined to make the period of the 1870s through the 1910s one of enormous achievement in the visual arts. "This thrilling exhibition truly captures the elegant, idealistic side of life and art in Gilded Age America," said Susan Earle, Spencer Museum curator of European and American art.

The Gilded Age is one of eight exhibitions in Treasures to Go, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, touring the nation through 2002. The Principal Financial Group® is a proud partner in presenting these treasures to the American people. More information and full itineraries for Treasures to Go can be found on the Smithsonian American Art Museum's web site at http://AmericanArt.si.edu. The Spencer Museum venue of The Gilded Age is supported by the William T. Kemper Foundation-Commerce Bank, Trustee; Barbara Barber Weir, and the Friends of the Art Museum.

See our earlier article The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art (12/11/99)

Read more about the Spencer Museum of Art / University of Kansas in Resource Library Magazine

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/4/11

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