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Art in the Gilded Age

August 10th, 2021
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The American Upper Class and Their Tastes in Art in the Gilded Age

The United States of America had a half-century of wealth and growth before plunging into World Wars and the Great Depression. Big money that floated from large corporations and the nation’s factories into the pockets of the ruling class were in sharp contrast with the extreme poverty of the underprivileged members of the society. That veil of prosperity, barely covering social problems of the poor and immigrants, has earned a satirical moniker “the Gilded Age” and lasted over the period of 1865-1910.

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That span of time saw changes in tastes and attitudes concerning art and culture. With the country’s pride in the ascendant and new technologies at hand, the nouveau rich were eager to flaunt their newly acquired money. In architecture and design, eclecticism prevailed. Architects produced a hectic mix of the Rococo, Gothic, Renaissance, and period styles (Pohl, 2012, p. 281). Buildings of the newly wealthy were overly decorated with irregular shapes and numerous ornamental elements. Interiors were also elaborate, filled with richly carved furniture, and lavishly furnished. The main point was to “suggest the wealth of its inhabitants” (Pohl, 2012, p. 283).

Technologies and industrialization made art accessible for common people. Lithographs and popular pictures were cheap and easy to find. Meanwhile, the higher classes satiated their artistic thirst through paintings and exquisite objects of interior. Women decorated their homes with pottery and embroidery. In the mid-19th century, trade with Japan increased interest in oriental art. Apart from purchasing original art objects, wealthy people favored Japanese prints and themes (Pohl, 2012, p. 287-288, 308). Moreover, there was “a demand … for stained glass, mosaics, and silverware” that was met by Louis Tiffany. He began manufacturing brightly colored glass to be arranged into elaborate patterns for interior design items (Pohl, 2012, p. 309).

In painting, there was a shift in the subject matter. No longer were courageous and masculine heroes depicted in battles, astride a horse or in pompous interiors. Instead, the focus moved to the females either nude or dressed; they meandered around vague landscapes “never engaged in any apparently meaningful activity” (Pohl, 2012, p. 283). Fuzzy settings and unclear figures were supposed to bring focus to the aesthetics of the paintings rather than the meaning.

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Unlike the best examples of the classicism when the content of paintings expressed values and ideals, the artists of the Gilded Age did not want to overburden the viewer with the meaning. Beauty and visual satisfaction were their new values. An illustrative example is the legal case between the British art critic John Ruskin who favored narrative realism and his opponent the American artist James Abbott Whistler who was for decorative qualities of paintings disregarding of their content. The art did not give only the spiritual gratification any more. It was intended to satiate immediate desires for beauty and sensuality (Pohl, 2012, p. 286).

Women were “appointed” to be supervisors of “culture”. They were supposed to teach their children “refinement, aesthetic sensibility and higher learning” (Pohl, 2012, p. 274). In the times of intensified consumerism, “culture” was perceived as its opposite:

Just as “culture” had been elevated to a position above and separate from the materialism of everyday life, so too were women, as an ideal force, allotted a role outside of this materialistic world, even as they were simultaneously charged with countering its effects within the home. (p. 283).

Fusing women and art, the society received a refined image of an angel-like sublime creature. Furthermore, when women’s emancipation kicked into gear, art demonstrated the change of images. Being the representatives of art itself, upper-class women played two roles in paintings: an idealized woman of Anglo-Saxon appearance was succeeded by a confident “femme fatale” supported by the wealth of her father or husband but at the same time “exerting power over men” (Pohl, 2012, p. 291).

The art that reflected reality would depict relations within the social strata: strained interaction between the hosts and the help. For example, through juxtaposing Anglo-Saxon women types against African American female servants, some artists insisted on the superiority of the white race. They might even “do the talking” through it, like Harriet Cany Peale in her painting Her Mistress’s Clothes, where the position of the white girl’s hand on the black girl’s neck underscores a weak position of the African Americans in Philadelphia.

With the help of the paintings, higher classes indicated the place appointed for their servants. Many families of different social strata could afford at least one servant. However, apart from house chores, the latter that lived in wealthier houses were expected to comply with “a more rigid formal relationship” (Pohl, 2012, p. 279). The upper class wanted their help to be clearly distinct from them and worked out numerous ways to reach this starting from servants’ uniforms to the different entrances in the newly built masons which made it possible to separate the co-existence of the two worlds. In paintings, white collars, aprons and cuffs distinguished mistresses from the help. In architecture, separate servant wings and underground kitchen were designed whose aim was to make them less visible. In both cases, it was a means to demonstrate the masters’ well-being.

In the end of the 19th century, the aspirations of painters, sculptors and architects were to celebrate the spirit of the nation and its achievements and to demonstrate its grandeur and wealth. Alongside the tall, simple and undecorated structures such as Tacoma Building by Holabird and Roche or Monadlock Building by Burnham and Root, both situated in Chicago, that conveyed monumentality and “truth to materials,” there were the works of Louis Sullivan who preferred gilded facades and tasteful ornaments drawn from nature (Pohl, 2012, p. 303).

The end of the 19th century was a turbulent time. Not only there was a shift in gender roles, with women becoming more empowered. The domineering Protestant ethics, namely hard work in the mortal life and reward in the eternal one, began losing its grip on people’s minds. They wanted to enjoy themselves here and now. “The emergent consumer culture of the late 19th century created a focus on self-gratification, largely through the acquisition of material goods, rather than on the Victorian moralities of work, thrift, and self-denial” (Pohl, 2012, p. 286).

In the years of the Gilded Age, the general tendency consisted in unlimited consumption: while the poor consoled themselves with cheap lithography, the rich would buy up exquisite objects of fine art. In general, the art that was favored by and depicted the upper class tended to idealize women in painting, and flaunt its wealth in architecture and interior decoration.

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