Ep. 7 Art in The Gilded Age

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Hello I’m your host Janelle and today I’m talking about the art and history of HBO’s The Gilded Age. To be perfectly honest, I'm not a big fan of the show, so I found myself actually just ignoring the dialogue and just focusing on the visuals of the show.  I probably could have actually watched the whole show on mute since I’m still baffled as to what happened with our main characters.  That being said, this isn’t me trying to throw shade at The Gilded Age but rather this is a pretty on brand thing for me to do with any period based movie or show. Also, please stop listening now if you want to avoid any spoilers!

Now just to touch on the web page associated with this episode, I want to make sure you all know that you can view all of the images and resources I discuss in this episode on my website, www.boozyarthistorian.com. On my website you will find all kinds of goodies, specifically web pages dedicated to each podcast episode I produce. Just click on the link to the episode you want to view on the website’s homepage and you’ll find the episode’s audio, a transcript of the audio, and accompanying resources and images. Right, now that I’ve done all of the housekeeping, let’s get into the good stuff!

I have to admit I was a little disappointed with the half in half out perspective that the show took on historical fiction and/or period drama. Some of the names were based on real people, and then some were not.  And some of the scenes were based on real homes and others were not. As I was working on this episode I realized that I really need to do an episode on a few of these collectors since they’re really important to art history and American museums, but because of that I can’t squeeze everything into this particular episode. So for today I’m going to just give you the super quick version.  First up we have the Morgans, led by J.P. Morgan.  Yes this is the same guy as the bank.  Morgan was an American financier and investment banker who was THE corporate financier on Wall Street.  And I believe the inspiration behind Mr. Russell’s amazing red office in their newly built palatial home.  I recommend checking out the Morgan Library website to see some images of J.P. Morgan’s office that you can visit to this day and you’ll see what I mean.

Next up we have Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Now Cornelius Vanderbilt, nicknamed “the Commodore” helped build one of THE most influential families in American history. He not only was wealthier than God, he also was known as being cunning and basically your traditional bro stereotype. Vanderbilt didn’t start with all this wealth but rather made a series of smart investments and built his fortune.  Which then was inherited by his firstborn son, William Henry Vanderbilt.  Making William Vanderbilt the richest American until his death in 1885. This is the Vanderbilt who the fireplace in Image 1 belonged to.  At one point he and his wife, Maria Louisa Kissman, built a palace on the Upper East Side much like we saw with the Russells.  It was criticized for its monstrous size and opulence and after William Vanderbilt died it acted as home to another figure in the Gilded Age, Henry Clay Frick.  This house actually inspired Frick’s future home, which acts as home to the Frick Collection.   Unfortunately the house no longer exists, it was torn down in 1927.  But you can visit the location which is on 5th Ave in between 51st and 52nd streets in New York City.  Currently the Nike NYC Store lives there, which is literally a block from Rockefeller Plaza.

Henry Clay Frick was another person worth noting, since he too made his fortune during this time period and would have been considered “New New York”.  He was originally from Pittsburgh, PA.  We see a few “New New York” people come from here, and Philadelphia as well.  But I digress, what all of these men have in common is not just their money, location, and “New New York” status, but they also all collected art. Collection art was, and is, something wealthy people did as a pastime.  Many times these particular men collected as a way to prove that they fit into the “old money” world they were trying to be a part of.  But some of these men also collected because they truly loved art. Which Henry Osborne Havemeyer did. Henry Havemeyer and his wife had quite the appetite for art, and also were some of the earliest collectors to bring Impressionist art to America. We have to remember that the Impressionist movement wasn’t well received at first in Europe and it was American collectors who really purchased the bulk of these artists’ works.  Which is great for Americans because it means we have all kinds of beautiful Impressionist paintings at our fingertips rather than having to fly across the globe to see art. A large portion of their collection actually makes up The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.  The works were bequeathed to the museum upon the death of Mrs. Havemeyer’s death.

Fun fact we actually see one of the works from their collection in Image 2, which is one of the paintings that sits in Sylvia Chamberlain (the social pariah of the show)’s drawing room. This particular work is by Edgar Degas, one of the most important painters in the Impressionist movement. Many of you will know Degas based on his dancer works (which make up more than 50% of his overall works). Degas full name is Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, he changed it to the less formal Degas during adulthood, and interestingly Degas never thought of himself as an Impressionist painter but rather a realist. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Impressionism, this is an art movement that popped up in Europe around the late 1800s. You can usually recognize Impressionists works based on the small but visible brushstrokes the artists utilize in their works. The subject matter of these works also tend to be scenes of everyday life and include a sense of movement. Some notable Impressionists artists to know are Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, J.M.W. Turner, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, and Mary Cassatt.

As you can see in Image 3 there was another significant Impressionist work, Woman with a Parasol by Claude Monet. And next to that work was the statue by Edgar Degas of a dancer which you can see in Image 4.  And then when turned around you could see another Degas painting behind Marian’s shoulder of more dancers. You can see that work in Image 5. That being said I want to quickly back track to one of the most well known Impressionist painters, Claude Monet.  Many of us know Monet from is water lilly and garden scenes, which are based on his actual home in Giverny.  You can visit his home to this day and it still has the most beautiful gardens that you can walk around, along with tour his home and studio. Some of you may also recognize Monet’s name because he was the unofficial mentor to Lilla Cabot Perry (who was one of the artists I mentioned in my last episode on Women Artists).

Of course when talking about all of the art in Sylvia Chamberlain’s gallery I can’t forget the Corot that Sylvia mentions to Marian in her gallery which is the Forest of Fontainebleau.  Which can be seen in Image 6. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was actually a predecessor to the Impressionist movement, and a French landscape and portrait painter.  His works created this sort of bridge between the Neoclassical and Impressionists movements. It was during his time at Barbizon that he painted quite a few works containing scenes from the Forests of Fontainebleau. Some of you may recognize the name Barbizon since it is where the famous Barbizon school was based.  Now when I say school I don’t mean a formal school for training like the Royal Academy of Art but rather a commune where artists could come together in a region and trade ideas, and the Barbizon school was all about the idea of bringing Realism into art. I really am curious to see what other art goodies they put in Sylvia Chamberlain’s home next season, since it was packed with lots of art this time around.

Moving away from the most obvious art scenes, I want to talk about a few other pieces I saw in the background as the show progressed, that I think is important to note. Well this particular piece isn’t super important, but rather just a fun piece to have in the background.  Which is The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) by Gilbert Stuart, which we see in Mr. Raikes office and also in Image 7.  Also, side note are we going to ignore the fact that his name is Tom Raikes which sounds an awful lot like Rake? Anyone who’s watched Bridgerton Season 1 will know what I mean by that connection. Getting back to the art though, the artist Gilbert Stuart was an American painter who is considered the foremost portraitists of America.  He supposedly painted over 1,000 people, including 6 presidents.  If you happen to have a $1 bill on you, you can actually see one of his works.  Which of course is the famous portrait of George Washington!

But even more interestingly is the previous owner of this painting, Andrew Mellon.  Now some of you may know this name since he comes from the Mellon family in Pittsburgh, PA.  He also served as Secretary of the Treasury during the Wall Street Crash in 1929.  Mellon had many fingers in many pies and Agnes would have considered him to be very much “New New York”.  For the sake of not rambling about his many projects I’m going to just mention two important philanthropic projects of his that are particularly interesting to me, his hand in the creation of Carnegie Mellon University (located in Pittsburgh, PA), the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., and the National Gallery of Art also in Washington D.C.  Mellon had quite the art collection, and much like the other men I mentioned earlier, I’ll leave it at this quick summary and I’ll go into greater detail at another time.  

Next thing I want to talk about is the charity’s meeting room. Now this space wasn’t exactly as princely as other spaces we see, but I happened to notice a couple of important artworks I think are worth noting. The largest being Song of the Angels by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and in my opinion a very interesting choice for this room.  You can see the work in Image 8  For those of you who don’t know the artist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau was a French academic painter and HATED the Impressionist movement.  Based on this knowledge I really do feel like this was a great painting for this room, since these were all women who hated “New New York” which can be associated with the Impressionist movement, as we saw with Sylvia Chamberlain (who was very much not welcome into the charity).  Here we have an artists who evokes Old Master techniques in his work, which we can associate with “Old New York”.  So I love very much that they had that painting front and center in this room.

Another painting I noticed in the room was Among the Sierra Nevada, California by Albert Bierstadt.  You can see the work in Image 9.  I personally am such a sucker for Bierstadt.  His works are magnificent and wonderfully serene.  And I think very fitting as well to show the sort of American landscape in this room, especially considering Bierstadt was a member of the Hudson River School.  To be honest I could do a whole episode on the Hudson River School, so I’ll keep my description here brief.  Basically the Hudson River School was a group of painters who depict American landscapes in these sort of pastoral setting, where the beauty of the natural world was celebrated. Some famous members of the school were Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Susie M. Barstow. If you find yourself in the Hudson region I highly recommend checking out the Olana State Historic Site or Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Hudson, NY and Catskill NY respectively.

The third painting I thought was an interesting choice in the room was The Lackawanna Valley by George Inness, which you can see in Image 10.  Here we see this beautiful landscape, kind of like the Bierstadt I just discussed, but with a train running through the center of it.  Which to me feels like a very deliberate nod to the fact Mrs. Russell manages to join the charity much to the “Old New York” member’s dismay.  Because we have to remember the Russells made their wealth in the railroad industry, so here we have a train disrupting the natural world around it (which can be interpreted as “Old New York”).  And to add in another layer to this, the artist George Inness was influenced not only by the Barbion school but also the Hudson River School.  To me the placement of this work is very clever.  

Alright, I’ve put it off long enough, let’s talk about the interiors we see in Mrs. Russell’s Blue Parlor.  Most importantly the portrait we see of her front and center in the room.  Now this is not an actual piece of art you’ll find in a museum or collection, but rather a portrait done in the style of a famous artist, John Singer Sargent. Sargent was THE portrait painter during his lifetime.  He painted all kinds of important socialites and even royalty, and you may know him from one of his most controversial and well known works, Portrait of Madame X (which is under copyright so I can’t add it to my website but for those curious you can go check it out on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.  So for Mrs. Russell to have her portrait done by Sargent, we as the viewers can assume this is her way of showing that she belongs in the “Old New York” group, and that she is worthy of high society, as well as just being fashionable (since anyone who was anyone would have had their portrait done by Sargent).  In Image 11 you can see a portrait of Lady Agnew, and you can see these large beautiful brushstrokes that Sargent uses and how that was utilized in the painting of Mrs. Russell.

But along with that we also have all kinds of French art goodies in that room.  One of my favorites being the painting of two women. This particular work The Love Letter by François Boucher, which you can see in Image 12, fits very neatly into this trend we see with “New New York” and just new money in general during this time period, snapping up all these European interiors for their homes.  It was a way to signal not only wealth but status.  By utilizing European interiors, it gave them a sense of family lineage, and prestige that they wouldn’t have achieved necessarily with new interiors.  Much like today, European things evoke feelings of ancient, and old, and grandeur. So it makes quite a bit of sense that the Russells’ home has many European interiors in it.

And with that we have come to the end of my thoughts for Season 1. I really wished the show would have done more with the characters to highlight these really fascinating historical figures, but unfortunately they didn’t. That being said as an art historian I did appreciate all the art they crammed into Sylvia Chamberlain’s home.  

I hope you all found this episode incredibly helpful and you feel properly prepared for Season 2, when it is released, or even to add an extra layer of excitement as you rewatch Season 1.  As always should you have any questions, comments, or thoughts you can DM me on Instagram @boozyarthistorian.  For those of you wanting to be a bit more booze with your art history. You can check out my TikTok channel where I pair drinks to artists and artworks every week! You can find me @boozyarthistorian. Of course if you want less booze, you can find fun art history facts on my more “sober” account, @thecuriousarthistorian.  If you liked this episode or any of my work, please consider donating so I can keep all of my episodes ad free! You can find me on Buy Me a Coffee under Boozy Art Historian. You can also keep up to date on all of my upcoming episodes and other news by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.  No spam, just one email at the beginning of each month highlighting upcoming episodes and news.  You can subscribe through the link in my Instagram profile or through my website www.boozyarthistorian.com

Thanks for listening in and see you next time on The Boozy Art Historian!

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