Gilded Age taste: Was the art collection about vanity or quality?

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In my college days, I wrote a paper on the founder of the Clark Art Institute, Robert Sterling Clark, and his collecting taste. While Clark is well known for acquiring dozens of Impressionist paintings by Renoir and Degas, he was also avidly collecting the works of the conservative Salon or Academic 19th-century European painters such as Bouguereau and Gerome, who, during their life times, were regarded as the pinnacle of fashion when the Impressionists were relegated to unpopular rebels.

I was fascinated with the notion of popularity and taste; and just how artists' fame, fortune, decline in popularity, resurgence and recognition were justifiably compelling topics to the discussion of art history and the Gilded Age in particular. A few years later, I wrote my graduate thesis on the 19th-century Swiss painter Marc Charles Gleyre, who, like many of the Salon painters, was at the top of his game during his lifetime — his works, admired by art critics and collected by overseas millionaires — only to fall precipitously into the sphere of obscurity. Serendipitously, the work of Gleyre reemerged to the public in 2016, 30 years after I wrote my thesis, for the artist's first mounted retrospective at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Life, so it seems, comes full circle, as does art, fashion and taste.

My research on 19th-century Salon painters introduced me to one of the most interesting aspects of the Gilded Age — the emergence of a flourishing art market in Paris and in New York. Galleries such as Goupil & Company and Durand Ruel were the leading suppliers of 19th-century academic paintings to American collectors. Moreover, this growing commercial market provided artists alternative vital income streams, eroding the importance of European church and municipal commissions that many of these artists were so dependent on. With this in mind, the lecture I will be hosting "Art Collecting in the Gilded Age: the Taste of the Gentleman Collector" at Ventfort Hall & Gilded Age Mansion on Saturday, Dec. 9, will explore some of the central players of this vibrant and exclusive art world — the collectors, painters, art galleries, dealers, as well as the overall taste of the late 19th-century during the Gilded Age.

Among the discussion points will be the notable American art collectors of the mid to late 19th-century. These were the railroad magnates, banking, manufacturing, real estate and stock speculators — tycoons with names such as William Henry Vanderbilt, Caroline Astor, August Belmont, Jay Gould, Alexander Turney Stewart and one of local prominence, Zenas Crane. Generally, they collected works as status symbols, chasing paintings that were trophy show pieces, to gain social acceptability, decorate homes and even for speculative purposes. They were displayed in the rarefied social worlds the wealthy collectors inhabited, from the private art galleries and magnificent parlors of New York townhouses, Hudson River Valley and Newport mansions to their Berkshires summer cottages.

Just who were the artists they collected, and what were the subjects and style of the paintings that they favored that formed the basis of their private collections? The American Gilded Age collectors almost exclusively preferred works by French painters, but were also drawn to paintings by German, English, Spanish, Swiss and Italian artists. They chased down the works of European artists, buying favorites such as Bouguereau, Gerome, Meisonnier, Vernet, Madrazo and Alma-Tadema, sometimes paying $10,000 for a work, a fortune considering that average wages in 1880 were in the $380 realm.

They were seeking paintings that were sentimental, nostalgic, often moralizing, and engaging with easy to read subject matter. The Gilded Age collectors were drawn to meticulous detail, well finished surfaces and bright coloration. And they adored the category of genre painting — scenes of everyday life — that contained many of these elements. By contrast, in the eyes of these men, paintings by contemporary Americans did not exude the same sort of glamour, appeal and bright painterly quality as their European counterparts.

Compare for instance a painting of a young shepherdess or mother by Bouguereau to an American Hudson River School landscape. To the Gilded Age collector, a work by William Adolphe Bouguereau, with its bright colors, meticulous details, high degree of finish and feminine subject matter, often mixed with erotic undertones would be far more appealing than a painting by Asher B. Durand with its subdued, romantic feel, and earthy, dark colors in a Catskills or Adirondack subject.

There is a tendency to downplay and even ridicule the ostentatiousness of these paintings, their sentimental and nostalgic subjects, and perhaps overall mediocre significance of these paintings. Here we can ask ourselves whether the art and taste of the Gilded age collector is simply about vanity, ostentatiousness of wealth, with works of mediocre art historical interest? Or is it about fine quality period pieces of significant art historical importance? Perhaps, it really is a little bit about both, but I leave that to the attendees of this lecture to further assess and ponder.

Lynn Villency Cohen is an art historian and writer



If you go ...

What: Lecture and slide presentation "Art Collecting in the Gilded Age: the Taste of the Gentleman Collector," including tea

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9

Where: Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, 104 Walker St., Lenox

Cost: $26 with reservations; $32 day of

Information: gildedage.org, or call 413-637-3206 for reservations


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