The Cottager | Gilded Age art on display in the Berkshires
Seated at the bar of the grand Hoffman House Hotel, gentlemen of the Gilded Age sipped on sours and downed rounds of Planters Punch while enjoying the view afforded to them by a mirror positioned on the wall in front of them.
The New York City bar counted Buffalo Bill and Ulysses S. Grant among its patrons that found the mirror's reflection to be a tantalizing treat — four voluptuous nymphs playfully pulling a satyr into a woodland pool.
Gazing into the mirror was the only way the bar's patrons could view the scandalous painting. A red velvet curtain was hung over the painting so that it obscured it from being viewed in any other manner.
It was said by those who frequented the hotel's square bar that the nymphs would stir to life, turning their heads to stare straight out of the painting, at the stroke of midnight — a feat most often witnessed after a quick succession of a few rounds of the establishment's rum-filled libations.
Purchased in 1882 by Edward "Ned" Stokes — a cousin of Anson Phelps Stokes who built the famous Shadowbrook on the Lenox/Stockbridge line — the painting by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau was admired by the bar's patrons for nearly 20 years before it was sold and disappeared into a private collection.
For four decades Bouguereau's "Nymphs and Satyr" was missing from the public eye, until it was discovered by accident in a warehouse by Herbert H. Elfers of the Durand-Ruel Galleries. The painting, valued at $200,000 at the time of Stokes' death in 1901, had been purchased by a prominent New York family and then stuffed away with other furnishings at a West Side warehouse where it had been forgotten.
Elfers, who was at the warehouse to pick up several paintings, began to wander the building as he waited for his parcels. It was there he came upon the painting, where it remained perfectly preserved. A 1943 New York Times article described its preservation as luck, as it was stored with several of the family's prized pianos in a dark, climate-controlled room.
Elfers, recognizing the painting, contacted the family and asked if they were willing to sell. He purchased the painting in 1942 for a "New Yorker who was in the market for the pearl nymphs." The sale of the painting included an agreement that the name of the buyer would not be disclosed and was still not revealed when the painting was put on public display in 1943 at the Durand-Ruel Galleries to benefit the Fighting French Relief Company.
For a mere $5, the general public could finally view the painting that was once visible only to the city's elite. But even the lure of seeing the prized painting could not pique the interest of the Times, which wrote the nymphs "were, and still are, apt to get nothing but sneers from truly arty folk."
In 1955, when The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened its doors, the New Yorker who prized the pearly nymphs was revealed to be Sterling Clark. Clark is said to have first encountered the work at Hoffman's Hotel.
Today, "Nymphs and Satyr" remains prominently displayed at The Clark, holding court with another Gilded Age treasure, the Model D Pianoforte Steinway piano, and stools designed by British artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema for another Gilded Age millionaire with connections to the Berkshires.
The piano, part of Henry G. Marquand's famous Greco-Pompeiian Music Room, was said to be a favorite of his wife, Elizabeth Love Allen Marquand, a daughter of the prominent Allen family of Pittsfield.
The grand piano, which is said to have cost $50,000 at the time of its completion, was rumored to cost roughly half of what Marquand, a founding trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, spent to build his New York City mansion.
Acquired by The Clark in 1997, the piano now rests just mere miles from Pittsfield, where as teenager, Marquand attended Mr. Dillingham's School. It is now the subject of "Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design," an exhibition celebrating a decade of research and the reunion of a majority of the major pieces of Marquand's "Music Room," a collection of sumptuous furnishings made from the best money could buy: Oak, cherry, ebony, boxwood, satinwood, cedar, holly, ivory, coral, mother-of-pearl, abalone, copper, brass, and silver.
On view through Sept. 4, the exhibit not only offers the unique view of a Gilded Age wealth and extravagance at its height, but it does so without the backdrop of an ornate "cottage."
One doesn't have to look far in the Berkshires to find the Gilded Age or the influence of its "Cottagers."
Jennifer Huberdeau, the online editor for the Berkshire Eagle and New England Newspapers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_DigitalJen. "The Cottager," which explores summer homes and lifestyles of the 'Berkshire Cottagers,' will appear bi-weekly in Berkshires Week.
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