New York: Art and Culture Capital of the Gilded Age

Today on Gotham, coordinating editor Katie Uva speaks to Margaret R. Laster and Chelsea Bruner, editors of New York: Art and Culture Capital of the Gilded Age.

Why was the Gilded Age pivotal for New York culturally? What conditions were different in this era compared to before the Civil War?

Our central premise is that in a period of unprecedented economic expansion and class consolidation after the Civil War, New York became the cultural capital of the U.S., not by luck or happenstance, but through the self-conscious efforts of its economic elites. Further, that the interrelated developments that gave rise to the city’s supremacy in art and culture constituted the defining moment of the Gilded Age. The book, a compilation of distinct but thematically interconnected case studies, fleshes out this thesis through essays by a group of established authors including historians, art historians, and experts in architecture and material culture.

While important strides towards cultural sophistication were made in the antebellum period, the years during and immediately after the Civil War figured prominently in New York’s evolution. The transcontinental telegraph and railroad sped communications, turning the country’s economic engines faster. At the same time, men who had gained managerial experience in the war earned vast fortunes in the postwar boom of real estate, industry, and finance. And finally, the sense of elite class consciousness that was cemented in the 1870s and the 1880s — the elite’s perception of themselves as a cohesive socioeconomic group — truly drove New York’s transformation into a thriving cosmopolitan mecca.

Who were some of the major players shaping art and culture in New York in this era?

The major players were citizens who must be considered “elite”. This group encompassed some of the upper social echelons and wealthiest members of society — industrialists, businessmen, entrepreneurs — who patronized the arts, commissioned great houses, and helped establish institutions ostensibly for the public benefit. There were as well prominent artists, critics, writers and other tastemakers who, while not necessarily economically privileged, wielded substantial cultural and social capital. As these individuals sought to elevate New York’s standing to be on par with or even surpass the great capitals of Europe, they created their own prototypes and models, influenced by antebellum precedent but expanded to suit their own time.

Key players examined in our chapters include railroad magnate William K. Vanderbilt and his wife Alva Vanderbilt; bibliophile and collector James Lenox; critic Richard Watson Gilder and his wife artist Helena de Kay; sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and William Wetmore Story; financier, patron, and early Met founder and second president, Henry Gurdon Marquand.

Can you speak to the relationship between the arts as it flourished in peoples' personal consumption patterns and social relationships in this period and the arts as it proliferated through new cultural institutions (theaters, museums, etc.) in the city during this time?

“The Marquand Gallery of Old Masters, Metropolitan Museum of Art,” 1897. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1897

“The Marquand Gallery of Old Masters, Metropolitan Museum of Art,” 1897. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1897

This is a fascinating question that we hope will continue to intrigue scholars of this period. To be sure, exorbitant amounts of wealth helped to ensure that art collecting and other forms of personal cultural consumption would rise exponentially during these post-Civil War decades (harking back to and exceeding James Jackson Jarves’ prescient comment of 1863: that “private galleries are becoming almost as common as private stables.”)

Collecting became an expression of social standing and privilege. While such patrons as William H. Vanderbilt (father of William K. Vanderbilt) and, earlier, John Taylor Johnston, would periodically open their domestic galleries to select members of the public, and they and others would allow their interiors and holdings to be chronicled by such writers as Earl Shinn, the works of art they amassed were primarily accessible only to their peers. Yet, at this same moment, new institutions, most notably The Metropolitan Museum of Art (founded in 1870), were established seemingly for the public benefit.

But what is especially interesting — and comes to the fore in our book — is that these different spheres of the burgeoning culture industry were not as distinct as one would imagine. The individuals who formed museums and other civic entities, also sat on their boards, controlled the purse strings, and exhibited and sometimes donated their holdings. Indeed there were differences as to how some collected for their personal interior spaces — whether or not exhibited in purpose-built domestic galleries — as against works specifically purchased for institutional settings. Case in point: as Esmée Quodbach demonstrates, the collecting patterns of Henry G. Marquand differed for his home and for the museum he helped to found. However, there were also commonalities as collectors would take works of art down from their own walls and lend them to museums (sometimes employing similar display strategies as in their homes) or, some, as Sally Webster shows in the case of James Lenox, would establish their own museums. Moreover, since this period in museum history was prior to the eventual professionalization of the “curator,” many of the trustees/donors made crucial decisions about the display of their works in the museum setting, thereby serving as de-facto curators. Some of these trends exist today as donor/patrons sometimes dictate the parameters involving the display of their art. Nonetheless, at this earlier moment it constituted a more common practice as these institutions were in the process of defining themselves, and their founders were cementing their own status as well.

What are some characteristics of the art and aesthetics of this period that distinguish Gilded Age culture from what came before or after it?

This question could be answered in a number of ways. Certainly, there was an aesthetic shift in interiors and architecture, and collectively, new kinds of building projects — new in style, scale, and typology — had an enormous impact, transforming the urban environment.

Alan Wallach offers an interesting theory in the realm of fine art. The focus of Wallach’s study is the Hudson River School — members included Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who had been the leading American artists in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Both painted landscapes; Cole’s were moralizing and symbolic, while Church’s were epic, sublime blockbusters.

Wallach argues that the Hudson River School not only fell from favor during the 1870s, but became the object of derision: their large-scale, highly-finished, often didactic works were increasingly denigrated and deemed inferior to smaller, more sketch-like works intended for intimate viewing. Wallach assigns the phrase “aestheticizing tendencies” to describe this new visual regime, which he identifies in the work of artists such as John Frederick Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford.

Significantly, this shift was not just about aesthetics: As Wallach shows, it had everything to do with class consolidation in the 1870s and 1880s — the elite’s sense of themselves as a distinct group, and the cultural hierarchy they established to distinguish between “high” art and “low” art as they defined it.

Naturally, this was (and is) reflected in art criticism, as well. Page Knox's essay on Scribner's Monthly, a periodical which ran from 1870 to 1881, clarifies these mechanisms of selection and promotion in New York’s postbellum art press. As Knox illustrates, Scribner’s editor Richard Watson Gilder and his wife, artist Helena de Kay, promoted their circle of friends as a “new school,” continually reinforcing the distinction between new and old, modern and out-of-date — again, as they defined it. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was a member of the Gilder-de Kay circle, offers a case study of this process. As Thayer Tolles outlines in her essay, Saint-Gaudens was not simply a beneficiary of Scribner’s promotion, he actively participated in the crafting of his public persona, and shaped the reception of his work in behind-the-scenes collaborations with Gilder that appeared in the pages of Scribner’s.

The Gilded Age is often discussed as a period of global eclecticism, where people might juxtapose European art with North African and Middle Eastern art alongside art from China or Japan in decorating their homes or crafting a wardrobe. Were there also notable depictions of New York City in this era, or changes in the way New York was depicted?

“Japanese Parlor, North West Corner.” Earl Shinn, Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, described by Edward Strahan [pseud.]. Two vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie & Sons, ca. 1883–1884)

“Japanese Parlor, North West Corner.” Earl Shinn, Mr. Vanderbilt’s House and Collection, described by Edward Strahan [pseud.]. Two vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie & Sons, ca. 1883–1884)

Currier & Ives, The City of New York, 1876. Color lithograph. Library of Congress

Currier & Ives, The City of New York, 1876. Color lithograph. Library of Congress

This is perhaps best answered as two separate questions. First, yes, this period could be wildly eclectic in terms of references and precedents. The first few years of the architectural firm McKim Mead & White’s work exemplifies this, as does Louis Comfort Tiffany’s short-lived decorating venture, Associated Artists, among others. The “Japanese Parlor” of William H. Vanderbilt’s home, illustrated in Kevin D. Murphy’s essay, is one such example. D. Appleton’s Artistic Houses of 1883-84 offers a comprehensive survey of this acquisitive impulse in art and interior decoration. Certainly, there was eclecticism in fashion as well. The range of historical and cultural references has partly to do with access to information — increasing travel, and the widening availability of publications. In a larger sense, it has to do with the awareness, for some Americans, of being on a world stage. It is not a new idea that one’s surroundings are a reflection of one’s standing, and for New York’s Gilded Age elite, that was true both at the individual level of houses and personal art collections, and collectively in the form of institution-building and the transformation of the urban environment.

Secondly, there were notable depictions of New York, and important changes in the way the city was represented. David Jaffee looks to the example of chromolithographs and stereo views of New York, and to Broadway specifically, which he presented as the characteristic street in the city. In Jaffee’s telling, New York was the subject of new, technologically-advanced types of imagery, the site of the images’ production, and the center of a national distribution network. In fact, there was a truly national market for such imagery precisely because the urban experience of New York in the 1870s and 1880s — its density, its crowds, its buildings — was unprecedented.

Indeed, the city’s physical transformation during this period was so vertiginous that even New Yorkers struggled to understand it. Ross Barrett’s essay explores “march of improvement” narratives, and the seemingly-endless cycle of demolition and construction (familiar even to contemporary New Yorkers) through a close reading of William Holbrook Beard’s 1879 canvas, The Bulls and Bears in the Market. As Barrett illustrates, Beard’s painting functioned as a humorous spoof — one that refigured and refuted real estate booster narratives, while giving physical correlation to the seemingly uncontrollable forces of the market.

In his essay, David Scobey expands this discussion far beyond the confines of the city, placing New York centrally in a nexus of visual production and distribution, interestingly, even in imagery of the American West. As Scobey articulates, representations of Manifest Destiny and the Western landscape were inextricably connected to New York City — again, often as the site of the image’s production and distribution, but New York was also a symbolic urban pendant to the untamed Western landscape.

In the introduction to your book, you mention the idea of the Gilded Age as a time of "malefactions and benefactions." Can you explain the tensions or contradictions about New York's wealthy in this period?

We appropriated the terms “malefactions” and “benefactions” in our introduction from Wayne Craven’s 2009 volume Gilded Mansions. We believe these concepts can be expanded to provide a suitable frame of reference to this vital period of the city’s history, one replete with implicit dualities and paradoxes. As our authors recognize, ruthless exploitation on the part of its elite citizens was often concurrent with their extraordinary ambition to elevate New York as a great cultural mecca.

The institutions they formed were not always as accessible to the greater public as they proclaimed them to be. In his essay on early founders of The Met, John Ott argues that beyond issues of philanthropy, these players were driven by the dictates of corporatization. In this context, he offers an interpretation of The Met’s establishment, organization, and display practices not as neutral acts, but as calculated efforts to advance the interests of elite shareholders. In a somewhat similar vein, Lauren Lessing’s essay on The Met’s early display of four heroic female sculptures by William Wetmore Story illuminates how their installation reinforced the male trustees’ gender-biased values and standards.

Moreover, some of our authors underscore the fact that the upper class or bourgeois factions responsible for the city’s cultural evolution during the 1870s and 1880s did not and could not operate in a vacuum; rather, they frequently benefitted from great financial and societal disparities. As Josh Brown references in the volume’s afterword, this period of unprecedented affluence for some would contrast with the widespread misery experienced by many who suffered from the economic crises and cycles of recession and depression. For example, the Panic of 1873, with the collapse of the investment banking house of Jay Cooke and Company, left one-quarter of New York’s working population unemployed.

Kevin D. Murphy’s chapter on the identity formation and architectural patronage of members of the Vanderbilt family foregrounds the consolidation of their elite economic, social, and cultural power, in the face of persistent economic crises that ignited strikes and social unrest. As Murphy shows, working class resistance to the Vanderbilts’ draconian business practices would propel these social elites eager to distinguish themselves by an overt display of their wealth and status, to embark on cultural choices that sought to realign the city’s topography.

What are some important legacies of the Gilded Age in New York's cultural structures today?

We would argue that New York’s status as a cultural capital in the twenty-first century is a direct legacy of the 1870s and 1880s: the city’s world class museums and libraries (The Metropolitan Museum will be commemorating its sesquicentennial in 2020; the New York Public Library; and many others), the gallery scene, the auction houses, and the art market. The myriad connections that can be drawn between that period and our current one are uncanny, including the disparity between the great wealth and poverty that continues in our own time. Thus the increasingly frequent reference to New York’s “second Gilded Age.” At this very moment, the urban landscape is being transformed by a new elite whose wealth is unprecedented. Yet in buying costly apartments, purchasing fine and decorative art, and patronizing art and cultural institutions in the city, they are following a precedent — one that was established by New York’s cultural elite 150 years ago.