The Gilded Age: Exhibit reveals sophistication, opulence

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CLEVELAND – In 1873, Mark Twain wrote a popular novel in which he described the Gilded Age as America’s “golden road to fortune.”

But during the 1870s-1920s, as result of this newfound wealth, American art burgeoned to new levels of sophistication and elegance.

Cleveland exhibit. The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., from Feb. 23 to May 18.

It will feature 60 paintings and sculptures by some of the most important artists of that era, including Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Henry O. Tanner and John Singer Sargent.

Admission to this exhibition and the museum is free.

New wealth. The Industrial Revolution led to the creation of vast fortunes in America. These newly wealthy patrons sought culture, and commissioned or bought works by an array of American artists.

This period, more than any other time in America’s history, aspired to European ideals of aristocracy and patronage with unprecedented collaborations between wealthy American patrons and artists.

Society portraitists such as John Singer Sargent posed Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (1893) – whose family was heir to John Jacob Astor’s fortune – in his London studio, flanked by old-master paintings. Cecilia Beaux portrayed her brother-in-law Henry Sturgis Drinker – a hard-driving corporate railroad lawyer – as relaxed and casual in Man with the Cat (1898), resplendent in a cream-colored suit and pink shirt.

Have money, will travel. The Gilded Age was also an international age, when artists and their patrons traveled widely to visit exotic cultures.

Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangiers, Morocco (1873) reflects this interest and foreshadows the artist’s later development of opulent interiors.

Evocations of music abounded, seen in Childe Hassam’s Improvisation (1899), an impressionist portrayal of a woman playing the piano, and Thomas Dewing’s allegorical Music (about 1895), in which a prevailing gold palette reflects a musical tonality.

Spiritual counterpoint. Spiritual themes – countering fears that Americans were overly materialistic – appear in Abbott Thayer’s four paintings in the exhibition, including Angel (1887).

The surge of wealth allowed the construction of many elegant townhouses, settings for fine art collections and decorations. Apollo with Cupids (1880-82), a panel by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John La Farge, once adorned the dining room of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City.

American sculptors. In addition, American sculptors mastered bronze casting, learning to use its sleek surfaces and rich patinas to achieve great decorative effect.

Twelve bronzes are in the exhibition, ranging from Daniel Chester French’s Concord Minute Man of 1775 (modeled in 1889) to Adolph Weinman’s Descending Night and Rising Sun (1914-15).

The most famous sculptor of the Gilded Age was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, represented in this exhibition by several works, including an early model for the Diana (1889) that once graced the top of New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Rare Flying Dutchman. Four rare paintings by the visionary artist Albert Pinkham Ryder are also included in the show, each a story of betrayal and redemption based on literary sources.

Flying Dutchman (completed by 1887) portrays the legendary “phantom ship” with the glowing color, dramatic composition and complex layered painting technique that made Ryder a favorite among collectors.

Since Ryder’s technique causes his paintings to be unusually fragile, the Smithsonian Museum rarely lends his works. Special humidity-controlled packing and shipping technology will allow the paintings to be displayed at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Winslow Homer. Winslow Homer, like Ryder, probed beneath the glitter of the Gilded Age to explore undercurrents of anxiety.

High Cliff, Coast of Maine (1894), in which waves pound a rocky shore, is considered one of Homer’s finest late seascapes.

Complementary exhibition. An adjacent exhibition will be devoted to more than 15 paintings and decorative arts from the museum’s permanent collection.

Cleveland Collects American Art: Cleveland in the Gilded Age will include renowned works by Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

For more information on the museum, its holdings, programs, services and events, call 1-888-CMA-0033 or visit www.ClevelandArt.org.

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