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Industrial Might & Magic

Stunning exhibit offers works from influential American era

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The Mint Museum's The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is an absolutely stunning exhibit that features 60 masterpieces of American art. The names of the sculptors and painters are familiar, as are many of the artworks. It's easy to be seduced by the incredible beauty and amazing technical finesse of these objects. At the same time, this is an incredibly complex time in American history and, aside from the sheer aesthetic beauty, there are other things to consider. While the Biltmore House in Asheville was being built as a vacation home for George W. Vanderbilt, thousands of people lived in cramped tenement houses in New York City. This was the Gilded Age, a period of great social change and extreme contrast in America. At a time when the population was exploding, class distinctions were one of those extremes. In this period following the Civil War, one percent of Americans owned 50 percent of the country's wealth.

Mark Twain, always a keen observer, wrote a book with Charles Dudley Warner in 1873. Its title: The Gilded Age -- A Tale of Today. The book was a direct and caustic attack on government, politicians, and big business in post-Civil War America; it also satirized the selfishness and money-making schemes that were common at that time (sound familiar?). The title of this book gave the period its name.

The Gilded Age was the era of industrialization. Twain and Warner used this term to describe the superficial culture created by the newly rich in America -- Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie -- who attempted to model their world after that of moneyed Europeans. Their enormous mansions were modeled after English estates, French chateaux and Italian palaces. The wealthy filled their homes with antiques, art, rare books and exotic embellishments, and they spent their leisure time attending the opera or the ballet, or relaxing at their lavish vacation homes. The entire focus was to create an aura of refinement, a gilded facade.

The majority of Americans lived quite differently. They lived modestly in apartments or small houses. They enjoyed learning about the latest inventions and technology at fairs and expositions. Those who could afford it attended the circus, vaudeville, the movies and baseball games. Baseball became so popular in this period, it was dubbed the national pastime. Many people enjoyed magazines filled with pictures, as well as dime novels -- affordable, entertaining books that often stressed American values such as hard work and determination.

With a few exceptions, most of the art in this exhibit was commissioned by the wealthy, or created with them in mind. Yet ordinary people are also an important part of this story. However, you might not consider their role as you walk through the exhibit, because, for the most part, they're not present in the artworks on display. It's intriguing that some aspects of this time period are manifested not by what we see in The Gilded Age, but by what we don't see.

You cannot look at the dreamy painting by Thomas Wilmer Dewing called "The Reading" without noting that these elegant young women have the freedom to wile away their afternoon. Why? Because someone else tends the garden, prepares the meals, handles the laundry and manages the household. Albert Herter's portrait "Woman with Red Hair" embodies the elegance of the Gilded Age. The woman in the painting wears an exquisitely beautiful, hand-crafted garment that only someone of her station could commission someone to make.

The exhibit also invites us to consider the roles played by women and men during this time. Again, we can do this as much as by what we see as what we don't see. With a few exceptions, it seems that women are everywhere in this exhibit. John Singer Sargent's exquisitely painted portrayal of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler finds her beautifully posed in her well-appointed home. Frank Benson's breezy painting "Summer" depicts an ethereal creature clad in billowy white and pastel garments floating through the landscape toward the viewer. And William Sergeant Kendall's "An Interlude" portrays an intimate moment between mother and daughter. There are also a number of graceful, poetic portrayals of angels, as well as biblical females such as Henry O. Tanner's erotically charged painting "Salome." It's curious, perhaps even ironic, that all of these paintings are by men, while the only painted portrait of a man in the exhibit is painted by Cecilia Beaux.

Not only does the exhibit invite us to consider such issues as class and gender, it also beckons us to think about the mediums of painting and sculpture. Paintings range from the heavily layered, paint encrusted surfaces of Albert Pinkham Ryder's abstract, visionary seascapes to H. Siddons Mowbray's representational style that depends upon the careful application of paint to achieve the photographic clarity seen in the painting "Idle Hours." American sculptors mastered the art of bronze casting during this period, learning to use its sleek surfaces and patinas. Augustus Saint-Gauden's bronze sculpture "The Adams Memorial" is, as the catalogue aptly states, "one of American art's most hauntingly eloquent sculptures." The life-size, marble sculpture "Undine" by Chauncey Bradley Ives is a technical tour de force with its smooth, sensual surface.

Yet there are a number of artists represented in the exhibit who rejected the values of the Gilded Age. Some depicted work as opposed to leisure, while others turned to nature. The impact of Industrialism, as it changed the landscape, no doubt caused many artists to consider its impact on the environment. Winslow Homer's "High Cliff, Coast of Maine" depicts of power of the sea with thick, forceful brushstrokes. "September Afternoon" by George Inness depicts the quiet beauty and mystery of nature with highly saturated color and soft, scumbling brushstrokes. Both images are far removed from the materialistic preoccupations of the Gilded Age.

The Gilded Age: Treasures of Art from the Smithsonian American Art Museum offers an interesting slice of American art history and invites us to consider much more than the beauty and the technical virtuosity of the artworks on display. The Gilded Age was a time of enormous growth and unrest, extraordinary wealth and depressing poverty, of railroads, factories, buildings and invention. In fact, many historians consider The Gilded Age as the start of today's America, as many facets of modern life are mirrored in this period of enormous achievement in the visual arts.

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