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Art: Gilty Pleasures

Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Manhattan townhouse was the epitome of grandeur and grace during the 1880s. The largest of several Vanderbilt family homes along Fifth Avenue, it was staffed with 37 liveried servants and its facade resembled a fairy-tale version of a French château. In the dining room, guests were dwarfed by a towering mahogany mantelpiece, crowned by a 273⁄4-by-631⁄2-inch sculptural panel titled Apollo with Cupids created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the leading sculptor of the time. Constructed from African mahogany, hammered bronze, colored marble, mother-of-pearl, and ivory, the panel is now part of The Gilded Age, a 60-work traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition. It appears at the Long Island Museum of American Art in Stony Brook, N.Y., through July 14, and at various museums across the country through January 2003.

The mythological references in Apollo with Cupids were typical of the Gilded Age, which the exhibit defines as spanning the 1870s through the 1920s. The upper classes knew the ancient tales of Western civili-zation as intimately as we know today’s pop culture, and the message of Apollo with Cupids would not have been lost on them. “Just as Vanderbilt’s grand house carried a statement of social standing, his having the god Apollo in the house told the world who he was. It was a statement of power,” says Henry Duffy, curator at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H.

The Greek god was both a classic symbol of power and a modern one. The Gilded Age took its name from the title of a Mark Twain novel about a newly enriched young American trying to buy the princely refinement and culture of European nobles. Apollo is a key motif in the decor of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles, then considered the most regal, refined, and cultured place in Europe. “Having something that Louis XIV had told the world, ‘We’re top-of-the-line, too,’ ” Duffy says, adding that business titans who admired Louis XIV set the tone for the art market. “Artists who wanted commissions knew the best way to get them was to [imitate the style of] the Sun King. You couldn’t get higher than that in the Gilded Age.”

The art of John Singer Sargent also fit the ennoblement desires of Gilded Age America. “His grand-manner style, soft, buttery brushwork, insights into personality, and virtuosity in recording the sheen of dresses and drapery proved irresistible to the beautiful people of his era,” says Stephen May of the National Gallery of Art. Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth (Bessie) Winthrop Chanler appears on the cover of the exhibit’s catalog. Dressed in a black ball gown with puffed sleeves, the 26-year-old heir to John Jacob Astor’s fortune could pass for a European royal.

But Sargent did not portray Bessie as some luxury-loving lioness; he knew better. Chanler’s mother died when she was 9, forcing her to act as mother to seven younger siblings. Later, at 13, she developed a disease that forced her to spend two years strapped to a board to prevent curvature of the spine. Sargent captures the tension of her fiercely disciplined emotional life by portraying her with the face of a madonna, and tightly locked hands and arms.

While Sargent’s portrait is remarkably perceptive, there was usually little connection between Gilded Age patrons and the artists they hired. Vanderbilt had nothing to do with commissioning Apollo with Cupids. His architect hired painter John La Farge to supervise the decor of the dining room, and La Farge commissioned Saint-Gaudens. Nonetheless, thanks to the financial support of patrons such as the Vanderbilts and Chanlers, artists during this period created masterpieces that now belong to everyone. The exhibit demonstrates that the enthusiasms of the Gilded Age’s wealthy produced more than simply monuments to themselves.

Long Island Museum of American Art in Stony Brook, N.Y., 631.751.0066

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