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Industrialization in America brought new abundance. Old money increased while new money appeared. People were not gratified with spirituality and serene landscapes. New American art was “intended to satisfied immediate desires for beauty and sensuality” (Pohl, 2012, p. 286). The period of 1865-1910 was mockingly called “the Gilded Age” because gilding is just an imitation of gold and it vanishes with time or under pressure. While one part of the society was rich, another starved and worked for pennies. Inasmuch as economic conditions were changing, tastes in art reflected it
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New money dictated its rules. Wealth should have been visible and palpable. Houses of the nouveau rich were supposed to be impressive and elaborately decorated. In architecture, revivalism and eclectic ruled. Houses were spacious with separate entrances and passage ways for the service. Rich people of that period liked their houses to present a heady mix of Renaissance, Rococo, and Gothic. In her book Framing America: A social history of American art, Frances Kathryn Pohl (2012) remarks that “Sometimes one house would contain rooms in different period styles, or rooms that combined elements from many different periods” (p. 282). Great architectural examples of that period are monumental works of Louis Sullivan in Chicago with gilded facades and tasteful ornaments drawn from nature (Pohl, 2012, p. 303).
In decoration, the most expensive fabrics and materials were used. Velvet, chandeliers, plush carpets, gilded mirrors, and carved furniture were supposed to “suggest the wealth of its inhabitants” (Pohl, 2012, p. 283). A vivid example of it is a Rococo Revival parlor richly furnished with carved rosewood furniture by John Henry Belter and with tapestry velvet rug on the floor (Pohl, 2012, p. 282). That was the time when Louis Comfort Tiffany became a high-demad jewelry designer. Jewelry and silverware as well as stained glass items were popular, which ever since have become the signature product of Tiffany. Affluent American women loved to decorate their houses with ceramics and embroidery. Japanese motifs also attracted much interest (Pohl, 2012, p. 308).
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As for paintings, together with the interiors of the prosperous they “became more decidedly decorative” as well (Pohl, 2012, p. 283). The aesthetics of the Gilded Age made a miniscule step to the non-figurative art by shifting the focus from the meaning of the painting to the pure pleasure of looking at it. It became fashionable to portray women “never engaged in any apparently meaningful activity” just wandering through the landscape (Pohl, 2012, p. 283). That was the moment when “women and art conflated” (Pohl, 2012, p. 283). No longer had artists wanted to paint masculine men against the background of historical events. Their place was taken by tender women, either dressed or nude. However, soon “the pure and innocent American Girl [was banished] from her position as national icon [by] the more aggressive New Woman, more apt to be criticized than celebrated in painting” (Pohl, 2012, p. 291). New “femme fatale” was usually supported by money of her father or husband and could afford not to be submissive.
There is a good reason why the rich wanted the hired help to use separate doorways. The prosperous people wanted to differ in all the ways from the poor ones. Therefore, the servants in the upper class houses wore uniform. Paintings reflect this difference with the help of the servants’ dark clothes and white aprons, and collars. Pohl (2012) writes that “mistresses, as decorative objects, testify to the wealth of the man of the house” (p. 280). For example, William Henry Lippincott’s Infantry in Arms clearly distinguisheed the mistress from the help. Being made from lush green velvet and decorated with lace and ribbons her clothes are clearly expensive. It would be hard to get confused and not to distinguish one from another. In A Spring Morning in the Park, Alice Barber Stephens paints in impressionistic style numerous women sitting around in dark dresses and white hats and aprons around infants. Only one lady in the foreground dressed as a mistress is holding a little dog and looking at a baby but not taking care of it (Pohl, 2012, p. 296).
Harriet Cany Peale places an accent on relationship between women of different races. In her painting Her Mistress’s Clothes, the artist portrays an Anglo-Saxon woman contrasted against her African American female servant. In pictures of this type, the posture of the white woman usually suggested the superiority of the white race. By placing the white girl’s hand on the black girl’s neck Peale implied that the African Americans in Philadelphia were in a weak position.
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The painting In the Studio by William Merritt Chase reflects consumer culture of the day. If in previous time people took heart in work and religion, now people wanted to spend money and acquire goods. Depicting a lavishly decorated artist’s studio Chase shows it so appealing that potential customers might want to buy something from him the moment they see the picture. Such paintings could have been prototypes of commercial advertisements while such studios could have given rise to “the new palaces of consumption … department stores” (Pohl, 2012, p. 286).
The period of the Gilded Age ushered in the general tendency toward consumption. Architecture and interior design are characterized with excessive decoration and desire to demonstrate wealth. In paintings, new ideals came in the stead of serenity of American landscapes.
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