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The Gilded Age: Art, Architecture, and Society

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The Gilded Age: Art, Architecture, and Society

Weekend All-Day Lecture/Seminar

Saturday, July 20, 2024 - 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2331
This online program is presented on Zoom.
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Materials for this program

The mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt II at the corner of 5th Avenue, 57th Street, and Grand Army Plaza, New York, 1908

The words Gilded Age capture it all: A golden era of opulent architecture, extravagant fashions, stunning art, and above all, the wealth that made it possible.

America in the booming post-Civil War decades was a place of contradictions and dichotomies. Great economic growth defined the period. This was a world ruled by robber barons—magnates who accumulated tremendous wealth in railways and communications, and in industries like iron, oil, coal, and steel.

The nouveaux riches used their wealth to build opulent homes and vacation “cottages,” buy expensive sculpture and paintings, and take up leisure activities as never before. Commissioning a portrait, preferably by John Singer Sargent, became an important status symbol. Buying dresses from Worth became a requirement.

Social critic Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to represent this money spent on luxury and leisure, and Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner dubbed the era the Gilded Age—one in which serious societal ills were hidden by a gilt façade.

Some of America’s monied class, however, used their wealth to improve New York, Chicago, Boston, and other cities with libraries, museums, theatres, parks, and other public improvements. That philanthropy is also part of the Gilded Age’s complex story.

Art historian Bonita Billman examines the art, architecture, fashion, and interior design of the upper crust during this period between 1870 and 1912, and explores the dramatic distance between their lives and those on the other end of the social and economic scales.

Billman is retired from the department of art history and history at Georgetown University.

10–11:15 a.m. How the Other Half Lives

An introduction to the Gilded Age in New York, the era of vast gulfs between industrial magnates—Vanderbilt, Frick, Astor, Gould, and others—and the masses. “The” Mrs. Astor and her elite guests, dubbed “The 400,” made for great headlines. The social competition between the Vanderbilts and the Astors consumed millions of dollars, while at the same time many thousands of immigrants lived in abject squalor. Photographer-journalist Jacob Riis documented how the underclass lived in burgeoning New York.

11:30 a.m.­–12:45 p.m. Gilded Gotham

New York City marched north along Fifth Avenue, and French chateaux and Italian Renaissance villas sprang up along the way. Examine the domestic architecture of Richard Morris Hunt, Carrere and Hastings and McKim, Mead & White.

12:45–1:15 p.m.  Break

1:15­–2:30 p.m.  The “Cottages” of Newport

The mansions of Newport, the summer getaway for the elite, were a showcase for the work of the most fashionable architects and designers. These seaside “cottages” gave owners of vast fortunes a way to signal their arrival and cement their status. Review the work of Newport’s most influential architect, Richard Morris Hunt, as well as the interior decorating contributions of author Edith Wharton and her colleague Ogden Codman.

2:45­­–4 p.m.  Idle Hours

For the first time in American history, the rich had the time to be the idle rich. Filling all those hours could be hard work. Look back at the recreational activities and pursuits of the Gilded Age: music, balls, croquet, tennis, polo, flat-racing, yachting, and even the upper class’s favorite pets. John Singer Sargent, the portraitist of Anglo-American society, is featured.

World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1 credit*

General Information

*Enrolled participants in the World Art History Certificate Program receive 1 elective credit. Not yet enrolled? Learn about the program, its benefits, and how to register here.