Portrait of Mrs. Waldorf Astor (née Nancy Langhorne), 1908, by John Singer Sargent (Cliveden House, England)
The words Gilded Age capture it all: A golden era of stupendous 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 gained 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 clothes and art, and take up recreational activities as never before. Sitting for a portrait, preferably by John Singer Sargent, became an important status symbol.
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, though, 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 a 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 the period between 1870 and 1910, and also explores the dramatic distance between their lives and those on the other end of the social and economic scales.
9:30–10:45 a.m. How the Other Half Lives
An introduction to the Gilded Age in New York, the era of vast gulfs between robber barons—Vanderbilt, Frick, Astor, Gould, and others—and the masses. 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 a.m.–12:15 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, Carrère and Hastings and McKim, Mead & White.
12:15–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–2:45 p.m. Cottages and Country Houses
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 new fortunes a way to signal their arrival and helped established families to further 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.
3–4:15 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, and even the upper class’s favored pets. John Singer Sargent, the portraitist of Anglo-American society, is featured.
Billman is an affiliated faculty member in the department of art and art history at Georgetown University.
World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1 credit*
*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.
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