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"The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" opens at Cantor Arts Center March 28

Two women attired in silk robes watch a couple of turtles on the floor. One woman, loosely holding a wicker fan, lies on a couch. A flower is tucked behind her right ear. The other sits on a chair in front of a gold table. Her fingers caress the strings of a mandolin.

The painting, Idle Hours, could have sprung from the imagination of one of those Romantic Continental artists of the early 1800s -- except that it's by Harry Siddon Mowbray, an American, and was finished in 1895. Mowbray often depicted his patrons in settings and wardrobes that reflected their fantasies about the exotic East. Wealthy Americans of the Gilded Age associated a lush and Romantic painting style with European aristocracy, which they often strove to emulate. In Idle Hours, the result resembles a collision between an Edith Wharton novel and a painting by Eugène Delacroix.

Mowbray's painting is among 60 works that will be on view when "The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" opens March 28 at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts. The exhibition, which runs through June 17, will feature work by such well-known artists of the era as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Childe Hassam.

The Gilded Age lasted from roughly 1876 to World War I. It is an era known for its vigorous capitalism, showy wealth and shallow materialism of the ruling class. But material riches, as the title of the era suggests, were a thin veneer: A large, poor working class supported the incredible fortunes of men like Andrew Carnegie, and corruption was rampant.

Still, much of the art produced during the era was truly gold.

"The 'Gilded Age' connotes a refined, elegant aesthetic of art. In fact, it's tied in with what we call the Aesthetic Movement," said Patience Young, a curator for education at the Cantor Arts Center.

Painters of the era concentrated on producing elegant lines, color and composition in their work, Young said. And both artists and their patrons traveled widely, fueling the exoticism seen in such paintings as Idle Hours; Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangiers, Morocco, by Louis Comfort Tiffany; and Oriental Interior, by Frederick Arthur Bridgman.

Artists often strove to make their paintings more appealing than reality. They offered beautified versions of their subjects in vibrant colors ­ as in Spring Dance, by Arthur Mathews, or Mother and Child (Lady Shannon and Kitty), by John Jebusa Shannon, both of which will be on display.

"Paintings from the Gilded Age are very beautiful, colorful, opulent -- there's a lot of conspicuous glamour to them," said Wanda Corn, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History, who taught a freshman seminar this quarter called "American Art and Culture in the Gilded Age."

During this time, American sculptors mastered the art of bronze casting. The exhibition will feature 12 bronze sculptures, including Daniel Chester French's Concord Minute Man of 1774 and Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Diana.

"One of the things that the exhibition offers the viewer is an immense range of approaches and styles. We have paintings that are close to photographic in their clarity and paintings that are very atmospheric. Subjects are drawn from the real and natural world, as well as some literary, religious, classical and mythological sources. And all are very accomplished," Young said.

Both artists and patrons wanted to show an America that had matured beyond its early provincialism and could equal Europe's culture and grace. Many paintings of the period evoke music -- such as Childe Hassam's Improvisation (1899) and Thomas Dewing's allegorical painting Music (about 1895).

Painters also produced many sophisticated portraits, such as Sargent's famous Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler (1893) and Cecilia Beaux's painting of her brother-in-law, Henry Sturgis Drinker, in Man with the Cat (1898).

And the aristocratic ambition of the wealthy class also influenced ideas about gender roles. Among high society, the philosophy was that women and men should remain in separate ideological spheres, according to Corn.

"There's a lot of idealizing vocabulary that gets used by artists -- a lot of effort to present women as perfect mothers and perfect wives. ... The wealthy liked to keep women at their leisure," she said.

But the era also had its renegades, like Winslow Homer, Corn added. And some stormier scenes are featured in the exhibit. They are like ripostes to the poised portraiture and serene landscapes of many other paintings. For example, four paintings by the artist Albert Pinkham Ryder are inspired by stories of betrayal and redemption from literary sources -- for example, Jonah (about 1885-1895) and The Flying Dutchman (1887) -- and, for the most part, show unfriendly seas. (The works are unusually fragile and are rarely lent for exhibitions.) Homer's High Cliff, Coast of Maine (1894) shows waves crashing into a rocky shore.

Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is scheduled to give a lecture titled "Gilded or Golden? American Art in an Ambitious Age" at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 29, in Annenberg Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

Young will teach a one-day seminar called "The Gilded Age: Beyond Appearances," scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 31. (The cost is $40 for members of the Cantor Center or $60 for nonmembers. To register, call 650-725-3155.)

Corn will discuss some of the issues raised by the exhibit at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 10, in Annenberg Auditorium, as part of the Deparment of Art and Art History's Faculty Talks series. That event is free and open to the public.

In addition, free, docent-led tours of the exhibition are scheduled to be held Thursdays at 12:15 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.


By John Sanford

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