- Historic Sites
Images Of Elegant New York
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
New York has always been a city of people proud of their possessions—their houses, their furniture, their pictures, their jewels, the size of their families. Whereas Bostomans, Philadelphians, and Char le s tomans have cultivated a diffident manner about such things, New Torkers have loved to parade them for all the world to see. Perhaps no genre of painting was more suitable for such display than the “conversation piece.” The origins of the form lie in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Holland: there, after the Reformation ended the painting of religious pictures, artists turned for patrons to the rising merchant class. These newly wealthy men wanted group pictures to proclaim their new power to the world: pictures of family scenes, military companies, guilds. It was a period when Frans Hals portrayed the Women Regents of the Old Men’s Home and Rembrandt did The Syndics of the Drapers’Guild . The New York painter generally had much the same sort of patrons—rich men, usually self-made, of the merchant and professional classes who wanted to celebrate their success. And like their Dutch predecessors, the Neu) York artists were usually paid according to the number of persons in the composition. 7heir ideal was In make their sillers look as though they had been caught almost unawares, with the morning papers spread open, the new baby just brought in, the coffee just served, the good story still echoing through the room. Some outstanding conversation pieces are shown on the following pages. They have been selected from a recent exhibit organized by Mr. Auchmdoss and discussed in the accompanying article. —The Editors
O ne night as I was yawning through a tawdry musical comedy entitled Ben Franklin in Paris , whose humor seemed adapted to an audience of ten-year-olds, I awoke with a start to realize that this was a benefit performance for my beloved Museum of the City of New York! Here we were, the trustees of an institution that was supposed to be trying to preserve a little patch of history in a wilderness of asphalt and glass cubes, trying to keep alive some small smouldering ember of tradition in a city where a 1930 edifice is already regarded as a landmark, sponsoring a play that was a travesty of history to the point of insult!
“Shouldn’t our benefits have some relation to the aims of the Museum?” I asked the chairman of our ways and means committee. “Shouldn’t they have some bearing on the history of New York?”
“Fine,” she said. “Why don’t you arrange one that does?”
So there I was. It happens that I have a table in my office with a removable glass cover under which, for my amusement and sometimes for my inspiration, I assemble little “shows” of photographs. Going there the next morning, I discovered two photographs of paintings that I had placed side by side for contrast: one by Lucius Rossi (1878) of the William Astor family, showing them in their home at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, in the famous ballroom that was supposed to hold only the elected Four FIundred; the other by Seymour J. Guy (1873) of the William H. Vanderbilts and their children in the parlor of 470 Fifth Avenue. (This painting was reproduced on pages 8 and 9 of the April, 1966, issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE .)
I noted that only five years and eight city blocks separated the two paintings, yet the artists saw two different worlds. Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt are surrounded by offspring and servants in a cluttered Victorian parlor, its walls covered by indifferent paintings of the academic school, its atmosphere one of solid Yankee upper-middle-class domestic comfort. In 1873 the mighty Commodore, father of Mr. Vanderbilt and grandfather of the eight children, was still living and still maintained his tight hold upon America’s greatest fortune. The fairy-book era of spending and building that followed the release of the old man’s millions, which the architectural historian Henry Hope Reed, Jr., likes to call the “American Renaissance,” is about to burst upon the heads in that quiet parlor, but it has not yet come. The Astors, on the other hand, are seen at the summit of their social supremacy, before they have recognized even the existence of the Vanderbilts. Everything in their ballroom points to Europe, to an aristocratic rather than a republican tradition. The ladies, doll-like in Worth dresses and with tiny feet, might have come from the court of Empress Eugénie, and their brooding lord and master might be an Italian prince in a novel by Marion Crawford. Suppose I could spread the idea over more than five years— Suppose I could spread it over three hundred?
So there it was, the germ. Why not do a benefit art show of New York City family paintings? Surely I could find enough of them to fill a gallery, and might they not, in the aggregate, have something to say about the history of the city? I knew that I would be limited to the portraiture of the well to do, for the obvious reason that only they could afford to be painted, and I realized—what was more of a drawback—that the pictures would be bound to contain some degree of flattery.