- Historic Sites
Images Of Elegant New York
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
But this did not dishearten me. It seemed to me that a record in painting, covering the history of a great city, of how its rich and fashionable families wished to see themselves, against the interiors in which they liked to immerse themselves, had to have some kind of sociological message for us today. After all, if that was what they had wanted to look like, it must have been how thousands upon thousands of their less privileged contemporaries had also wanted to look. It is startling to consider, as we look back into history, how much our conception of any period is dominated by the costumes of its upper class. When we say Elizabethan, don’t we think of a ruffed collar and jewels?
Astor and Vanderbilt—these two names evoke, even in a school child today, all the sense of New York’s nineteenth-century opulence. I had to be sure that both paintings were available before I started. Mrs. Vincent Astor, the widow of a son of the John Jacob Astor who was lost on the Titanic , assured me that she would lend the Rossi, as did the Cecil brothers, who own Biltmore, built by their grandfather, George W. Vanderbilt, where the Guy painting hangs. Now I could begin.
The next problem was to find the pictures. I had a limited budget and had to find them in the city itself or at most in the suburbs.
I started by writing to every museum and historical society in New York. Of the fifty-eight pictures ultimately exhibited, twenty-five came from such institutions. I then wrote to members of families that might be expected to own such pictures, and I obtained a list from Helen Read of Portraits, Inc., of painters who were reputed to have done such portraits. The Frick Art Reference Library helped me to run down their works and present whereabouts. But most of all, I worked by word of mouth, asking, asking, asking. This proved the most fruitful method. When I had a sufficient number of commitments, I went looking for a gallery, and Vladimir Visson at Wildenstein’s had the vision to see that the show might be a credit to their splendid new display rooms on Sixty-fourth Street.
Hanging the show was the moment of truth. Would the assemblage have anything to say about the social history of New York, or would it be only a miscellaneous collection of likenesses? I had some very beautiful pictures and some pretty bad ones, some that were frankly amusing and some that were almost dull. And what came out of it finally was just what one might have predicted from the germ of the first two pictures. The show, in the aggregate, was a portrait (not a painting, but a portrait, i.e. something paid for, commissioned) of the soul of the city merchant at home. Old New York and middle-aged New York and even, to a lesser extent, modern New York came together in a happy blend of sentimentalities, of rather tense proprieties, of wellpressed, well-starched, tightly buttoned primnesses, of solid, comfortable egotisms. Wandering through the great galleries of Wildenstein’s under the benignant countenances of those good burghers, one had a curious sense of guarded relaxation, of cautious enlightenment.
Theirs was indeed a world of interiors, a world that was neatly and closely boxed. But once the limits had been defined, however rigorously, by a forty- or sixty-foot brownslone front, then they could let themselves go a bit, could show off, could strut. Their parlors, in the paintings of Eastman Johnson, gleam under dark red wrappings: Hatches and Blodgetts are sumptuous in lace, on plush. August Belmont and William Astor exhibit a lordliness, a patriarchal mien that strikes an almost Oriental note, and certainly the ladies, the lovely languid ladies—Mrs. Hall as conceived by Gordigiani, Mrs. Blodgett as interpreted by Johnson—seem exempt from windy streets and the nip of Manhattan winters.
Even when they look outdoors, or actually go there, they manage to remain essentially within. The Dennings, although discovered in their Wall Street garden (a description that seems to us a contradiction in terms), look as if they had been sitting in the parlor of a house whose roof and sides have just been removed by magic; and if the Whitehouses are packed by Healy into a barge on the Thames, they are still careful to stay close to shore and to keep their umbrellas well up. Best of all is Mrs. Bamberger being rescued at sea after the sinking of the Ocean Monarch and hanging on to a spar as easily and securely as if it were an armrest.