- Historic Sites
The Perils Of Immortality
For centuries the Newport rich have been commissioning portraits of themselves—and sometimes getting a surprise when they see the results
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
On a clement August evening in 1902, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III stood on the lawn of her Newport, Rhode Island, estate, receiving two hundred guests and looking, her son later recalled, like a Gainsborough painting in her plumed picture hat, cabochon emeralds, and diamond stomacher. The entertainment for the evening, which the press billed as “The Fete of Roses” and she called an at-home, included, in addition to a carnival complete with a calcium-lit midway and various games of chance, a production of the current musical hit The Wild Rose . Mrs. Vanderbilt spared neither effort nor expense—the Knickerbocker Theater went dark for two nights while the cast, scenery, and stage crew traveled north to her specially constructed theater—but her guests did not see the show that was packing in lesser mortals on Broadway. Like an MTV programmer, Mrs. Vanderbilt knew her audience’s attention span. She shaved the performance from three hours to one. While no one is claiming The Wild Rose marked a high point in the history of the American theater—it featured such memorable numbers as “Cupid Is the Captain” and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s favorite, “They Were All Doing the Same”—its mauling by a society matron is emblematic of the wary relationship between money and art.
The cave painters at Lascaux may have been the last to get along without patrons, and for all we know, they had others bringing home their bison. When the artist’s patron becomes his subject, the situation grows even more dicey. Uneasy is the hand that holds the brush that paints the slaver’s noble countenance, the merchant’s proud wife, the robber baron’s weakchinned heir.
In 1992 the Newport Art Museum assembled an exhibition of about two hundred portraits spanning a period of three centuries. Taken together, the paintings represented not only a who’s who of Newport but a retrospective of American portraiture from colonial times to the present, from Gilbert Stuart and Robert Feke to—and here’s the surprise—Diego Rivera and Richard Lindner. Many of the portraits, which belong to the sitters or their descendants, have since returned to their owners, but now the museum has put together 196 of them in a volume called Newportraits , published by the University Press of New England.
The collection, like the history of the city, has its high points and low. Settled in 1639 by a group fleeing the religious persecution of the Massachusetts Colony, colonial Newport was both celebrated and condemned for its tolerance. While Cotton Mather fulminated against this “common receptacle of the convicts of Jerusalem and the outcasts of the land,” merchants grew rich from the Triangular Trade, twenty-two distilleries turned molasses into rum, and one of the first paintings in the collection, a circa-1740 portrait of Mary Winthrop Wanton by Robert Feke, featured a décolletage so daring that in 1859 the directors of the local Redwood Library commissioned Jane Stuart, the daughter of Gilbert, to paint, under protest, a nosegay over the cleavage. Jane Stuart called the retouching an act of vandalism, but the patrons’ prudishness trumped the artist’s eye. And she had a widowed mother and several sisters to support.
Occupied by the British during the Revolution, Newport never recovered its former prosperity, despite its popularity as a summering spot for Southern gentry fleeing their native heat and malaria in the first half of the nineteenth century and New England intellectuals seeking one another’s company in the second. Two Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, Maud Howe Elliott (awarded the prize with her sisters Florence Marion Howe Hall and Laura E. Richards for a biography of their mother, Julia Ward Howe) and Edith Wharton, make appearances in this collection. Despite Wharton’s comment that she “did not care for watering-place mundanities,” she followed the trend toward fashionable European painters and sat for the Englishman Edward Harrison May.
UNEASY IS THE HAND THAT HOLDS THE BRUSH THAT PAINTS THE SLAVER’S NOBLE COUNTENANCE, THE MERCHANT’S PROUD WIFE.
By then the Gilded Age had arrived. The village built on tolerance had become the resort notorious for exclusivity. “Newport was the very Holy of Holies, the playground of the great ones of the earth from which all intruders were ruthlessly excluded by a set of cast-iron rules,” wrote Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, whose husband, Harry, succeeded Ward McAllister as the arbiter of social acceptability.
Sitting for a portrait is an act of hubris. The subject is saying, “I am worth looking at.” It is also a statement of trust in the artist: “I will let you fashion the face I show to posterity.” Even after photography had introduced a less risky road to immortality, the rich, the powerful, the celebrated—and those who wanted to be—continued to take the gamble.