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.
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.
It is a tribute to what the artist can do without commission, when left to his own devices and imagination, that some of the finest pictures in the show were those that the painters had done of their own families: J. Alden Weir’s two daughters on a donkey; William Chase’s three children; the Stettheimers. This group suggests the idea of another show to be done entirely of painters’ families. William Chase evokes all the atmosphere of the dunes of Long Island with his beautiful picture of his shingled house and his three daughters playing outside; Florine Stettheimer has turned the typical Manhattan interior into a frankly artificial, splendidly exotic glorification of the grotesquely huge flowers that she and her mother and sisters are admiring.
A word of warning to those who would use the art benefit show in lieu of the theatre party. Although the former requires a great deal of work and considerable imagination, while the latter simply involves taking a block of seats and peddling them to one’s list of subscribers, the theatre party is, alas, more profitable. To begin with, the expenses of an art show are great. My catalogue ran to S3,500 and the food and liquor for the opening night party came to another Sl1OOO. At $15 a ticket for the opening night and with a $1 entrance fee for the two and a half weeks that the exhibition was open to the public, I managed to make a gross of something over $13,000. The net, however, was closer to $8,000. But at least I had a memory that lingered longer and more agreeably than Ben Franklin in Paris !