- Art-Culture in the Gilded Age
Scholars who study the United States in the late nineteenth century have long used industrialism as an organizing and explanatory theme. This process reshaped economic development, politics, and foreign policy. Perhaps even more importantly it changed tastes and attitudes about almost everything, including culture and the arts. For about a generation now, many art historians have focused on the social and cultural context of art production and appreciation, as well as on the formal and aesthetic aspects of the visual arts. They see the artist as both a social and a creative being, and art as an expression and reflection of larger social issues.
Sarah Burns both summarizes this approach and extends it with many interesting insights and interpretations. Her book rests on careful research in the art literature of the period, memoirs, and other primary materials. She analyzes art production and appreciation in a new industrial society that had the wealth, interest, and leisure to appreciate art. The roles of artists, the institutions they established, and the images they developed to enhance appreciation of their work, and to increase their status especially interest her. She devotes a good deal of space to gender roles, popular as well as critical tastes, and to judging just how the art world mirrored and/or influenced the new industrial society.
Burns describes and analyzes changes within the art world, and shows how many of these registered in the larger society. Most successful artists in this generation were trained abroad in academies in Munich, Antwerp, London, and especially Paris. They came home determined to raise the standards of both production and appreciation of the arts. Of course, the United States was not Europe, and they realized that they must organize and [End Page 589] publicize their efforts if they were either to support themselves or make art important in a materialistic, freewheeling, not to say chaotic society.
Several large social changes helped them in this process. A general demand for more exacting analysis and information produced a new kind of art critic who sorted good from bad according to some kinds of standards and helped develop patronage. A variety of newspapers and magazines took these messages to the public. A growing middle and upper class in that public had the time, money, and general interest to want good taste and decoration, if not more profound matters, in the arts. In short, there was a chance to create artistic systems that paralleled those in business and politics, and in the learned professions. The result was artists’ organizations, exhibitions, dealers who slowly incorporated American as well as foreign works in their wares, and art schools that held out the prospects of establishing and sustaining a new well-defined and varied art world.
One of the most important themes in this transformation for Burns is reshaping the artist’s image in a society increasingly oriented toward consumption and to publicizing the personal. Artists generally thought of themselves as persons with unusual insight into the nature or moods they represented. Their chief mission was always to express this ideal, and to connect it to persons of like mind, who would benefit accordingly. This process would also temper materialism and elevate living. The means of communication between artist and patron adapted as the potential audience for art increased.
Enter publicity. By the 1880s, the lives and activities of artists were as much in the news as their work. Newspapers and magazines reported on exhibitions, visiting days at studios, special parties, the summer life in art colonies. Artists hoped to become a defined profession, and to banish the stereotype of starving, eccentric, “bohemians.” Most artists still struggled to earn a living, but some became celebrities; a few like John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler became...