Gilded Age Treasure Hunt at The Met

Once you navigate the twists and turns of one of the furthest reaches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing (past the Versailles panorama and past the Rockefeller room), you’ll come to a treasure trove of Gilded Age interior design – Aesthetic Splendors: Highlights from the Gift of Barrie and Deedee Wigmore, on view through April 18.

What did rich people in the 1880s and 1890s want? The exhibition will show you.

1880s Herter Brothers cabinet, Britcher landscape, and reproduction wallpaper evoke the Wigmore’s home

You’ll find lush landscapes by second-generation Hudson River painters and first-generation romantic painters of the American West, elaborate furniture and decorative pieces embellished with tributes to Asian style, and bedazzled masterpieces from the Tiffany workshops.

Sanford Gifford’s 1879 An Indian Summer Day in Claverack Creek

The curators pay tribute to these avid Aesthetic Movement collectors by framing these promised gifts with reproduction period wallpaper and fixtures, and it’s hard to decide where to look first.

The approach to this marvelous exhibition gives modern gallery-goers an experience of what Gilded Age interior designers had in mind – cramming foyers and drawing rooms with lush paintings, flashy techno brass furniture, Japanese-style ceramics, art pottery, and fringed upholstered seats decorated with Arts & Crafts tiles that throwback to mythical times.

The mix of styles and techniques – some old and some new – reflect a time when consumption of luxury goods ran wild with the ascension of New York City as the trading and shipping capital of the world.  Many of the pieces reflect new machine-made technology mixed in with a bit of medieval nostalgia via the British Arts and Crafts movement.

Look closely at all these showstoppers in our Flickr album.

Detail of 1880 Modern Gothic cabinet by Kimbel and Cabus with tile by Minton & Co.

Although the exhibition is slightly hidden away, the landscapes appearing throughout the show provide windows to lush valleys of the Rockies (thank you, Mr. Bierstadt!), autumn colors of the Catskills, and spectacular, tranquil shorelines on Maine’s rocky coast.  All are either in their original fancy frames or reproductions from the era.

Alfred Thompson Bricher’s 1899 Low Tide, Hetherington’s Cove, Grand Manan in Maine

Most of the works are oil paintings, but (in case you didn’t know) New York was also the epicenter of the movement to make watercolor paintings the equal of any fine salon work.  The curators have included work by the masterful William Trost Williams, so you can enjoy a side-by-side comparison of the techniques he used to give those oil painters a run for their money. Every time we’ve visited this show, visitors simply stand transfixed, drinking in the saturated, tranquil views of the faraway.

The ceramics, cloisonné tabletops, andirons, and many large-scale pieces reflect the period’s mania for anything with a hint of Japanese or Chinese style – delicate birds flitting through bamboo and fierce dragons swirling in magical space. Designers for the upper classes were captivated by images from kimonos, scrolls, screens, and ceramics from the East and made sure that custom commissioned pieces were on trend.

Bradley & Hubbard’s 1895 phoenix andirons
Sapphire encircled by grapevines on 1910 gold and platinum Tiffany necklace

The mesmerizing beacon within the show is the spectacular array of Tiffany necklaces in the center – dramatic opals and sapphires, often encircled by intricate grapevines in gold or another nod to nature-by-design. The effect of these beauties side by side is magical, and you can imagine a Gilded Age beauty making an entrance with one of these dazzlers.

The Met just announced that its September 2022 Costume Institute exhibition would be displayed in the period rooms of the American Wing, so we’ll see if Mr. Bolton and his team deploy any period finery in the more-is-more 19th-century area.

Read more about pieces in this fantastic donation on the MetCollects blog and flip through close-ups of some the featured works.

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