Arts and Entertainment | Art

Not all that glitters is gold, but ‘New York’s Gilded Age’ still shines

Diamonds are indeed a girlís best friend in the Museum of the City of New York's newest exhibit. Sponsored by Tiffany & Co., "Gilded New York," which opened on Wednesday, pays homage to the excess glamour of New York's Gilded Age aristocracy.

The American Gilded Age ushered in the 20th century with a renaissance in American politics, art, and design. This was the era of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Jacob Astor, a period whose very name is painted gold, reflecting both the possibility of wealth and the idyllic ambitions of those who sought it. 

With wealth came prestige and the creation of an American aristocracy, based not in land and inheritance but in the labor of industry. "This was the first real generation of Americans who felt that they, as well as New York, had arrived as a great capital to rival Paris and London and Rome," Jeannine Falino, guest cocurator of "Gilded New York" said. "They didn't have any models, except for Europe, and they were styling themselves after the great houses there."

Walking into the exhibit is like stepping back in time: Lit by a central chandelier, the purple damask-lined walls provide the ideal setting for the story of the Rockefellers and Astors. Upon their entrance, visitors are greeted by a massive portrait of Cornelia Ward Hall and her children by Italian painter Michele Gordigiani. Every aspect of the painting, from the choice of attire to Hall's string of pearls to the foreign painter, was intended to demonstrate the family's extreme wealth and prestige.

Glass cases nonchalantly display some truly jaw-dropping jewelry—courtesy of Tiffany's, Marcus & Co., and other Gilded Age jewelers—and exquisite pieces of domestic life, including a silver calling card case complete with elegantly printed ladies' cards and John D. Rockefeller's dressing set.

"For a lot of these individuals, they were considered noveau-riche, and these were the kinds of wealth accoutrements to enhance their standing in New York society," Falino said.

Even more enticing is what lies beneath the glimmering exterior. A Tiffany's diamond tiara shines just as brightly today as it did 119 years ago, when it was commissioned in 1894 for the wedding of pharmaceutical heiress Julia Kemp. Kemp's father emigrated from Ireland and founded a pharmaceutical empire, giving his daughter the life of excess that he built with hard work and dedication. This tiara-adorned bride was not just emulating the aristocracy on her wedding day; she was proving that she was indeed one of them. 

On the other hand, the exhibit gives far less facetime to the extreme poverty of the era. While the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts lived in a fantasy world of ball gowns and diamonds on the Upper East Side, lower Manhattan was the realm of Tammany Hall, tenements, and child labor. Reveling in the wealth, Manhattanís high society chose to ignore the work behind it.

Perhaps the promise of success, of making it onto Fifth Avenue, continues to drive America today. The lavish success of the Gilded Age showed the possibility for all Americans to achieve extraordinary success. 

Although this exhibit ignores the poverty and squalor located just five or so miles south of "Ladies' Mile," it represents the glint and glamour of the age's image.

This exhibit is not an homage to the excess of the era; rather, it is a tribute to the American Dream, the possibility of success and wealth, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps until you can hire someone else to do it for you, an idea that still resonates today, an idea that still resonates today.

"In some ways there isn't a difference," Falino said. "You think about these dot-com billionaires. They're just changing the numbers from millions to billions."

"Gilded Age New York" runs at the Museum of the City of New York through the end of the month. Admission is free for CUID holders.  

sarah.roth@columbiaspectator.com  |  @sarah_e_roth

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