The Gilded Cage: Views of American Women, 1873 - 1921
After the Civil War, the United States grew rapidly as an international economic and political power. The resulting period of rampant commercialism and materialism became known as The Gilded Age, taking its name from the 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. Reaching its zenith in the 1890s, the frenzied epoch waned by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Although the Gilded Age originated with and was perpetuated by wealthy and powerful men, in American culture it was symbolized by women of the leisure class. While some artists documented the robber barons or the less picturesque aspects of bustling urban life such as women of the lower classes, immigrants, and smokestacks, what many wealthy Northern patrons demanded was an antidote to modern life. They preferred soothing, decorative images of women, alone or in pairs, engaged in the genteel activities appropriate to their gender and class. Gilded Age writers such as Edith Wharton and Henry James likewise focused on the high society woman and the domestic pursuits that isolated her from a rapidly changing outside world.
American artists presented the Gilded Age woman in a range of styles. The dark, realistic palette of Eastman Johnson’s The Toilet (1873) soon gave way to the brighter, freer impressionism of painters such as Childe Hassam and Edmund Tarbell. Sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh translated many of the tenets of impressionism into her bronze figurines. More classically-informed figures and tighter brushwork were adopted by painters such as George de Forest Brush and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, who played important roles in the movement that celebrated America’s artistic coming of age known as the American Renaissance.
Despite variations in style and specific subject, most portrayals of the Gilded Age woman embody spirituality and serenity. Safe in their luxurious homes—their “cages”—they are totally removed from the crass manifestations of the turbulent world around them. American Impressionists commonly depicted women engaged in solitary pursuits such as tending to a baby, letter-writing, dressing, or handwork, such as in Tarbell’s Josephine Knitting (1916). These artists and their contemporaries in the American Renaissance movement also favored showing women simply in a state of langorous reverie. Some examples include Hassam’s New York Window (1912) and Dewing’s Lady with a Mask (1907). Formal portraits such as Cecilia Beaux’s Sita and Sarita (c. 1921) share with these domestic vignettes a refined and insular. In the rare painting depicting a woman of the lower classes, such as William MacGregor Paxton’s The House Maid (1910), the subject is presented in the familiar dreamlike mode, pausing to read a book she has picked up while dusting.
Details in these paintings and sculptures reveal much about the social change during this era. Works of art depicting maternity, such as Frederick Frieseke’s Peace (1917) and Vonnoh’s Enthroned (1902), suggest the high values Gilded Age society placed on the protection of children and their mothers from the unpleasantness of urbanization, immigration, and the quickening pace of modern life. The loose, tunic-like dresses seen in works such as Vonnoh’s sculpture Day Dreams (1903) signal the dress reform movement of the new century that sought to increase the freedom and mobility of the American woman.
The Gilded Age was all but snuffed out with the changes brought on by World War I and its aftermath, notably the enfranchisement of women in 1920. With women entering the work force in greater numbers, the genteel subjects of the works of art seen here gave way to the confident, modern woman preferred by John Singer Sargent and his followers, including the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. The complex issues and responsibilities of modern American womanhood only hinted at by the Gilded Age artists became more overt as relentless energy and change shaped the twentieth century.