The Gilded Age at the MFA

There is so much to see at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) that it’s impossible to do the whole thing well in one day. So I visited the upper floors of the Art of the Americas wing and and explored art of the Gilded Age.


Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel, by John Singer Sargent






The Gilded Age was a period that started after the US Civil War and ended roughly in the early 1900s. It was a time of explosive industrial growth, expansion westward, and wealth (it was also a time of rampant corruption and social ills). The first millionaires in the US — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt — made their fortunes during this era, which meant that there was plenty of money to be lavished on the arts. One of the great painters of this time period was John Singer Sargent, who made his fortune largely creating portraits of the rich and famous.


Edith, Lady Playfair (Edith Russell)


Helen Sears

Sargent was even commissioned to paint murals on the MFA’s rotunda:


The museum (which holds the largest collection of Sargent works in the world) has a separate exhibit called “Exhibition Lab: Sargent and Fashion” that offers a look into the dresses that played such an important role in so many of Sargent’s paintings:


Jean-Phillipe Worth Dress from Portrait of Mrs. J.P. Morgan, Jr.

While Sargent was an American artist, he grew up in Europe and spent time in England …


Study for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

… Egypt …


Head of an Arab

… and the Italian Alps:


An Artist in His Studio

Sargent was an artist known for long, bold brushwork, and he loved the demands of painting fabric and of trying to paint white on white. In reviewing the work above, one critic wrote: “surely, never were tumbled white sheets so painted before.”

Multiple artistic movements sprang up in the US during the Gilded Age, including the Aesthetic Movement, an eclectic and busy style that was all about art for art’s sake. Wealthy and middle class families began decorating their homes with elaborately patterned wallpapers, and every spare nook and cranny was filled with art:




A typical Victorian room decorated in the Aesthetic style

Glassware in the home became all the rage, fueling the popularity of artists like Louis Comfort Tiffany.


And people clamored for the lush, romantic paintings of artists like Albert Bierstadt (famous for his enormous canvases of the American West) …



… Marin Johnson Heade…


Magnolia Grandiflora


Apple Blossoms

… and Charles Herbert Woodbury:


Off the Florida Coast

Also popular were the trompe l’oeil paintings of William Michael Harnett …


Old Models

… and John Frederick Peto:


The Poor Man’s Store

The wealth of the Gilded Age also meant that people had money to spend on jewels and baubles. To see these, you can visit the small but highly satisfying room near the museum’s entrance that holds the “Boston Made: Arts and Crafts Jewelry Metalwork” exhibit. This space explores jewelry made in Boston at the turn of the century. The exhibit opens with The New Necklace, by Bostonian painter William McGregor Paxton …


… and then leads into an explosion of color and bling:


Opal Necklace with Green Garnets and Sapphires by Frank Gardner Hale

I love the description of Arts and Crafts jewelry as “a riot of enameled color, glimmering cabochons, and sinuous design.” Jewelers of this movement were often inspired by forms found in nature, including shells, vines, flowers, feathers, and insects:


Emerald and Jade Necklace by Frank Gardner Hale

Peacocks were an especially popular subject:

Peacock Brooch by Gertrude Twichell

Peacock Broach by Frank Gardner Hale

These pieces are just stunning …

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The Gilded Age was also the golden era of the American carousel, driven by both the development of steam-powered machinery and the extra leisure time made available by an increase in the country’s prosperity. There were more than 3,000 carousels scattered across the country at the turn of the century! This meant the development of terrific animal carvings like this greyhound by Charles Loof …


… and this delightful seven-foot masterpiece from the Gustav A. Dentzel Carousel Co., one of the first companies to move beyond traditional carousel horses and into a menagerie of lions, zebras, tigers, ostriches, pigs, deer, rabbits, and giraffes:


Folk art has not survived the test of time quite so well as art made for the fashionable set of the Gilded Age, but the MFA does have a great collection of nineteenth century weathervanes:


The MFA has so much more than this — if you get tired of the shine, glamour and over-the-top clutter of the Gilded Age, you can see everything from burial figures of the Tang Dynasty to haystack paintings by Monet. In getting to the Americas wing, I walked by contemporary pieces by Dale Chihuly …


… Jeppe Hein …


… and Jason Middlebrook:


It’s a great museum — plan to spend a while!



One response to “The Gilded Age at the MFA

  1. Pingback: Exploring Boston | Traveler Tina·

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