Reading Between the Lines: “Gilded Age Drawings at the Met”

Thomas Eakins, The Dancing Lesson. 1878

“Gilded Age Drawings at the Met” is a curious attic cleaning of an exhibition. It includes the seldom seen Thomas Eakins 1878 watercolor The Dancing Lesson, featured on the show’s advertising. The painting is not an obvious choice to exemplify the Gilded Age, and yet, in its reproduction, it is given an importance that is otherwise left unexplained. The exhibition includes a hodgepodge of other work, some of it by lesser lights, and lacks accompanying material about the relationship between art and era. Perhaps more explicit commentary would have run the risk of offending the patron class upon whose riches the Met always has depended. The Walton Family Foundation funded this exhibition, an irony too large to remark upon except to confirm in Jamesian sotto voce that, yes, Walmart supplied the fortune. Three of the paintings shown are intended bequests.

Thomas Eakins, The Pathetic Song, 1881.

Lush portraits by Louis Comfort Tiffany, John Singer Sargent, and Mary Cassatt reinforce our dutiful impressions of the undeniable aesthetic pleasures of material wealth as well as the dreamy sadness leisure can bring, especially within the domestic sphere. A drawing of a woman done in silverpoint by Thomas Wilmer Dewing has a timeless quality, amplified by the use of an antique artistic technique. There also is the seductive suggestion that the past can be bought or had—if only one has money or sensibility enough. Eakins himself often painted and photographed women in historical dress and was as capable as any artist at getting lost in the luxurious folds of a fine damask or watered silk. We can see that in The Pathetic Song (1881), another Eakins watercolor included in the exhibition. The viewer can hear the rustle of the singer’s dress as well as the purity of her voice. Equally heard are the pianist’s maniacal focus (Eakins’s wife, Susan, was the model) and the cellist’s perhaps less accomplished accompaniment—isn’t he just a quarter beat off tempo? The homey setting reinforces the tame and unthreatening democratic ideal that true art can be created anywhere, even in the front parlor.

It is Eakins’s earlier, carefully worked watercolor, originally titled Study of Negroes, that suggests the more revolutionary idea that art belongs as well to the dispossessed—that it is, perhaps, the first fruit of freedom. This canvas also depicts a grouping of three: a sturdy boy of at most eight years old dancing, a slender young man playing the banjo, and, in the center, a man as wiry as a child but old enough to be their grandfather. The clothing is again there to be touched, the music to be heard. The child wears the rough blue and gray homespun attire of a laborer, his pants rolled to the knee to reveal his dancing legs; the young man is clad in a clean but somehow aspirational white shirt and less laundered black trousers; the old man supplies the pizazz with his frayed orange jacket worn over a rusty black suit, top hat and cane resting on a chair at his side. The boy looks to the banjo player, perhaps for guidance; the banjo player stares out as if into the music itself; and the older man scrutinizes the boy, his foot lifted as if moving to the beat or perhaps to demonstrate a step. Theirs is a circle of intent: the music, the dance, the boy initiated into their mysteries.

Eakins himself, though, completes the circle. Ghost, witness, audience, fellow artist, he faces the old man and suggests a mirror: one artist can’t exist without the other. The iconoclastic Eakins may well have seen race as irrelevant to serious artistic intent, although The Dancing Lesson brought him one of the only prizes in his career, suggesting it probably was seen as a conventional work of “local color.” More telling, perhaps, is that Eakins soon after took on as a student Henry Ossawa Tanner, a young African American painter who later would study in Paris with Gérôme, Eakins’s very own teacher. (A minor work of Tanner’s is included in the exhibition.)

Two other figures in the watercolor serve to reinforce the sense of an artistic intent that is ultimately subversive rather than sentimental. Floating in the upper left-hand corner on an otherwise bare wall is a small oval-framed portrait of a seated Abraham Lincoln looking down at a large book, almost certainly an album, while his youngest son, Tad, looks over his shoulder. The original photograph of this moving scene was taken in Matthew Brady’s studio by Anthony Berger; the image was widely disseminated after Lincoln’s assassination when an engraving of it appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. Eakins’s rendering of it in The Dancing Lesson is no more than a rough sketch, but the knowing viewer will supply in her mind the necessary detail and imagine the president at once distracted and benevolent. Glasses slipping down his nose, Lincoln folds the boy into his contemplation of whatever he is looking at, perhaps one of Brady’s Civil War photographs. So, too, the painting’s architecture seems to suggest, does the president hold the people he has freed, however tenuously, in his immortal glance.

Perhaps more than any other work in this attenuated exhibition, The Dancing Lesson speaks to the double helix of our past and present gilded ages. The contemporary viewer knows the dead president has not ensured the freedom of those he emancipated; only federal enforcement of the Constitution and its “freedom amendments” could do that. Eakins’s child dancer with his rough oversized hands and workman’s clothes reminds us that his benevolent fathers, political and artistic, may be powerless to save his labor from being turned to another man’s profit. Then, as now, voting rights were contested and curtailed, nativist leanings were ignited and fanned, and, behind the rhetorical smoke, wealth flowed into the hands of a very few. The reign of a wise fatherlike president may have felt no more real than a faded image upon a wall.

“Gilded Age Drawings at the Met” may be more a curiosity than an event; it seems a weak moment for an institution that has educated both the erudite and the uninitiated for so many years. As our great museums struggle to hold onto their collections, foster scholarship, and bring in wider audiences, we more than ever need exhibitions that speak directly to the contradictions of our age—and not merely around them.

Cynthia Payne lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is at work on a novel.

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