“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.
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.