In honor of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Frick Art Reference Library, and in conjunction with a forthcoming celebratory publication, the Library Administration’s Summer 2018 interns created the podcast series, A Peek into the Past: The Frick Art Reference Library’s 100th Anniversary. The podcast introduces listeners to the Library’s history through a description of its historic Reading Room, as well as in depth looks into two highlights of its collection: medals won by the artist Walter Gay at the Paris Salon, and a set of late 18th-century French costume plates.
A Peek into the Past: The Frick Art Reference Library’s 100th Anniversary
Speakers: Rose Sheehan, Intern, Iman Khakoo, Intern, Muyon Zhou, Intern, Sally Brazil, Associate Chief Librarian, Archives and Records
Rose Sheehan: We ascend a few steps between walls in tavernelle-fleuri marble, and enter a small hall in the style of Louis XVI, decorated very simply with pilasters and lunettes. The doors are carved oak, the handles of which are finely chiseled in ormolu.
An elevator carries us to the main floor; where the reading room, the files for the card index, and the principal offices are located. Here, the austere atmosphere of those monastic libraries for which 16th-century Italy is famous, has been duplicated.
Walnut-paneled tables and chairs; lamps, which throw all the light on the books without affecting the eyes of the reader; Acousta-Lite walls, which absorb all sound; beamed oak ceiling, leather-covered doors, and a red tiled floor; all this lends itself to study, and the absorption and ideas in books. In the center is a desk, where an attendant sits to await our pleasure.
Iman Khakoo: Stephan Bourgeois' 1935 recount of the Reading Room at the Frick Art Reference Library narrates just as evocatively today how the library awakens the bibliophile senses.
Upon entering, the visitor is beckoned inside by the warmth of the wooden panels, and the sweet, musky scent of old books. This backdrop is set against a symphony of voices, which whisper in hushed tones; the soft creaking of wooden chairs, and the flashing of pages as visitors flip through books.
Whilst one end of the room is softly illuminated by the worn gold background of an early Italian fresco, the dominating presence of the Frick family is evoked in both painterly and sculptural form on the other side.
A bust of Helen Clay Frick stands proudly beside a portrait of her father and distinguished art collector, Henry Clay Frick. An inscription on the plaque reads that, "This library was founded in loving memory of Henry Clay Frick in 1920." Leading to the precious relationship between father and daughter, which led to the creation of one of the most celebrated art libraries in the world.
This is the Frick Art Reference Library: A Peek into the Past. Episode One: If These Walls Could Talk.
Muyon Zhou: Helen Clay Frick, the third child of Henry Clay Frick and his wife, Adelaide Howard Childs, was born in 1888. In her lifetime, she evolved as an important art collector, an architectural patron in her own right.
Today, she is well remembered as both a philanthropist and an amateur art historian; two roles which merged in her expansion of the Frick Collection and its library, which is a trove of art historical resources at the public's dispense.
Miss Frick visited Europe in 1920 for the first time, after the death of her father in 1919. And it was during this excursion when she first visited Sir Robert Witt's library of reproductions at his home in Portman Square in London. Art historian Katharine McCook Knox has recounted how in Miss Frick's dream that night:
Iman Khakoo: "Kaleidoscopic visions took over with memories of each and every museum, library, and memorial that she had visited. Her vision, however, of the Witt Library of Reproductions expanded to such an extent that it burst like a sizzling rocket, propelling its great pattern across the Atlantic, to the United States of America, into a city called New York."
Muyon Zhou: From the evening onward, a spark has ignited in Miss Frick, and spurred her to mimic and surpass Mr. Witt's library, in creating what would soon to be known as the Frick Art Reference Library.
Rose Sheehan: Although today the library is housed in the heart of Manhattan on 10 East 71st Street, New York, it might be hard to believe that the library was in fact originally housed in the bowling alley and billiard room of the Frick mansion.
The Frick family were fond of leisure and recreation in all its forms. They had a playhouse at their former residence at Clayton, a plunge pool at their summer residence, Eagle Rock. And, of course, their billiard room at 1 East 70th Street.
On returning to New York, Miss Frick took over this room in her determined quest to form a library. And the area was quickly converted from one of fun and games, to one of quiet concentration.
Space in the billiard room was cleared to accommodate her collection of books and photographs, which had been accumulated by the family over the years; whilst the bowling alleys were covered, and shelves were installed along the walls. This room continued to be used for library purposes such as storage and indexing, even when it officially opened to the public in 1924.
Iman Khakoo: However, in 1933, when architect John Russell Pope undertook the immense project of converting the Frick mansion into a museum, Miss Frick also gave him orders to expand the ever-growing library into the building in which it is housed today.
When instructing Pope on his plans, Miss Frick asked that he reuse as much salvage from 1 East 70th Street as possible. For not only cost-efficient, but also sentimental reasons.
Indeed, one of the main charms of the Frick Collection and Art Reference Library today is that they retain the intimate ambiance of a private residence.
When expanding the building, Pope followed Miss Frick's advice and eclectically combined old and new, by installing the panels and bookcases from Henry Clay Frick's study into the new private storage area of the library, as well as repurposing the hardware from his bedroom.
History is quite literally embedded in the walls of the small Reading Room and its adjoining Conference Room. Where the Jacobean oak-paneled walls were the same ones which adorned that of the bowling alley and billiard room; evoking the founding moment of the library, in bringing the old in with the new.
Muyon Zhou: While Miss Frick laced the new plan with the traces of its history, she nevertheless added personal touches, especially when planning the new Italian-style interior of the Reading Room.
It was at this time where the construction and expansion of new spaces also carved out places for her own voice to be heard, and her personal tastes expressed. As well as spearheading plans for the new library, Miss Frick was also in charge of acquisitions in the mid-1920s, where she helped to shape the collection into what it is today.
In 1935, the collection both honored her father's memory in hanging a picture gallery as curated by her father. Whilst newer additions were celebrated in the rooms of Limoges Enamel which was transformed into a space to also feature early Italian Renaissance masterpieces, which she helped to acquire. Miss Frick's travel books and diaries, a test to her highly critical and scrupulous eyes, which she developed in her scholarly and cosmopolitan upbringing.
Even after the death of her father, she stayed in close contact with artists and dealers, as she saw the world through the lens of a collector. For her, objects within the space had equal importance to the space itself.
Rose Sheehan: Visionary half figures rise up with beaming halos from behind a stone ledge, as they're set against an infinite goal beyond. The figure of St. John the Evangelist stands on the right and beckons the eye towards the tender moment shared between the infant Christ and Madonna, who holds him as she stands, robed in sumptuous, ultramarine blue drapery.
Gestures and facial expressions help to construct a harmonious narrative, as the Madonna points behind her to the figure of St. Francis, so our eye is drawn from left to right, then back again.
On the predella below, a crucifix is flanked by the coat of arms of the Orsini family, whilst the space on the left, which would have most been most likely filled with a portrait of the woman donor, is instead blank.
Whilst one would imagine this lyrical picture to be decorated in Italian Renaissance altarpiece in a church, it was instead completed by a Russian artist, and is embedded in the south wall of the Reading Room.
Iman Khakoo: This is Nicolas Lochhoff's copy of Madonna between St. Francis and John, completed in 1930 after Pietro Lorenzetti's 14th-century fresco in the lower church of San Francesco at Assisi.
The Russian expatriate Nicolas Lochoff was born in Pskov. And while studying chemistry at St. Petersburg, became interested in the aesthetic and alchemy of art. And began producing masterly copies of paintings at the Hermitage Museum, and later, restored paintings for the Italian government.
The fresco in the Reading Room was commissioned by Miss Frick, who would have most likely met Lochoff through Bernard Berenson, a distinguished authority on Italian paintings who was living in Italy at this time.
This fresco was commissioned alongside a copy of Piero della Francesca's mid-15th century fresco of the Resurrection for the University of Pittsburgh's Fine Art department, to which Lokhoff agreed to paint both for $13,000.
In the fullest sense, Lochoff's paintings are replicas of their originals. In an article written for the American Magazine of Art in November of 1930, Mary Logan Berenson expressed her amazement at Lochoff's virtuosity at imitation, claiming that he copied everything, down to the minutest speck of dirt that in the course of centuries had adhered to the picture. She claims that everything was there.
Muyon Zhou: A letter sent from Lochoff to Miss Frick on first September of 1930, revealed the painstaking, meticulous attention to detail acquired when emulating an Old Master.
In the letter, Lochoff describes a working method, which is akin to the method described by Cennino Cennini, in his Il Libro dell’arte, which is a 15th century how-to guide on late medieval and early Renaissance painting.
There is something paradoxical in Lochoff's working method. From the way he creates a full antique appearance, to the way in which he pays as much attention to destruction as to creation, in order to mimic what has been lost over time, as well as what has stood the test of time.
In order to understand Lorenzetti's methodical process, Lochoff dissected and re-created it, layer by layer. Initially, he starts with the areas done in pure fresco, such as the figures. Then adding a red clay substance known as the ball, to underlie the gilded elements of the painting, such as the halos and background. Until finally, using tempera al secco to add the finishing touches such as the light blue tunic worn by St. John.
Lochoff went to thorough lengths to ensure complete simulation of the original. And in his letter, he claimed that his contemporaries, including Bernard Berenson, Mr. F. Mason Perkins, and Raimond Van Marle, agreed that he did the original painting justice.
Miss Frick's decision to commission a copyist for work for the library would have been seen as bold and daring, as the debate over the aesthetic idea of a good fake versus an original, was raging in the art world at this time.
Iman Khakoo: So the important question to ask is not so much what the painting is and how it was painted, but rather, why was it commissioned by Miss Frick in the first place?
All paintings, by nature, are bound to perish. And by recreating, Lochoff is preserving them for future centuries when the originals would have diminished.
Lochoff's method of copying paintings is not so far from Miss Frick's expeditions, in which artworks were photographed to build up the library's photo archive in order to preserve rapidly deteriorating works. Perhaps, then, the painting in itself could also be considered as part of the archive.
In line with Miss Frick's pursuit of education in the arts, by commissioning Lochoff's fresco, and later donating her collection of his paintings to the Frick Fine Arts Building in Pittsburgh, they jointly made it possible to study particular works of art in America without ever leaving the country.
However, the aesthetic and the symbolic significance of the fresco, and the contemplative effect it has on the space, cannot be overlooked. Playful and personal touches have been added, such as the frieze completed by Angelo Magnanti above the fresco, which incorporates two roundels depicting Helen's two cherished dogs, a field spaniel named Bobby, and an Irish terrier named Paddy.
A golden inscription written in Italian gleams in the midst of the frieze, and reads, ,nessuna cosa si vedes sanza luce meaning, "Nothing can be seen without light."
Light is universally recognized as symbolic of knowledge, reason, and clarity. The way that light filters in through the large Venetian windows and beams of the gold leaf of the fresco, is not too far from the darkening effect light has when reflected through the stained glass windows of churches.
It is possible that Miss Frick had re-imagined the setting of the Reading Room as a church of sorts; the reference desk its altar, the fresco its altarpiece, and the visitors, the disciples of study.
Muyon Zhou: Whilst the taste and characteristics of Miss Frick are hinted at in the fresco, her presence is enlivened by the means of a recently acquired sculptural bust, which stands in the far corner of the Reading Room.
In the same way that Helen made changes to the collection and library to honor her father's legacy, so too changes have been made in the Reading Room, in order to honor the foundress herself.
At first glance, the bust on display in the Reading Room appears to be made of terracotta, but is actually a plaster cast, which has been painted in a burnt brown color, which matches the warmth of expression worn by the depiction of Miss Frick, who tilts her head in a profile.
The statue was recently given to the museum by Derek Ostergard and his wife, Lillian, the niece of the acclaimed American sculptor, Malvina Cornell Hoffman, who is the artist behind our masterpiece.
Hoffman was a longtime friend of the Frick family, as Mr. Frick was part of the powerful circle of patrons who recognized her talent, and saw her drive at the beginning of her artistic career.
In a sense, members of the Frick family were the ones to bookmark the start and end of her career. As this sculpture is part of one of her first-ever commissions offered by Mr. Frick in 1919: a marble portrait of his daughter.
While Miss Frick offered Hoffman the last commission of her life in 1963, which was a bas relief medallion of her father; now in the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh.
Rose Sheehan: In her memoirs, Hoffman recounts completing this portrait of Helen Clay Frick for Mr. Frick, who invited her to study the French neoclassical sculptures of Jean-Antoine Houdon he had in his collection. After he suggested that it might be suitable to do my daughter in 18th-century French manner.
Hoffman noted that for her, Houdon had a very definite style, a particular approach to the subject's eyes, very live. And a delicate crease of drapery and detailed treatment of the hair. All details which she paid close attention to when carving her depiction of Miss Frick. The sculptor Houdon united Henry Frick and his daughter in a sense, as both were enthused by his work in practice.
After Mr. Frick died, Miss Frick followed in her father's footsteps and acquired Houdon's Marquis de Miromesnil for the museum's collection. And Marie-Ange-Cecile Langois, Madame Houdon, for her private collection. Whilst also carrying out extensive research on his work, which is now in the archives.
When the bust arrived for study purposes at the museum in 2016, it was ambiguously accompanied by a tag, presumably written by Hoffman, which reads, "Carved in marble for Mr. Frick. Destroyed by HF after her father's death."
This tag remains as the only known account of the destruction of the original marble bust, which Mr. Frick had commissioned. HF, most likely, refers to Helen Frick. So why exactly did she destroy the original? Therein lies the mystery of the marble bust.
Iman Khakoo: Although the original version no longer exists, this preliminary model is evocative of the original, and further imitates Houdon's working practice of modeling his subjects in clay.
In true Houdon manner, Miss Frick has been portrayed with tendrils of hair escaping her loosely tied chignon, and adorned with a grape-leaf wreath. Whilst her garment decorated with roses and foliage is in similar disarray, and being held precariously with a clasp over one shoulder, whilst the other one is on full display.
In this way, Hoffman's work bears likeness to Houdon's sculpture of Diana. It is almost as if Miss Frick was presented to us in the guise of a goddess.
It is possible that Miss Frick thought these details far too sensual, revealing, and not least, too provocative, to be put on display. However, the depiction somewhat matches the photograph stills done with Miss Frick by Hoffman for the sculpture, as it is rare to find such intimate and relaxed photographs of her.
These photographs foreshadow the strong bond, which was soon formed between artist and sitter. Hoffman and Miss Frick were close contemporaries, with similar social circles. It comes as no surprise that the two women developed a strong friendship over their shared interest in art, and devotion to the Red Cross during the First World War.
Although the original marble bust was destroyed, the plaster version remains as a monument to not only the foundress, but perhaps also to the personal interest in the relationship, which she maintained in her lifetime.
Although made of plaster, the bust seems to come alive when you visit the Reading Room. You can sense the presence of Miss Frick as she assumes the role of onlooker, and contently observes the visitors delight in the space which she has created.
Here is Sally Brazil, the Chief of Archives and Records Management at the Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library; on Miss Frick's library and her presence in it today.
Sally Brazil: She made that showpiece of the building. I mean, it mattered to her that it was a beautiful place full of art in itself, a sort of inspiration to people who were coming to do research there. It's gracious, it's comfortable, it's quiet. It's all the things you need to put your mind towards your tasks. I think that was very important to her.
And I think that there's a bit of a legend that she haunts the stacks. Open the door and you hear funny noises and you think it might be Miss Frick in the building somewhere, keeping an eye on things.
Iman Khakoo: After having explored both the Reading Room and the objects within it, it is plain to see that the Frick Art Reference Library was a real labor of love. A love which Miss Frick had for her father, combined with an innate love of art.
It is thanks to this determined woman, and the staff today, which the facility is able to serve more than 6,000 readers annually; and more through its online sources. We can once more return to the end of Bourgeois' account, where ...
Rose Sheehan: ... we descend silently through silently moving doors. Silently, the elevator lands us at the entrance. The door opens by itself. We pass, out in the street, to be swelled up by the noise of the city.
Precipitately, we cross Fifth Avenue and we are in the park. A lonely bench invites us to sit down, and we ask ourselves and perplexity with Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Iman Khakoo: Although our journey through the Reading Room has come to an end, this episode is the start of a three-part series. So stay tuned for the next two episodes, where we will be exploring more hidden gems from the Frick Art Reference Library.
Iman Khakoo: A winged woman, crowned with laurels, holds a trumpet aloft. Her cheek hollow with the effort of sounding the instrument. Above her, rays of light emanate from a five-point star. On the plaque at her feet is the name Walter Gay. The woman is Victory and a trumpet blast from the surface of a medal, designed by Louis-Alexandre Bottée and minted by the Paris Mint, awarded to notable exhibitors at the 1889 French Exposition Universelle.
The silver medal just described went to Walter Gay, an American artist who, at the time of the 1889 exposition had already racked up over 10 years as a Paris resident. A decade later Gay, now a certified expatriate, won a second silver medal at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in France. Both medals, and 12 others, awarded to Gay between 1888 and 1932 were gifted to the Frick Art Reference Library by Peter Heydon, PhD, in December, 2017. The fruits of various international exhibitions and artistic societies, the medals compliment the library's Walter and Matilda Gay Collection, an archive that includes correspondence, photographs, Gay's Légion d'Honneur decorations, and the 3,000 odd page diary kept intermittently by Gay's wife, Matilda between 1904 and 1934.
Stephen Bury: The Gay medals are like the cumulation of putting together an archive. They're part of a whole pathway that really started off with some printed books that we had from the 1930s.
Iman Khakoo: That's Stephen Bury Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian of the Frick Art Reference Library. After acquiring Matilda Gay's diary, Bury was drawn to the medals because of their relationship with other works in the library's collection.
Stephen Bury: Then finally, these medals came along, primarily awards at art exhibitions. And for me, that connected our exhibition catalogs from the Salon, the universal exhibitions and our international European art exhibitions. And you could, sort of, put the medals in the context of that material.
Rose Sheehan: Walter Gay is best known, not for the early canvases that won him his two silver exposition medals, but instead for the unoccupied interiors and still lifes that he produced in oil paint, watercolor and pastel during the latter half of his career. In fact, commentators, from 20th century critics to Gay himself, pronounce his earlier works outmoded, insignificant or derivative, and then promptly forget the snatches of 18th century life and large-scale views of peasants and laborers that the artists painted between 1876 and 1895. Even Matilda, always her husband's most ardent and unequivocal supporter, seems to write off Le Bénédicité, arguably Gay's most successful early painting, as irrelevant.
Describing in her diary an 1930 visit to the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, where Le Bénédicité hangs. She writes, "It is interesting to visit provincial museums, those tombs of fashion and art." But if, only decades after their production, Walter Gay's early works were considered rightfully entombed, merely as one New York times reporter put it in 1938, "ancient canvases," then why the medals?
The awards Gay received at the two French expositions represent only a small portion of the acclaim that artist enjoyed in late 19th century Europe. A third class gold medal at the 1888 Paris Salon, the centuries old exhibition that could make or break a young artist, election to the French Legion of Honor, the purchase of multiple paintings by the French state, honors and international exhibitions across the continent. At the time of their production Gay's early canvases were lauded rather than dismissed throughout Europe and especially in the artist's adopted country of France.
The Frick Art Reference Library's two exposition medals and the general European success of Walter Gay's early works shed light on the complex and often contentious relationship between American and continental artistic communities at the turn of the century. Through the lens of the library's archival materials, we can see Gay as a painter poised between France and his birthplace, an American with, as he put it, "a sentiment for the past, drawn to a place that, unlike his Homeland, was steeped in artistic and aesthetic tradition." This is the Frick Art Reference Libraries A Peak Into the Past, episode two: An American Abroad.
"France has not fallen away from the great traditions," asserts a guide to the art at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, produced by the French newspaper Le Figaro at its 19th century expositions France unveiled the Eiffel Tower, hosted international competitions for such honors as the Grand Prix de Champagne, and to every visitor admitted, announced its past, present, and future excellence as a nation.
The two medals in the Frick Art Reference Libraries Collection were designed to communicate that excellence. While the figure of Victory and the reverse of the 1889 medal supports her trumpet with one hand. With the other, she hoists an oversized bust of France, personified as a female. The words La Republique Francaise, printed beneath Victory's upraised instrument make the medal's message abundantly clear. France is literally elevated above its fellow nations in victory. The 1900 medal designed by Jules-Clément Chaplain and minted by the Paris Mint also features both Winged Victory on its reverse and female France on its obverse.
Here France's enormous bust mimics the oak tree that curves around it, next sprouting up from the earth like the tree's trunk. Crowding the bust's head is a peaked cap with dangling ear flaps. During the French Revolution, this hat, known as the Phrygian cap, denoted radical antiroyalist sentiment. Its placement atop France’s head on the official exposition medal suggested the nation's fraught history, while not forgotten, is in the past and the present is a victorious and politically united Republic.
By the late 19th century, France possessed a rich artistic history commensurate with the complex political history evoked by the Phrygian cap. And the great traditions that the Le Figaro writers saw reflected in the French artworks on view at the 1889 exposition drew aspiring artists from across the globe to the French capital.
Americans were particularly susceptible to what the scholar, H. Barbara Weinberg terms, "the lure of Paris." Following the Civil War collectors in the United States began snapping up the fruits of French studios, while critics emphasized French painting as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Seized by the Francophilia rampant in the American art community, art students crossed the Atlantic to Paris, pursuing their education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts or at one of the ateliers supervised by established French artists. In 1888, 1,000 American artists and art students were reported in Paris, studying in French schools, traveling to Italy, Spain, and like continental destinations, and competing with their Parisian contemporaries in a market that favored European canvases.
These artists developed techniques and tendencies that were interchangeable with those of their French rivals. About half of these 1,000 Americans were permanent residents. The expatriates were particularly likely not only to sample European styles in their artworks, but also to eschew native subjects and themes for those found and favored on the continent. "It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth that when today we look for American art we find it mainly in Paris," the author Henry James remarked in 1887: "When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it."
Muyon Zhou: That Paris had become, incongruously, the center of American art was exclusively demonstrated at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, where Walter Gay received his first silver medal. Out of all the foreign exhibitors who tried their luck in Paris, the United States contributed the largest number of paintings to the exposition, sending 336 oils, a number almost triple that submitted to the previous French exposition in 1878.
Two juries were organized to determine which works should be featured. A New York jury, which evaluated the canvases submitted by Americans living in the States and a Paris jury, composed of 19 expatriates and responsible for judging the painting of American artists living abroad. While the New York jury allowed each painter a maximum of three weeks in the exposition, the Paris jury allowed a maximum of six. As a result, the paintings of Europe-based artists outnumbered those of their US-based compatriots. Because most expatriates worked in or near Paris, they were able to arrange the American exhibition, hanging their canvases in the starry spot and creating a clear physical distinction between them and the work of the artists living in the United States.
"The American showing thus felt," according to Antonin Proust, French special commissioner of fine art at the exposition, "like an excellent French gallery." Parisian and American commentators alike emphasize the semblance between the United States offerings in 1898 and contemporaneous European canvases. To the French critic Maurice [inaudible], "The American gallery was a resume of European paintings., The French director general of the exposition insisted that American artists drew their inspiration directly from French masters. "Much of it is American only because the painters of it were born in America, " Harold Frederick wrote in a review of the exhibition for the New York Times. "American artists abroad," he added, "had picked up accent, tone, manner, modulation, and the rest from their European tutors." The European accent, tone, manner and modulation evinced by the expatriates who dominated the American gallery was celebrated by press and exhibition jury alike.
American painters won 57 medals and 24 honorable mentions, the two grand prizes, four gold medals, and 14 silver medals all went to artists who regularly exhibited at the Paris Salons. Of the 38 bronze medals awarded, 28 were given to Salon participants. General media coverage emphasized the painting produced by American born as superior to those of their home bound compatriots, were indeed glossed over the work of artists living in the United States altogether. The French were happy to laud their American imitators, as long as it was understood that the gallery of the United States was but an inferior annex, as one commentator described it, to their own fine arts exhibit. American emulation signaled France's continued artistic dominance, canvases that underscored rather than revoked French excellence at the 1889 exposition were to be praised.
Iman Khakoo: Some of this praise went to Walter Gay, a member of the exposition hanging committee, through which he and other expatriates controlled the arrangement of paintings in the American gallery. Gay won his silver medal in 1889 for six canvases. These works featuring gentle folk in period costumes or peasants at work bear literal resemblance to the flower studies with which the artist began his career in Boston in the early 1870s.
When Walter Gay sailed for Paris in 1876, he sought a path in which to ground his painting, a country on a continent rife with deep rooted and often contradictory artistic traditions. Through immersion in these traditions, by 1889, he had remade his art. Gay's European education began at Atelier d’eleves or Independent Studio of Leon Bonnat distinguished in a New York Times' eulogy as head of the French school of art of our time. Each Atelier d’eleves had its origin and a group of students. They raised funds for rent and models before asking a master to become their patron and instructor. Bonnat served his Atelier in this capacity from 1865 to 1882, before closing it to become a professor of drawing at and eventually director of the Ecole de Beaux Arts. Though, by the time of Bonnat's ascension to the directorship, the Ecole was run by the French government. Until 1863, the school had been an instrument of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, established in 1648 during the reign of Louis the 14th.
For centuries, the Academy set the standard for French art. Its members' favored the practice of draftsmanship and linear modeling, and scrupulous imitation of detail. Academy-sanctioned works were distinguished by the almost impossibly smooth and highly finished surfaces, and by their classical and biblical subject matter. Bonnat was lured to the Academy and to Ecole, which even after the government takeover maintained a curriculum grounded in form, which Bonnat referred to as, "Life itself," and drawing “the artist's salvation.” He championed the modes of painting perfected over centuries of French art-making, defending them in a 1916 magazine article against Cubism and Futurism, as well as against the Art Nouveau and the Modern Style. From Bonnat, Walter Gay received schooling and academic ideals, especially in the solid draftmanship that the master espoused. However Bonnat was also known for encouraging the individual proclivities of his various pupils. In his own work, he attempted Academism with the Realism and loose, more visible brush work, a painterly quality typical of the 17th century productions of the Spanish Diego Velasquez and his ilk.
So at Bonnat's urging, in 1878, Walter Gay traveled to Spain where, like his master before him, he found Velasquez a revelation. The product of the artist's exposure to both the bygone greats of the Spanish school and to its more recent adherents, the influence of the contemporary Spaniard Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo is particularly evident. Gay's earliest European works reveal an affinity for the continent's rich history and centuries old traditions, not only in their style, but also in their subject matter.
In his Paris salon debut, the 1879 Fencing Lesson, the artist depicts figures in 18th century dress observing from the bowers of an overgrown garden, a master as he teaches his pupil the rudiments of sword work. The canvas is small, the colors bright, the brush work quick and confident. Such genre scenes are typical of Gay's painting in the early 1880s. In the 17th and 18th century figures they feature, garbed in elegant period attire and engaged in decorous pursuits, reflect the artists attunement to the European past.
Rose Sheehan: Two of these diminutive genre works, The Bookworm and A Dominican were included in Gay’s showing at the 1889 Exposition Universelle. However, his other four submissions, Charity, The Weaver, The Spinners, and Le Bénédicité suggests the artist's involvement in another strain of French painting, one that diverged from the strictly academic. Upon his arrival in Europe, Gay traveled South of Paris to the forest of Fontainebleau where, since the early 1800s, French artists have flocked to paint their native scenery from direct observation.
Known as the Barbizon School, after the village of Barbizon on the forest edge, the movement initially faced resistance from the French art establishment. In the Academy's artistic hierarchy, landscape occupied a lowly position. To paint nature for nature's sake and to do so with a looseness and freedom born of direct study was unheard of. However, by mid century, the fruits of the Barbizon School had been accepted, if not entirely by the Academy, then at least by the French government, which offered to Barbizon artists commissions and support.
At the time of Gay's first visit to Fontainebleau, the movement was, as he puts it, "in its prime." On this initial visit, Gay describes himself as conscious of the recent presence in the forest of two of the Barbizon greats, the newly deceased Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. Millet had perhaps the greater impact on the artist. Born into a family of farmers, he was one of the few, if not the only well-known Barbizon painter to incorporate figures into his landscapes. Picturing the lives and labors of French peasants, he endowed his subjects with a nobility that rendered them more ideals than realistic individuals. Throughout his study in Paris with Bonnat, Gay revisited, Fontainebleau on multiple occasions during the summer months, journeying as well to Brittany, another rural region popular with French painters.
Then in 1885, the artist abandoned his small-scale genre scenes for works of a radically different size and subject. The paintings that Gay produced for the next 10 years were large canvases. They featured, like Millet's oeuvre, inhabitants of the French countryside engaged in everyday tasks and activities. However, Gay's restrained, almost bleak, color palette and the apparent sincerity of his depiction (his peasants appeared to be of various ages and states of health), communicate not nobility, but rather sadness and bitterness born of the impending death of a way of life.
As they bend over looms and spinning wheels, the artist's subjects remind viewers that these labors and the mode of existence that they sustained are falling inexorably to mechanization and modernization. Peasant pictures were a mainstay for American painters abroad, perhaps because in recording continental pre-industrial traditions that the comparatively young United States lacked, they tapped into a certain anti-modern sentiment, prevalent in the late 1800s. Certainly like his genre scenes, the four peasant paintings that Gay exhibited in 1889, dwell on and try to keep alive the European past. While Gay's fixation on light in these depictions of rural life is often remarked upon, he did not so much as flirt with Impressionism, then relatively new and still slightly radical. Instead seeking out Bonnat in the age-old teachings at the French Academy, Spanish Realism with its roots in the 1600s, and the Barbizon school, well established and grounded in French history and in 17th century Dutch landscapes, the artist crafted for the 1889 Exposition Universelle canvases that evoked European tradition in every aspect.
Muyon Zhou: All the exposition and throughout the 1880s and the early 1890s, Gay's paintings were held as distinctly continental. An 1879 I review in the Beaux-Arts notes the artists close imitation of the technique of Fortuny. His years in Paris and his studies under Bonnat have well-served him," George William Sheldon writes in his 1888 text. Recent ideas of American art, French art, fashioned this young man after its image," an 1895 article in the Magazine of Art observes. And like the European [inaudible] canvases of his fellow American abroad, Gay's painting found success at the 1889 Exposition Universelle and beyond in the final two decades of the 19th century. Consideration of the Le Bénédicité, the work that Matilda, in 1930, described as worthy of entombment, emphasizes its maker's popularity in late 1800s France.
The canvas shows a peasant woman, [inaudible] and swathed in a scarf. She bends, eyes downcast and hands joined in a prayer over her meal. The colors are muted, brushstrokes just visible. At the windows, sheer white curtain hang, allowing a steady, understated light. Before Le Bénédicité appeared at the 1889 exposition, it has already won Gay his third class gold medal at the 1888 Paris Salon and been purchased by the French government for display in the Luxembourg museum, of which it was eventually moved to Amiens.
To have a painting bought by the French State, was for American artist at the end of the 19th century, not an everyday occurrence. Only 22 American artists, during this period were so honored. Notably, the state seemed only to purchase work in which French influence was visible, generally by Americans who had settled permanently in France. Gay's early canvases triumphed, not only in France, but also across the continent. At European exhibitions throughout the 1890s, he consistently medaled, in Vienna, Munich, Brussels, Antwerp, Budapest, and Berlin. Two of these awards, are known from Munich and Antwerp, joined the 1889 and 1900 exposition medals in the Frick Art Reference Library.
The artists' early works were also successful, albeit to a lesser degree, in the United States. Gay showed at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and the Carnegie Institute. He acted as a foreign correspondent and an advisor to the Museums of Fine Art in Boston and was elected a charter member of the National Institute of Art and Letters.
Iman Khakoo: However, as Gay's genre and peasant paintings enjoyed acclaim in the last years of the 19th century, change was afoot and global and most notably in American art communities.
The shift began almost immediately after the 1889 Paris exposition, as American painters, living in the States, chafed at the dominant role played and copious praise received by their expatriate counterparts. "I was in America last winter, and I found that among the painters there, the feeling was bitter, as to the way they had been treated in the exposition of 1889," the painter John White Alexander wrote, "The feeling of the American painters in America is undoubtedly that in the Exposition of 1889, the men in Paris got all the honors and privileges. And they ran things to suit themselves."
This bitterness extended to the Paris Society of American Painters, an exclusive association of about 18 members of whom Gay was one. Representing the old guard of American artists abroad, the PSAP, according to a 1901 article in the New York Tribune, practically controls the American exhibits at the continental picture shows and appoints committees to attend the various exhibitions and to see that the pictures of its members are properly hung.
These pictures were, of course, reflective of European artistic traditions. Indeed, not only United States-based artists, but also figures from all quarters of the American art community found their nation's gallery at the 1889 exposition, and by extension, the PSAP, disquieting. Rather than announcing itself as distinctly American, American art seemed to have become merely an echo or reiteration of the continental. As Weinberg puts it, "American art was not very American at all." And the United States was concerned.
In a 1900 article entitled Alien Element in American Art, Ellis T. Clark bemoans the drifting away from national standards and subjects that he observes in the work of his countrymen, arguing that only an artist who depicts native or home scenes and figures can be truly successful. He concludes a purely imitative art will never be a great art. As in America concern over Europeanization of native art mounted, a concurrent impulse against traditional and specifically French academic modes of painting appeared, not just in the United States, but also on the continent.
Impressionism, once on the fringes of accepted art, was increasingly moving toward the center. At the 1893, Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, the American response to the 1889 Exposition Universelle, so-called American Impressionism made its debut. Just as, internationally, the popularity of European Impressionism was reaching its apex.
The seeds of Modernism had been implanted. As the movement gained momentum, established modes of art-making began to seem outmoded and passe. Even the Barbizon school, once considered radical and unprecedented, was now old hat. Especially old hat were works that bore any traces of the French academic tendencies that have become to represent the antithesis of the artistic future. The derogatory term, L'art pompier was increasingly used to refer to the output of painters who, working in the academic vein, produced canvases that critics lambasted as unoriginal and in a play on the word “pompier”, pompous.
Rose Sheehan: European traditions were on the way out. So are the American artists who subscribe to them. At the United States gallery at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the shift in the climate of American and international artistic communities was made evident. And the official illustrated catalog of the 1900 US Fine Arts Exhibit, editor, H. Hobart Nichols begins his preface by citing the French description of the 1889 American Gallery as merely an annex to the French section.
He then states, "The resolve of all involved in the crafting of the 1900 gallery to design a truly representative American showing, since the exposition of 1889, American art has to a great degree emancipated itself from foreign trammels and entered upon a career of its own, expressing American thought and reflecting American nature," he announces. Certainly American art actually made in American nature was present at the 1900 exposition in a way that it had not been 11 years previously. Rather than separating the judgment of submissions between two juries, one based in New York and the other in Paris, the organizers of the American gallery arranged that all paintings by US artists, whether produced at home or abroad, should be judged by one jury in New York.
This jury ensured that the works of US-based painters outnumbered those of expatriates by a three to two ratio. In 1900, artists living in America, as opposed to those living abroad, dominated the United States exhibition. Moreover, the canvases of these two demographics, rather than being grouped into distinct areas as they had been in 1889, were integrated throughout the gallery.
Along with these organizational shifts came corresponding changes both in the allocation of medals and in the focus of media criticism. Of the 114 medals awarded to American painters in 1900, over two thirds went to artists resident in the United States, with these US-based painters receiving five of the seven golden medals issued. American and French exposition critics alike focused on these resident painters and on the Americanization of American art. Although some insisted that American oils were still indistinguishable from continental works, most at least acknowledged the beginnings of a mode of painting distinct the United States. "The Exposition of 1900 contained in American section, which revealed a great deal of motive and character that could not be lightly dismissed as a bit of reflux of Europe," the critic Charles Caffin writes in his 1902 texts, American Masters of Painting, while in the French journal, Le Gaulois [inaudible] Louis de Foucault argues that, "the divide between expatriate and resident Americans is still visible." He sees, "evidence in the 1900 gallery of a school already boldly constituted and which becomes conscious of itself."
Muyan Zhou: Walter Gay won his second silver exposition medal in 1900, this time for two, rather than six, works. Both canvases, Maternity and The Weaver were typical of his large-scale peasant pictures. The Weaver had been shown as well at the exposition in 1889. Gay's silver medal suggests a final hurrah of the paintings, traditionally continental, in both style and subject, for which he and his fellow expatriates had earned such claim in the previous decades.
At an exposition looking forward to the future, in a gallery that aimed to establish a national mode of art making, Gay's early canvases, redolent of a European past, had their last stand. But Walter Gay had already moved on. Though he didn't begin to exhibit his new works until 1901 in 1895, he renounced genre scenes and peasant paintings for different sort of image: interiors, mostly French and decorative in the style typical of the 18th century, completely devoid of figures. Between 1926 and 1928, Gay painted three such canvases for Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of Henry Clay Frick.
The artist depicted various rooms in the Frick collection, then the family's home. These empty interiors were arguably unprecedented in European and American art. Previous paintings of interiors had either included human subjects or function as documentary studies of architecture and furnishing. Not exactly continental, definitely not American, these later canvases were the artists alone, immune to fluctuating trends and rising nationalism.
However, like Gay's early work, his interiors evoke the European past, those centuries in which history was made and traditions established, that the United States lacked. During the 1890s Americans became enamored of the 18th century French decorative art and obsession already rampant among French taste-makers of the 19th century. The American taste in interior design has previously tended toward the eclectic, but under the leadership of several prominent figures in US society, the focus began to shift toward unified interiors in the style of 1700s France.
In 1897, the novelist Edith Wharton and architect Ogden Codman published their interior design manual, The Decoration of Houses, which was followed in 1913 by the actress Elsie de Wolfe's, The House in Good Taste. All three others did up their own homes or in Codman's case, the estate of his robber baron clients, as still living in 18th century France. In painting these spaces, as well as the similarity attired a room in his own residences, Gay both reflected the trend toward bygone French home decor and encouraged its spread, providing impetus and instructions for the aspiring American architect or decorator.
More than that, though, he painted love letters to a continental past, wielding his brush with, in the words of a catalog from a 1974 exhibition in New York's Graham gallery, "a strong indifferent determination to ward off the present."
Rose Sheehan: As Walter Gay's empty interiors triumphed, the genre and peasant pictures had occupied the first decades of his career descended into obscurity. By Matilda, by critics, and by the artist himself, they were entombed, brought up rarely and then only to be disparaged. The success and subsequent fall from grace of Gay's early works testifies to shifts in American and continental artistic tastes and relations in the final decades of the 19th century.
"Bearing the stamp of French approval, the two silver medals won by the artist at the 1889 and 1900 Expositions Universelle act as keys to comprehension of the politics and proclivities of international artists communities at the end of an era. However, the medals also give a glimpse into the mind of the artist, allowing us to connect Gay's first now forgotten canvases with his superficially dissimilar and widely known later works. Commentators have long balked at drawing parallels between the two sets of paintings, early and late. They would hardly be recognized now as his works," the Catalog of the Metropolitan Museums' Walter Gay Memorial Exhibition asserts, referring to the artist's initial canvases.
"This early work, however, is not at all representative of the work that later brought him well merited fame," a New York Times article echoes, "but as the paintings that Gay submitted to the two Parisian expositions and the acclaim that they enjoyed there, reveal an artist taken with tradition and possessed by the past, delighting in a place that has both in abundance." So the unpeopled interiors that came later communicate the same sentiment. With these latter works, Gay finally found a captive audience in his native country and American viewership with whom to share his keen appreciation for bygone centuries.
Through acquisition of three Walter Gay interiors, Helen Clay Frick revealed herself as part of this American viewership. A trip to the Frick Art Reference Library and consideration of the two silver medals found there, show us just how those images of the Frick collection's empty rooms came into being.
Speakers: Muyon Zhou, Intern, Iman Khakoo, Intern, Rose Sheehan, Intern, Stephen J. Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian
Muyon Zhou: All the women in France imitate the queen, all the women in Europe imitate the women in France. In the last decade of the 18th century, a taste for coiffure trickled down from the last sovereign of France, Marie Antoinette, into the entire European society. It gave rise to the birth of Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, dessinés d'après nature. The hidden gem in the Frick Rare Book Cage, published between 1778 and 1787 in Paris, by Esnault et Rapilly. The selection is said to be the most beautiful collection in existence on the fashion of the 18th century.
Iman Khakoo: In this series, the opening plate to the fifth set dedicated to coiffure marks the artistic height of 18th century hairstyle illustration that the Gallerie reaches. The exquisite plate showcases four hairstyles from between 1776 and 1778, with the names of the hairstyles inscribed beside the figures. At first sight, four young women in half length portraits, immediately stun the viewers with their extravagant hair, which blow up the rectangular quadrants that they each occupy. Their carefully cured golden hair soars up in the air and expands beyond the width of their shoulder. The hair is further topped by even bigger accessories, bejeweled with strings of pearl beads, adorned by lace ruffles and ribbons. And garnished with ostrich feathers and flowers and echoing colors. As the collection’s title "dessinés d'après nature" or "drawn after nature," proudly proclaims, these women with their rosy complexions framed by explosions of fashionable styling, are the definition of beauty in the Parisian everyday life.
Iman Khakoo: But there is more to their beauty. With a second look, you will start to see how these women are all caught in the middle of some kind of action. Two of them are contemplating pieces of writing. One is reading a message reflected in a mirror on a heart pierced through by an arrow. And one is as if caught in a trance. These women are intelligent individuals. Their bodies are elegantly tilted as if mirroring their neighbors’ posture from left to right, while the similarity in their hairstyles connects their figures diagonally and ties the upper and lower section together. You will find that what makes these women so irresistible is their collective charm. The plate provides an image of fashion, not as an individual idolatry, but as a social ideal.
Muyon Zhou: This is the Frick Art Reference Library's, A Peek into the Past. Episode Three. Ruffles, Rouge and Pre-revolutionary France. (silence). The last decade of 18th century France, witnessed the birth and the climax of the coiffure industry in the Western world. While the French ladies spend hours and hours in their twilight cabinets to get their hairstyle in order for different locations throughout the day, the hairdressers were also desperate to establish their emerging coiffure business, not only as a field separated from the wig making and the barbershops, but also as a new genre of what they called liberal arts. Coiffure academies were created by renowned hairdressers for the nobles. Numerous hairstyle treatises in place were also made for these academies and hairstyles salons and circulated both domestically and abroad. In May 1777, the journal of Parisian fashion, [inaudible] was the first to feature a separated hairstyle section. In the same year, these hairstyles were published again, by the bookseller Valade, as a semi-periodical in Paris, titled Manuel des toilettes.
Muyon Zhou: This publication was particularly lucrative among the petite bourgeoisie, as they regarded the style as a visible way for them to keep up with the aristocrats. It was in this flourishing market for Parisian coiffure publication that the Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Francaise came to be. The publisher of Gallerie des Modes, Jacques Esnauts and Michel Rapilly were originally two print merchants with no connection to the bookselling, publishing world. However, they followed Valade’s Manuel des toilette, which proved the commercial success of the encyclopedic print series of Parisian coiffure. In the introduction to the bound version of Gallerie des Modes, the publisher's motivation behind the print is explained as an attempt to fix people's curiosity toward the revolution that the French coiffure experience when the Gallerie was set up. The Gallerie des Modes was announced as a fashion place dedicated to coiffure for both genders in April 1778. And it soon as started to circulate and in sets, cahiers, of six on a regular basis.
Muyon Zhou: However, from the seventh set and on, as the publishers saw an opening in the public interest in French clothing, the Gallerie's focus changed from depicting coiffure to the entire outfit in full length. It was through this clothing place that the Gallerie des Modes became the most known, as it inspired the first fashion magazine by modern definition, the Cabinet des Modes in 1785. In later sets of the Gallerie des Modes specialized coiffure sessions still came back sporadically in response to the remaining market need. Nevertheless, hairstyles were never again the publishers main interest. Despite the publisher's shift in the tension the change that Gallerie des Modes brought to the representation of coiffure fashion is nothing less than revolutionary. In prior coiffure print series, the models were only considered as agents of their hairstyles. Only two or three standard faces in either stiff profiles or the frontal or reverse positions are shown.
Muyon Zhou: In contrast, the Gallerie de Modes defied such absolute dominance of coiffure over individuals, by highlighting the naturalness in the model's action. The Gallerie des Modes took its high standard of figurative painting from the Monuments du Costume Physique et Sociale prints, designed by the renowned art illustrator Moreau Le Jeune. Absorbing from this figurative standard, we simplify detail and background, many Academy students, instead of commercial engravers were elicited to design and engrave the Gallerie des Modes. Most of the graphic figure reflects an aesthetic of portraiture sitting. From time to time, their postures are even direct quotations of small sections cut off from the scenes that the Le Monuments du Costume presents. The figures encompass different ages. There is facial expression variety. Their vibrant gaze flow all over the page. From such vividness, you can get a clear sense of an individual identity coming through the coiffure of, each model. Or sometimes, even imagining a scene or a story in the background.
Muyon Zhou: Nevertheless, this indication of a potential female narrative contradicted societal expectations of women. Social norms had a very limited acceptance toward women's direct participation in society, especially their engagement with politics. The Salon painters willingly depicted French woman as passive figures, such as happy mothers, dutiful wives and obedient daughters. Meanwhile, caricatures attacked politically prominent woman, Queen Marie Antoinette stood out as the most well-known target. And ridiculed the political, economic, and cultural power of women by emphasizing their sexuality. In particular, the coiffure was constantly used as a nitpicking excuse to accuse French women of their socio-political insensitivity.
Rose Sheehan: However, coiffures also resolve this conflict between the French woman's limited social engagement and a simultaneous wish to assert a social presence. Let's look again at this first plate to the fifth set, dedicated to coiffure, or plate number E25. Along the two crossing diagonals, the four hairstyles are divided into two groups. These hairstyles imply two ways in which women asserted a social narrative in defense of their private interest in coiffures. In this plate, the coiffure correspond with French warfare in the existing social hierarchy, in public occasions.
Rose Sheehan: The upper left and the lower right quadrants, introduce two hairstyles that made a dangerous reference to English hats. In the upper left, the chapeau anglaise or the English hat, is a wide straw hat, which tilts forward with a striped cloth tied into a ribbon on top. The hat is decorated with flowers and a pink ribbon skirting the cloth. A light scarf ties under the hat. In the lower right, the bonnet Anglo America, or the English American bonnet, is made of a softer striped fabric divided into tears by lace ruffles, a red sash, pearls and a string of flowers from bottom to top. The excess of flowers and pearls is gathered into a small bouquet, finished at the back with a drape of the cloth.
Rose Sheehan: This knowledge of English fashion in England and North America mostly came from French contact with the English through Wars. These English style hats date to immediately after France's defeat in the Seven Years War and at the dawn of the 1778 Anglo French War. In the Tableau de Paris, the writer, Mercier, advised French woman to adopt the English hat by adorning it with pearls, diamonds and feathers, while still keeping it constantly the English hat, by maintaining its reasonable proportion. Compared to Mercier's conservative approach, French woman took a rather radical form of cultural appropriation. They had only elaborated the decorations into a courtly French standard, but also expanded the size of the hat and the bonnet from their English prototype. According to social convention at that time, the bigger the hat was, the higher the wearer was in the social hierarchy. Thus, the change in size actually made a stronger statement that articulated the dominance of France over its English enemies. A 1785 advertisement even referred to the English-inspired hats directly as "military trophies." As a result, the French one managed to vent a patriotic enthusiasm through domesticating the English style.
Rose Sheehan: It must be noted here, that such patriotic sentiment might not be truly sincere, as it worked too conveniently with the French woman's increasingly extravagant taste in coiffure. Still, these English-inspired hairstyles provide some kind of defense against the criticism of the French woman, as only having a private interest in the ostentatious aspect of fashion. In effect, these coiffures help their wearers to exert a presence as women standing with their nation. In the upper right and the lower left, the pouf a la puce or the pouf in the puce color, in the bonnet au chapeau a la galante or the bonnet with an amorous hat, show a certain competence that must be examined under the existing social hierarchy. In this section, the plate shows smaller and softer hair pieces that only cover the upper part of the hair. The pouf a la puce has a cotton creep adorning the hair. Its bottom is traced by a pink ribbon, tied into sections by strings of pearls.
Rose Sheehan: Another string of pearls drapes below the ribbon and flowers and ostrich feathers are added on top. The bonnet with an amorous hat is a soft bonnet and striped cloth with a little decorative hat pinched in the front to the left. The bottom is edged by a ribbon. While the little straw hat is decorated with flowers in ostrich feathers. Additionally, there's a triangular fichu and a pink ribbon draping behind the bonnet. The bonnet with an amorous hat, challenges the established socio-political connotation of hat styles. Historically the hat and the bonnet in this coiffure, had two contradictory meanings in the political context. The hat connoted war while the bonnet suggested peace. After the death of Charles the 12th, the Swedish aristocracy was divided into two oppositional factions named as the hat party and the bonnet party. Here, as the bonnet with an amorous hat, combined the two oppositional types of hat styles to create a visual panorama. Its ability to arouse a visual sensation among the public, should also be attributed to the deviance it entails in violating an established division of social values.
Rose Sheehan: The coiffures can also acknowledge and participate in a game of social hierarchy. For instance, in the pouf a la puce, Marie Antoinette style was imitated by the common woman in an attempt to elevate her social status by appearance. The basic pouf style was created for Marie Antoinette by your hairdresser, Leonard. This particular a la puce color of dark reddish brown, was directly named after comment that Louis the 16th had on Marie Antoinette, as documented in Edmond Texier’s Tableau de Paris.
Iman Khakoo: In one summer day, Marie Antoinette presented herself to Louis the 16th in a taffeta dress of a dark color. "It's the peace color," said the King. All at once, all the ladies of the court wanted to have taffeta and peace.
Rose Sheehan: Together, these women present themselves to the public as equipped with the knowledge and competence to make cultural distinctions. Not only were they aware of the behavior and style of the higher social class, but they also expressed a wish to participate in such social order by emulating those in the higher position.
Muyon Zhou: Nevertheless, while coiffure could be a useful tool to shape women's public image, making them appear more prestigious and powerful than they really are. Such an approach was always prone to criticism. The main criticism at that time was that the French woman only imitated the outward appearance, but not their inner quality of fine ladies. Commenting on the woman's imitation of Mademoiselle Contin’s hairstyle, a contemporary journal said,
Iman Khakoo: "Most of our ladies have adopted these hairstyles, persuading themselves that they would look as attractive as Mademoiselle Contin. But beware, the most modest and decent tone is needed with these hairstyles."
Rose Sheehan: The Gallerie de Modes responds to this criticism by introducing props to the coiffure figures. In a closer look, we'll find that the letter that the English hat woman holds is most likely a love letter. The script that the bonnet with an amorous hat person presents sings, "Everyone paints love. Everything is love" from Charles-Simon Favart’s comic opera, The Nymphs of Diana. The injured heart shown by the Anglo American bonnet lady is inscribed with the cliché of love: "I chase my heart." With these props, the figures are presented as truly capable of being the most ingenious, the most touching, the most prudent, the least pretentious and the least effected from inside to out. At the same time, however, the props unavoidably restricted the woman to comply with the social virtue of feminine love and obedience. They weaken the values that the hairstyles attempt to champion. Instead, question, how assertive and active these women could truly be.
Muyon Zhou: Additionally, it is more problematic to reconsider the availability of these statements of coiffure to the majority of French women. The Gallerie des Modes seems progressive at first to present the coiffure figure, mostly in bourgeois clothing instead of courtly outfits. It extended the measurement of fashion beyond the 2% of nobles. Nevertheless, we should not forget that the bourgeois also compose a minor population among the common French people. For the majority of French women from the middle class and lower class, while there was still expected to wear the lavish coiffure in public, their social presence was a financial burden. According to the fashion historian, Caroline Weber, in order to keep up with the queen style, 1.5 million unmarried demoiselles were squandering their dowries. For the poor woman the cost of following the style meant the string attached offers of generous lover and to lose their virtue in the process.
Muyon Zhou: And opera actress documented in the Tableau de Paris further complained that as the expectation of lavishness grew with time, she could not afford the coiffure that she was required to do on-stage. Consequently, women, not only squandered their fortune, but also sacrificed their virtues. All for the sake of emulating the fashion. The extreme polarization in society make these potential coiffure statements still a privileged vocabulary, only enjoyable for the established bourgeois. Instead, when the fanciful coiffure was put into practice, people of lower class were never a part of the fashionistas consideration. As Dr. Stephen Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian at the Frick Art Reference Library commented.
Stephen Bury: The plates have shown extremes, whereas three-quarters of the country is starving. These people are going out in these strange coiffered hairstyles and these dresses that nobody would have been able to afford.
Muyon Zhou: Such starvation was literal. As flour was commonly adopted by the bourgeoisie as hair powder to obtain the fashionable light hair color. As Mercier passionately testified in Tableau de Paris..
Iman Khakoo: "The powder that 200,000 individuals whiten their hair with, is taken from the food of the poor. That this substance, the nutritious part, extracted from the dirty weed, passes fruitlessly over the neck of so many idlers."
Muyon Zhou: Additionally, French societies discriminatory treatment of people from different classes exacerbated this polarization. For instance, while the opera was a major occasion that the coiffure was created for, a restriction on female theater hairstyle, was imposed in 1778 by Devismes, the Director of the Opera at that time. It was intended to put an end to quarrels in the theater. As men complained that the tall coiffure that women wore blocked their view during performances. The Devismes regulation prohibited woman with coiffure over a certain height, from entering the theater. However, the effectiveness of this regulation hardly went beyond restricting the actresses and courtisans for these woman of low social class. Instead of elevating their social status, the coiffure became a further distinction that separated them from the ladies and bourgeoisies in the higher positions. Such division of classes continued to intensify until the end of French Revolution, when the executioner Sanson brutally cut Marie Antoinette's hair and placed it in his pocket. (silence).
Muyon Zhou: These coiffure plates in Gallerie des Modes, may not perfectly reconcile, an independent female narrative of women active within French society with a social expectation for females to act in merely private roles. Their place were still subjected to the limitations imposed by the norms and class problems in the pre-revolution society. Still, this print series continue to attract a high collecting interest. Today, we could find them in different collections through various copies, simply from their publisher, Esnaut et Rapilly. There was another bound version in two volumes of these fashion plates. The two volumes were produced in 1779 and 1780, with introductory text, cover images and a general rights disclaimer, added to the plates. They were made more for a taste of 18th century collectors and the interests of the philosophes that unified collection could address. Pirated version could also be found in other fashion plate collections, such as Basset’s Suite d’habillements. [inaudible]
Muyon Zhou: Reproduction of the original plates was also made between 1911 and 1914 by Paul Cornu and Emile Levy after many of the original plates were destroyed during the French Revolution. The original plates, from Galerie de Modes, has been rare since the beginning, as the publisher did not use the subscription system when these plates were first circulated in sets. Today, thanks to the gift from the Library of Paul and Melinda Sullivan in 2017, the Frick Art Reference Library houses more than 300 of these color fashion and hairstyle plates that might have been originally collected at the time of their circulation. It makes one of the most comprehensive collection, also unbound version of this print series, in the world. These fashion plates provide valuable information to enhance our knowledge and understanding of fashion's role in the pre-revolutionary France. As well as how hairstyle contributed to the relationship between the private self and the public society.
Muyon Zhou: If you take a stroll through the paintings exhibited in the Frick Collection’s galleries, you can also find some of these hairstyles or their earlier prototypes, such as in Boucher, A Lady on her day bed, Fragonard's Progress of love, and Gainsborough The Mall in St. James Park. Then revisit to the Frick Rare Book Cage, you'll be able to have a private moment with this masterpiece of French fashion prints and to personally experience this splendor and frustration in the last days of the old regime.