The Next Chapter(s): PhD, The Gilded Interior

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Next week I officially begin work as a PhD candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art. My research will focus on the ever-fascinating and my ever-favorite Gilded Age and the case of developing modern American identity in the decorative interior. What does this mean? Here’s how I see it in a nutshell:

We define ourselves by the spaces we inhabit—how we imagine and design them, how we adorn and conduct ourselves within them, how we manage and control access to them, and how we present them to others.

In the Gilded Age, America went to work on its largest and fasted-paced identity management scheme in history. Roles and institutions were turned upside down by Industry, immigration, wealth, and technology, and what it meant to be ‘American’ shifted, expanded, narrowed, unified, and diversified, occupying a critical place in the public consciousness both domestically and internationally.

For the elite sector, building, furnishing, and collecting were key in the establishment of social identities deemed appropriate for a new (the first), moneyed millionaire class. These were the traditions of the aristocracy, the cultured, the leisured, and the noble, and they were to be adopted as part of the flexing of the civilized American muscle. However! They were not, as many have surmised, adopted without intention, discernment, or difference.

So what can an analysis of Gilded Age design and decorating practices tell us about this foundational period in our history?

My interests are primarily in the (private) interior—this is where the action happens—and in the presentation of self and selves through the display of and interaction with space, objects, and others. My research for the next few years will focus on the adaptation of European, namely French, precedents in interior design and on the recontextualization of storied objects and peoples in interior decoration. On historical branding, as it were, for the fashionable modern American.

Research will involve a variety of themes and topics, including transatlantic antiques trade, the rise of the dealer-decorator, historiography and the historical impulse, technological advancement, and the style icons that were Marie Antoinette and the Marquise de Pompadour—regularly conflated, rarely contradicted.

My hope is that, by understanding some of the means of and motivations for Gilded Age building and decorating, we may more accurately assess this significant period and its lavish practices (How can Louis XV boiserie be modern or American?), and approach a more systematic review of its contents, creations, and contributions. And, let’s face it, take decoration seriously.

A more concise explanation in the form of my official proposal to follow.

Above: Ladies’ Reception Room, The Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt II Residence, Newport, RI, 1893-95. The Preservation Society of Newport County.

The 'Life' (and Death?) of Objects: Reuse and the Biographical Metaphor

A couple of months ago I participated in a thought-provoking conference at Brown University that reconsidered 'reuse' in a broad cultural context. Revisiting my presentation for writing now, I find myself again grappling with one of its central metaphors: the 'life,' and afterlife, of architecture, objects, and design.

For a Gilded Age scholar, the discussion of reuse is unavoidable: Gilded Age architects drew regularly, often directly, on historical styles and treatises; dealers amassed volumes of historical and other objects from declining European estates (already full of 'reused' things) for redistribution in the US; and patrons adopted and adapted freely the elements of high cultures past that most suited their contemporary ambitions as a new social elite. As part of this discussion, objects are often considered in terms of 'lives' and 'afterlives,' denoting, generally speaking, their roles in the contexts for which they were originally created and the roles that they assume in other contexts later.

But as I struggle to unravel the 'life' of a tub that was based on ancient Roman designs adopted by the French in the eighteenth century and rediscovered in turn-of-the-century America by way of Victorian England, quarried and carved from 'antique' stone ca. 1880, installed in a Renaissance-style mansion on modern Fifth Avenue and dispersed with the rest of its contents in the 1920s (you get the idea), I can't help but wonder: Is the biographical metaphor the most efficient, or the most appropriate? Why do we use it in the first place? And what are its benefits and drawbacks?

The life of objects: the human aspect and the historian aspect

The most obvious explanation for the biographical metaphor is, simply: we're humans. We're born, we live, we die, we ostensibly live again in alternative form or meaning, and this is our readiest framework for the understanding (and creation) of other things. And it is useful in many ways.

For historians, and particularly art historians, the biographical metaphor serves as an organizational device that helps to define and contextualize periods of significance and change. This, in turn, helps us to understand the meaning and value of objects for individuals, groups, and cultures over time. We recognize, for example, that objects are experienced differently in different settings, and that objects, designs, spolia, etc., take on new meaning (or, in common phrase, are 'given new life,' in an architect-as-demigod sort of way) when removed from their original context.

It also calls attention to the agency of objects and their impact on social interaction and history. By interpreting objects according to human qualities, we position them as active players in the continuous definition of sociocultural structure and symbology. For me, this is the nuts and bolts of my Goffmanian approach to Gilded Age collecting and design: social identity is created through symbolic interaction in carefully staged settings, in which objects act as props for the performance of specific and socially exclusive roles and rituals. Their histories and provenance are part of their value and usefulness as such. (See also: Mimi Hellman's 1999 "Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France," in which objects are interpreted as actors rather than props.)

For all its advantages, however, the biographical approach to objects and architecture also has significant shortcomings, some of which can be fatal (no pun intended, but there we are) to well-rounded scholarship.

The death of objects: the limitations of biography 

The first flaw in the biographical metaphor is the first flaw of all interpretive categorical devices: it inherently prioritizes certain periods and elements over others, creating false boundaries and giving naturalized authority to manmade schemata. Is Boucher's The Toilette of Venus any more or less significant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art now than it was in Madame de Pompadour's bathing pavilion in 1751, or in Alva Vanderbilt's boudoir in 1880? Which is its life and which is its afterlife?

The second is that it can give rather too much agency, imbibing inanimate objects and structures with a sort of Hegelian spirit or Vasarian genius that distracts, again, from the fact that they are crafted and given meaning by humans. Do things have lives if we don't delineate them? Does the stonework from the A. T. Stewart mansion now incorporated into Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church 'live' in the same way if no one knows, or cares, that it's there?

And this begs the final question of: When do objects die?

I for the most part have been considering physical objects, but what about the memory of objects, or, to use an example from my current work, descriptions of objects for which there is no physical evidence? How do we interpret these as elements of an object's or building's story? And what about cast, copied, or misattributed objects? If Salvator Mundi turns out not to be a Leonardo, what happens to the biography we're writing for it now?

The practical has taken a bit of an abstract turn here....

 

 

 

Research Project: Gilded Age Art & Technology

I am excited to announce that in September I will be joining the Preservation Society of Newport County (Rhode Island) for a one-year research fellowship under the theme of Gilded Age Art & Technology.

In the Gilded Age, technology was one of the key features that distinguished American houses from their European counterparts. My research will examine the impact of technology on the 'great house' tradition in this period, positing the American mansion as the successor to the English country house, and will focus specifically on modern bathroom design, decoration, and discourse.

I will be posting regular updates on my progress here, as well as on Instagram (@lauracjenkins), and will add a more detailed description of the proposed research shortly for those who are interested. If you have any information which might be of interest, or would like to discuss any aspect of the study, please feel free to contact me directly using the message box in the Contact section.

 

Above left: Detail of an urn located near the entrance of The Breakers, Newport, RI, Richard Morris Hunt for Cornelius II & Alice Vanderbilt, 1892-95. Above right: View of an electric switch near the entrance to the drawing room from the conservatory at The Elms, Newport, RI, Horace Trumbauer for Mr. & Mrs. Edward Berwind, 1898-1901.