Scouting: Gilded Age Selfies

Today was one of those gloomy, rainy days when curling up on the sofa with a cup of cocoa and a novel seemed like a fantastic idea. Instead, I decided to rally and make a visit to Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America an exhibit showcasing selections from the New York Historical Society Museum’s permanent collection. Culture!

 Gilded Age Portraits at the New York Historical Society Museum; Image  Source

Gilded Age Portraits at the New York Historical Society Museum; Image Source

The portraits are of prominent members of New York Society and something occurred to me as I walked through the gallery that made me feel brilliant. When that happens I try to enjoy the moment, so I hope you'll indulge me for a minute. This is my theory: Gilded Age portraits are the selfies of yesteryear. 

I’ll pause while you contemplate that idea for a moment….

This is my reasoning. In the introductory text the curators described how having a portrait painted was the intersection of “art, beauty, and celebrity” and was intended to document and emphasize a family’s wealth, history, and power. No judgment for folks who love posting selfies, but think about it. These people were essentially the Blair Waldorfs and Chuck Basses of yesteryear and had portraits painted to show how great or beautiful they were, right? The purpose is the same. I mean, check this guy out. He certainly seems to be sending some sort of message and I think the same is true of our modern day social networking. Something to consider the next time you pass by a gilt framed portrait or scroll through your Facebook feed…

  James Hazen Hyde , 1901; Theobald Chartran; Image  Source

James Hazen Hyde, 1901; Theobald Chartran; Image Source

Final thought on the exhibit is that the curators did a fantastic job making these people real and compelling by sprinkling the bios that accompany each painting with hints of scandal. Exactly the types of things that would grace the cover of US Weekly or headline on Gawker: disappearing husbands, shockingly expensive costume balls, business meltdowns! I highly recommend this exhibit anyone who is interested in celebrity culture and wants to get a glimpse of the people who were the 1890s answer to The One Percent. Fascinating.

  Mrs. Middleton Shoolbred Burrill , 1899; Benjamin Curtis Porter

Mrs. Middleton Shoolbred Burrill, 1899; Benjamin Curtis Porter