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Gilded Age art at Cantor provokes viewers to rethink stereotypes about the era

Two exhibitions offered contrasting perspectives on the era: one of elites and one of underrepresented voices

William McGregor Paxton’s “The Crystal” depicts the artist’s wife cradling a luminous crystal ball. The absence of the subject’s reflection in the mirror could indicate the portrait is not meant to be a faithful rendering of the subject or the scene, but rather a means for capturing a mood or advertising wealth. (Photo: VANI MOHINDRA/The Stanford Daily)

From Aug. 31, 2018 to Aug. 25, 2019, The Cantor Arts Center hosted two temporary exhibitions offering contrasting perspectives of life in the Gilded Age, the late-19th-century years of economic growth and increasing inequality during which Stanford was founded. 

“Painting Nature in the Gilded Age,” a collection of works by multiple artists, showcased art that was meant for consumption by the era’s “haves” — wealthy, uniformly white elites. Yinka Shonibare’s “Cowboy Angels” challenges this reductive characterization of the Gilded Age by serving up a powerful reminder of marginalized groups in the era. 

Select paintings by American artists from the 1880s to 1910 were fixtures on the moss-colored walls of Cantor’s Ruth Levinson Halperin Gallery.

A series of arresting portraits greeted the gallery’s visitors. Their subjects were sumptuously clothed and carefully staged in a display of affluence.

While the collection’s portraits of serene urbanites endorsed a wealthy East Coast lifestyle, its still life paintings recalled a Jeffersonian vision for America and expressed a nostalgia for rural life. Representations of sturdy hunting tools, well-worn boots and other symbols of the virtuous yeoman farmer ideal populate the still lifes. Nora Schlossman, a docent at Cantor, said during a tour of the exhibit that, during the late 19th century, these paintings were mounted in taverns in eastern cities, where many patrons had experienced a rural upbringing. 

Similar to the Colosseum in Rome, or to the pyramids in Egypt, the splendor of “Painting Nature in the Gilded Age” conferred a sense of loss and longing hinging on the belief that the course of history has since taken a downturn. 

Schlossman and others pointed out that most groups, including women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community, have made significant gains since the Gilded Age.

“One of the things that has occurred since [“Painting Nature in the Gilded Age”] was put together was that it does point out the whiteness of the collection,” Shlossman said.

Mark Dion, Cantor’s 2019 artist-in-residence, posed the following question in an article in the museum’s summer magazine: “What are the other stories left untold about the foundations of the Stanford wealth? Who are the unnamed figures on whose backs this fortune is built?”

Yinka Shonibare’s “Cowboy Angels” offers a partial answer.

“Cowboy Angels” consists of five woodblock prints of cowboys with African masks for faces and angel wings. Each print bears the word “Angel” and a collage of Dutch wax fabric, Shonibare’s signature material, which is made in Europe for export to Africa.         

The myth of the cowboy as a symbol of rugged individualism, which was propagated by American writer Owen Wister’s “The Virginian” and wild west shows, belies a harsher truth: Cowboys were wage laborers bound to ranching corporations and railroads. By reworking the image of the cowboy, an archetypal American hero, Shonibare pokes holes in the mythology that shrouds the Gilded Age and urges a more inclusive national identity.

Contact Vani Mohindra at 20vanim ‘at’ students.harker.org.          

   

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