Not so long ago, there were castles in Rhode Island, new temples in Des Moines and Viking warships in Chicago. There were two golden sphinxes gleaming in the White House. The rich were truly rich then -- and in their boundless self-assurance, they felt themselves heirs to all the past.
No single show to objects could successfully portray an America so odd, so confident and opulent. "The American Renaissance: 1875-1917" tries, but does not make it. The too-vauge and too-ambitious exhibition, which goes on view today at the National Collection of Fine Arts, bites off more than it can chew.
Consider, for example, a single gaudy object, a chair -- in fact, a huge and gilded throne -- included in the show.
That chiar is here to conjure up a palace called The Breakers, a "cottage" that Cornelius Vanderbilt II built himself in Newport in the 1890s. His cottage had 100 rooms, but was often used only two weeks a year. Imagine the life lived there, the ladies in silk gowns, the lobsters served on plates of gold by waiters in white gloves, the gardeners clipping hedges, the footmen and the maids. A craftsman might have spent a year carving this one chair. And army of his colleagues must have worked on that one house. The genteel conversation heard there round the table, the laughter of the ladies and the glitter of their jewels, here are represented by a single too-big chair.
That's the trouble with this show. In a sense it is defeated by the scale of its subject. There are 300 objects -- bronze statues, paintings, tables, architectural drawings, stained-glass windows, silver trays -- and still this exhibition remains but a sketch.
This exhibition protrays an era not only of gilt, but of ebony and bronze and mother-of-pearl. It was the age of the 400, and or the robber barons, the Astors and the Morgans, of monuments, mosaics and 25-course meals. Capitalism had triumphed, and despite unseemly slums, the industrial revolution had begun producing what seemed endless wealth. Members of the American establishment of those days, untroubled by doubt, busied themselves building a new world.
Through photographs and drawings, we see how they placed new statues in new parks. Their railroad stations, libraries and governmental buildings were graced with fluted columns, murals and mosaics. They sent their daughters off to Europe to marry titled men, and their artists to learn the old world's crafts.
The painters represented here went to study in Dusseldorf and Munich. The architects were trained, in the Beaux Arts tradition, in Paris and in Rome. Like their wealthy patrons they were sure they could create a new art that acknowledged and summarized -- and by doing so transcended -- the best art of the past.
The fruits of their endeavors, in Washington at least, are everywhere around us, in the Roman vaulting of Daniel H. Burnham's Union Station, in the lions and the buffalo that guard this city's bridges, in the murals and mosaics of the Library of Congress, in the temples on the Mall. And if the greatest objects of the age -- grand public buildings, monumental sculptures, palatial mansions -- aren't in the show, they are suggested by photographs and models and architectural drawings.
This show has many stars. Among them are such architects as McKim, Mead and White, such designers as Tiffany and Herter, such sculptors as Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French, and such gifted painters as Abbott Thayer, Kenyon Cox, John Singer Sargent and Thomas Dewing.
All were eclectics; all fed on the past. But in their own new art they struggled to express something not quite European, something antidecadent, genteel and chaste.
There were few things they detested as much as the vulgar. If a single symbol dominates this show it is that of the American virgin, healthy and angelic. The central room she rules -- in a dozen different guises of painting and sculpture -- is a high point of this show.
The style created by the architects and artists of the American Renaissance triumphed for a while, but it did not flourish long.
By the start of World War I, they had been driven out of fashion. In 1917, the painter Will H. Low could complain to his friend Kenyon Cox that "we, with one of two others, constitute the life vielle garde, we who yesterday were the insurgents."
For the next 60 years or so their eclecticism was derided, their ideal spurned. Nowadays, however, the pendulum of taste is swinging in their favor. We've grown sick, and rightly so, of shoddy craftsmanship and blandness. Glass-topped chrome-legged tables no longer seem more beautiful than those hand-carved of oak. Such American Renaissance souvenirs as candlsticks and vases and bronze figurines now fetch hefty prices at auction.
The present exhibition, which was organized by the Brooklyn Museum, leaves much to be desired, but it is a useful introduction to a period of our past that deserves much deeper study. It will remain on view at the National Collection, 8th and G streets, N.W., through April 20.