- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

The Corcoran Gallery of Art's "The Gilded Cage: Views of American Women, 1873-1921" entertainingly illustrates the lives of turn-of-the-century "Gilded Age" women with 35 spectacular images. Artists such as Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent and Cecilia Beaux, among others, pictured the hard-driving men who amassed vast fortunes during the Industrial Revolution followed by what has come to be called the "Gilded Age." The name was taken from the 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that castigated the materialism and corruption of the period.

The painters also depicted the wealthy men's pampered women who lived in secluded luxury, far from the societal and economic upheavals their husbands created hence the punning of the exhibit's title, "The Gilded Cage."

These leisured women symbolized the affluence of the times. John Singer Sargent painted the regal "Mrs. Henry White," who lived in Paris with her husband, an important American diplomat. Childe Hassam depicted an upper-class woman relaxing in "The New York Window." The expatriate painter Mary Cassatt portrayed an elegantly dressed "Young Girl at a Window" at a balcony railing in Paris.

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Exhibit curator Sarah Cash, Bechhoefer curator of American art, selected the show's images from the rich trove of American art the Corcoran amassed since its founding in 1869 as Washington's first museum of art. The gallery is outstanding for its holdings of American impressionist art, especially landscapes and companionly depictions of women at home.

Collectors gave some of the exhibit works as gifts when the collections were built up. Other paintings, works on paper and sculpture were culled from the Corcoran's well-known Biennial exhibitions that began in 1907.

The gallery is to be congratulated for drawing from its own fine collections to mount this intriguing and excellent show.

The subjects of women dressing, writing letters, daydreaming, sewing, caring for children or posing in ball gowns are interesting in themselves. The way artists used light with rectilinear compositional structuring is even more compelling.

Consider the way artists used light to create the physicality of women in the "Private Pursuits" exhibit section in the first gallery.

Three large portraits across the room zap viewers as they enter: the langorous female in the wrenchingly beautiful Hassam "The New York Window"; the pensive girl dressed all in white, holding a dog, in Cassatt's "Young Girl at a Window"; and the daughter and wife of painter Daniel Garber in the sun-drenched "South Room Green Street" of their Philadelphia home.

Look also how the light plays across background geometric forms such as windows, balcony railings and sparsely equipped interiors in these paintings. Hassam was one of the best of the American impressionists and he is at his finest in rendering the play of light through the huge window.

"The New York Window" is from a series of paintings the artist made of women posed near curtained windows in the dining or breakfast room of his apartment on West 57th Street. As the title implies, the light coming through window is the real subject here.

"Her beauty is doubled by a glorifying sheen of atmosphere," Hassam's contemporary Guy Pene du Bois wrote (New York American, March 11, 1912). Yet, she is much less important than the atmospheric light created by the window. Hassam placed her in a shadow, making her an insignificant part of the painting.

By contrast, Cassatt used light glancing off the white dress and hat of "Young Girl at a Window" to focus attention on the girl. Broken brush strokes of different colors and white make the figure shimmer. Ms. Cash writes in the exhibition label that the painter was influenced by French impressionism when she settled in Paris in 1874, especially the figurative work of Edgard Degas and Edouard Manet.

Her aging parents had moved with her, and she felt torn between her career and caring for her family. Ms. Cash believes the young woman could have been a symbol for Cassatt, who sits at the perimeter of the apartment, with the balcony railing a barrier between her family life and professional life in the city beyond.

Another atmospheric tour-de-force is Garber's "South Room" that won the first William A. Clark Prize and Gold Medal at the Corcoran's Biennial of 1921. Garber compared the light coming through the heavy cretonne curtains as similar to stained glass. Alfred H. Maurer's "Young Woman in Kimono" also shows how lights glistening off the orange-red edgings of her robe create the figure and dynamically propel her from the dark background.

In psychologically interpreting women of the "Gilded Age," sculpting them with light, and setting them in strongly geometric settings, the American impressionist artists of the Corcoran's exhibition were surprisingly close to 17th-century Dutch artists such as Johannes Vermeer. Americans and Dutch worked for newly wealthy merchant and entrepreneurial patrons. Americans showed their women as spiritual and contemplative, close in feeling to Vermeer's figures, as visitors see in the exhibit's William McGregor Paxton's "House Maid." They and the Dutch used light as a major compositional and mood device. Both employed simple backgrounds.

Other sections of the exhibit focus on motherhood in "The Good Mother," domesticity with "Hands to Work" and the post-World War I modern, confident women of "John Singer Sargent, The Gibson Girl and Beyond."

Shows like this on America's "Gilded Age," a crucial period of change in the United States, are always welcome and too infrequent. "The Gilded Cage" is an excellent followup to the two last "Gilded Age" exhibitions in Washington in 1996 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum is currently traveling a major "Gilded Age" show as part of its "Treasures to Go" series but, unfortunately, it's not coming to Washington.

WHAT: "The Gilded Cage: Views of American Women, 1873-1921"

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except when closed on Tuesdays) and Thursdays until 9 p.m., through Aug. 27.

TICKETS: $5 for adults, $8 for families, $3 for seniors and member guests, $1 for students with valid ID.

PHONE: 202/639-1700

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