TASTEMAKERS OF THE GILDED AGE, HELENA DE KAY AND RICHARD WATSON GILDER WERE AT THE CENTER OF AN ART WORLD AND HISTORY THAT CONTINUE TO RESONATE
By Christina Rees
“It took more than eight centuries to prepare this civilization – then it suddenly began to grow, and in less than a century it is becoming a bewildering marvel … Again it will pass away, and after ages will rise and dazzle the world again as it dazzles it now – perfect in all its parts once more.” –Mark Twain
Histories are not created equally. We especially romanticize and obsess over the ones that tell us something about our current state. The American Gilded Age still haunts, scandalizes and inspires us. The decades that flank the turn of the last century were packed with head-spinning innovations, massive personalities, fortunes won and lost, and the terrifying frictions and dizzying connections that arise when the old meets the new. Countless movies, TV series and books continue to mine the era for signposts about how we’ve ended up where we are – about why we value certain ideas and what we’ve learned.
As with any history, there are the players, and then there are the players. Students of history understand that often the most significant figures who shaped our past went about their work quietly, transgressively and even playfully. World-shifting invention is not always loud. We generally think that the Gilded Age was centered around families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors, but extraordinary wealth was only ever a part of the story. America’s art and literary world exploded alongside technological innovation, and New York City was its epicenter.
Historians have long considered the significance of the era’s and the region’s artistic legacy in American life – our stateside avant-garde – and Helena de Kay and Richard Watson Gilder, a married couple who cultivated an expansive creative circle, were at the very center of it.
Richard was the editor-in-chief of the illustrated periodical Scribner’s (and later The Century), and Helena was a gifted artist; their homes and studios in New York City and Massachusetts were the stomping grounds of such luminaries as Winslow Homer, Stanford White, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cecilia Beaux, Samuel Clemens and many more. Through his immensely successful publications, Richard shaped an entire American sensibility of writing, art and illustration by championing such greats as James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Saint-Gaudens, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Moran, Thomas Eakins and Frederic Remington. Helena, a one-time student of Homer (his iconic portrait of her is in the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid), helped launch the Arts Students League and the Society of American Artists, and, salon-style, brought together writers, painters, sculptors and actors who debated the latest developments in the art world.
“With her weekly Friday night gatherings, Helena de Kay effectively crafted an environment that allowed [her husband] to become entirely ensconced in the New York contemporary art scene,” writes Columbia University art historian Page Knox. “The Gilders played a uniquely progressive role in the late 19th century, participating in the meteoric rise of print media; helping to establish and promote a new American art world; supporting female artists, illustrators and critics; and acting as the cultural tastemakers of their time.”
THE GILDED AGE: PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF RICHARD WATSON GILDER AND HELENA DE KAY GILDER AMERICAN ART SIGNATURE® AUCTION 8106
Feb. 10, 2023
On February 10, during The Gilded Age: Property from the Collection of Richard Watson Gilder and Helena de Kay Gilder, Heritage Auctions will present the first and only comprehensive access to the couple’s estate, including precious artworks and the personal possessions of the family and their famous friends, as well as the much-coveted paintings and drawings of Helena herself.
To get a better picture of the couple, perhaps we should start with their portraits as created by Wyatt Eaton and Cecilia Beaux. Beaux is widely considered one of the finest woman painters active in America at the turn of the century and is commonly ranked alongside John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt as one of the most significant portrait painters in American history.
“Beaux’s masterful and harmonious Portrait of Richard Watson Gilder is a replica of the artist’s seminal portrait of Richard from 1902-1903 that is part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.,” says Aviva Lehmann, Senior Vice President of American Art at Heritage. “Beaux created this reductive portrait as a gift for her close friends Richard and Helena as both a token of affection and of gratitude for initiating her career.”
Eaton, the Canadian-American figure painter and co-founder of the Society of American Artists created his Portrait of Mrs. Richard Watson Gilder (Helena de Kay) as a quietly fond portrait of his composed and smiling friend. It communicates the warmth and trust of true friendship. So close were the two artists, Helena thought nothing of adding flowers to the work in an effort to brighten the composition.
The historic significance of the auction may be centered on a selection of Helena’s paintings and drawings: Never before has her work been presented for sale to the public, and only a handful of her paintings have been privately collected by major institutions, including one currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in its exhibition New York Art Worlds, 1870-1890. Helena, a true super-connector, was central to this world, though she wasn’t bombastic about self-promotion and instead threw her weight behind the careers of her more famous friends. In spite of or because of this, Helena’s works are of ever-increasing interest to the public, and they back up their myth-making import with a sure-handed confidence and charm. Both Portrait of Dorothea and Water Lilies show Helena’s ease with oil paint, and Flower Study, early work brings us into her rangy play with watercolor and pencil on paper. Helena’s sketches, landscapes and botanical studies, in her signature relaxed composition, are offered in this event. She imbued her work with the intimacy of late-night conversations in the studio. It just so happens that her closest friends were the era’s greatest artists. By all accounts, they had endless affection for Helena and her work.
The Gilders played a uniquely progressive role in the late 19th century, participating in the meteoric rise of print media; helping to establish and promote a new American art world; supporting female artists, illustrators and critics; and acting as the cultural tastemakers of their time.”
–Page Knox, art historian, Columbia University
The rather bohemian and expansive set of friends whom Richard and Helena hosted at their townhouse and studio on East 15th Street in Gramercy Park, as well as at Four Brooks Farm, their rural estate in The Berkshires, is known as “The Gilder Circle.” It’s difficult to know if these figures had any idea that their shared chemistry and output would make such a beloved and enduring history. Mementos, gifts and items that exemplify the love and connection between these figures are offered in this event. According to the family, artist Winslow Homer gave this gold ring to Helena. Its inscription: ‘Ami Pour la Vie’ (friend for life). “Some have speculated that de Kay was the woman whose rejection confirmed Homer’s status as an inveterate bachelor,” writes historian Sarah Burns. The auction also features this extraordinary carved wood block, circa 1860, attributed to John La Farge; it depicts a sea monster in a wave copied from a Japanese print. La Farge was an early adopter of the Japanese style – possibly one of the first artists in the U.S. to do so.
Other pieces featured in the nearly 200-item auction include Helena’s circa 1874 wedding dress and trousseau; the recognizable navy cape worn by Richard in the portrait by Cecilia Beaux; a wedding chest belonging to Helena packed with table articles, charms, picture frames, photographs and coins; and Helena’s silver pocket watch engraved with her initials.
In a second auction, in April, Heritage will offer the Gilders’ historic summer home, Four Brooks Farm, visited by Gilder friends Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Winslow Homer and the rest. The 159-acre estate is in Tyringham, Massachusetts, and includes a main house and guest house, with expansive pasture land plus four barns, livestock pens, a walled garden with spring-fed plunge pool, nature trails, sparkling brooks and duck pond. The home’s scrolled pillars are believed to have been designed and gifted to the family by famed architect Stanford White himself.
How’s that for a piece of history? The very kind of rich and magnificent American history that Twain might describe as “dazzling” and “a bewildering marvel.”
CHRISTINA REES is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.