Portrait of a Lady Descending a Staircase

Visiting the exhibit of Gilded Age Portraits at the New-York Historical Society, I simply had to let myself go into a cloud of chiffon, of gleaming satins, of deep-pile velvet. And, on the masculine side, really good wool. I fortified myself beforehand, consuming a dish of pappardelle with duck ragu and chocolate shavings, the kind of meal they serve in museum restaurants in New York City. I felt that eating something rich and rare would prepare me for a glimpse into the lives of people whose dinners were usually revealed by servants lifting silver tops off of Sevres dinnerware.


At the entrance, outside the gallery itself, there happened to hang a portrait from quite a different time — a star of the Society’s collection, depicting Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, appointed governor of the province of New York and New Jersey by Queen Anne in 1702. In some ways this painting was a perfect New York introduction, as so many of these Gilded Age models were New Yorkers. Though in this case there is definitely a hint of the weird, since Lord Cornbury was known for strolling up Broadway wearing women’s clothes.

Lord Cornbury

No, the people portrayed in the exhibit, people who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, were aristocrats whose likenesses were proper, proud and a little mysterious. The little boy with the big name, Cortlandt Field Bishop, was painted by Bouguereau in 1873. A sky blue sash and a trumpet – did he choose the trumpet prop, I wonder – and his baby-fine hair make him seem the perfect lace-swaddled little lord fauntleroy. But he was descended from mighty Van Cortlandts and DePeysters.


The exhibit is based on portrait shows sponsored by the elites of that era, and so we find Martha Washington on the wall, although she seems almost out of place here as Lord Cornbury, with her country mouse, Revolutionary-era bonnet.

mrs. washington

But Rembrandt Peale’s 1853 portrait was displayed at a famous 1895 portrait exhibition, presumably because “Lady Washington” had by then earned the status of domestic goddess.

When elite families wanted their Portrait of a Lady (the novel published first by James in 1880, and then extensively revised for a 1908 reprint) they demanded the tried and true. They wanted a painter to reliably render the jewels and flounces and creamed skin of a well-to-do woman.

Impressive Woman

The woman shown here in 1906 is Saint Louis socialite Nellie McCormick Flagg, painted by her husband James Montgomery Flagg. He described his conception of female beauty.

She should be tall, with wide shoulders; a face as symmetrical as a Greek vase; thick, wavy hair… long lashes; straight nose tipped up a bit at the end; her eyes so full of feminine allure that your heart skips a beat when you gaze into them.

Looks like he got her.

On display was an image of the infamous Ward McAllister. I’d always wondered what he looked like. He played God when he deemed himself the arbiter of social acceptability in Gilded Age Manhattan, creating the concept of the Four Hundred – the number of fashionables who could fit in Mrs. Caroline Astor’s ballroom. He was the master of exclusivity.

Ward mcallister

But despite his power, he was only a man with a drooping mustache who depended on his wife’s wealth for his social standing.

I think my favorite piece in the show was the picture of James Hazen Hyde, rendered in 1901 by Frenchman Theobald Chartran.

Brooding guy

Soon after Hyde’s likeness was painted he removed himself from New York to Paris. Why? He was accused of mismanagement of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, a company his papa left to him. He looks like a guy who’s getting ready to drink your milkshake (as turn-of-the-century oil tycoon Daniel Plainview puts it in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood).

And meanwhile… not decades away, the traditional art of beautifully modelled heirs and heiresses was about to explode. I walked up a flight from the portraiture show at the Historical Society to an exhibit of works from the 1913 Armory show, which scandalized New Yorkers.


There were chunky Matisse nudes, symbolic Redons, shockingly sauvage Gauguins – on another planet from the Gilded Age canvases. The world was changing. Thomas Edison was shooting movies of men building Manhattan skyscrapers.  The lobby for “woman suffrage” had racheted up and would soon make a revolution. There was no rigid dividing line between the Gilded Age sensibility and the modern; a collector might hang examples of both in his drawing room. John Singer Sargent, the sultan of sumptuousness, had caught Edith Minturn and I.N. Phelps Stokes in a thoroughly modern moment in 1893.


Still, it’s no wonder that the people who loved statuesque Nellie McCormick Flagg flung insults at Duchamp’s brazen Nude Descending a Staircase.


It was painted in 1912, a thousand years after Nellie’s 1906 portrait.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, History, Jean Zimmerman, Love, Fiercely

2 responses to “Portrait of a Lady Descending a Staircase

  1. Thank you! I consider the NY Historical Society my clubhouse, since I spent so much time in the library there researching Love, Fiercely. Their exhibits are always great.

  2. Regina Kelly

    Wonderful. How DO you find out about all these delicious events? Perhaps silly question but real.

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