Sunday, May 27, 2012

House of Mirth at Networked New York

Our latest Networked NY Q&A is with Reed Gochberg, a doctoral student in English at Boston University. Reed studies late nineteenth-century American literature and culture and her research interests include American intellectual history and urban cultural history.
Your paper at Networked New York offered a re-reading of the tableaux vivant in The House of Mirth, which you place in the context of New York cultural institutions established in the final decades of the nineteenth century. What are the key elements of this historical moment and these cultural institutions that you see at work in Wharton’s novel?
I first began considering these ideas after visiting an exhibit at another New York institution this past November: the “Beauties of the Gilded Age” series at the New-York Historical Society, which showcases (on rotation) the miniature collection of Peter Marié. Marié was a bachelor who commissioned miniatures of beautiful New York women (including Edith Wharton) and amassed a collection of over three hundred such portraits. On visiting the exhibit, I was immediately reminded of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and its famous tableaux vivant scene, in which the protagonist, Lily Bart takes part in an “entertainment” staged by a wealthy New York family in their Fifth Avenue mansion. As one of twelve performers in tableaux vivant, she appears as Joshua Reynolds’ painting, Mrs. Lloyd, in a striking display that showcases both her beauty and her ability to become an art object (see image at left). I was struck by the seeming reversal of such a process: photographs of women transformed into miniatures, as opposed to women transforming themselves into paintings.
The cultural context of the novel definitely suggests its interest in cultural institutions, especially given the historical proximity of its publication (1905) to the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870) and other contemporaneous institutions. On further reading of the tableaux vivant scene, other inversions present themselves: rather than a museum where art objects are displayed, Wharton describes a ballroom transformed, temporarily, into a theater/gallery. And more importantly, rather than directing their money to philanthropic purpose—and particularly, supporting the public arts—her wealthy characters are throwing a private party. When read in light of these broader philanthropic networks, the scene suggests a powerful commentary on an important moment for cultural institutions in America—and an issue that’s continually relevant to today’s debates about the funding of the arts.

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