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10-06-11

The New-York Historical Society Offers a Glimpse Into the Tastes and Personalities of Manhattan High Society a Century Ago, in the Exhibition Beauties of the Gilded Age

Celebrated and Controversial Collection of Portrait Miniatures Commissioned by Socialite Peter Marié On View Beginning November 11, 2011

New York, NY, October 6, 2011 — Beginning in 1889, the wealthy Manhattan bachelor Peter Marié commissioned a series of almost 300 miniature portraits of the women he considered the most beautiful. Physical allure by itself did not qualify a woman for inclusion; to be selected by Marié, she also had to be a prominent figure among the high society of the Gilded Age.

This series of paintings, executed in watercolor on ivory by the French miniaturist Fernand Paillet and by fashonable New York artists including Carl A. and Fredrika Weidner, were celebrated during Marié’s lifetime. When 160 of them were included in an 1894 exhibition at the National Academy of Design, one reporter noted that “no part of the portrait show…. has been looked upon with more genuine curiosity.” Yet the collection also aroused controversy. After Marié’s death in 1903, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused the bequest of the portraits, belittling their merit as art and stating that “I could go out on Broadway and find women as beautiful as any in the collection.” But the New-York Historical Society recognized the Marié collection as an invaluable record of the taste and personalities of the city’s high society and acquired the miniatures in 1905.

Now a selection of the fragile and rarely exhibited portraits will go on view at the New-York Historical in a new gallery designed for intimate viewing. Beauties of the Gilded Age: Peter Marié’s Miniatures of Society Women will be presented in a rotating series of exhibitions due to the light-sensitive nature of the works, with the first group of 15 to be shown from November 11, 2011 through March 11, 2012.

“Getting the stamp of approval from Peter Marié was the highlight of the society woman’s life,” according to Margi Hofer, curator of decorative arts at the New-York Historical. “For today’s audiences, these portraits offer a vivid document of New York’s Gilded Age aristocracy.” 

Among the women represented in the first selection are Mrs. William Waldorf Astor (née Mary Dahlgren Paul); the legendary actress Maude Adams, best known for her portrayal of Peter Pan; First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland; artist Lydia Emmet; the doyenne of etiquette Emily Post; Mrs. Bradley Martin, whose lavish costume ball, held in the midst of an economic depression, caused such a scandal that she emigrated to England; and Anna Roosevelt, mother of Eleanor Roosevelt.

It is likely that Marié’s collection was inspired by the beauty galleries of European monarchs, such as the Schönheitengalerie (1826-1861) of King Ludwig I of Bavaria at the Nymphenburg Palace. Marié’s commissions were significant in promoting the revival of miniature painting in New York at the close of the 19th century.

A future installation of Beauties of the Gilded Age will be presented at the New-York Historical Society from March 13 through July 8, 2012.

Contact: New-York Historical Society | Laura Washington | (212) 873-3400 x263 | lwashington@nyhistory.org

Creative: Tronvig Group