Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 7, 1999
Mary Warner Blanchard Oscar Wilde’s America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 320 pp.; 221 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0300074603)

In this study, Mary Warner Blanchard re-reads the American aesthetic movement as a broad-based, popular enterprise that produced a vibrant, female, public culture through the medium of the decorative arts. Her goal is to rescue important “female visionaries” of the movement from the oblivion that befell them through most of the twentieth century. (pp. xiv-xv) Blanchard selects four fascinating and underrated figures for reevaluation: textile designer Candace Thurber Wheeler, poet Celia Thaxter, potter Mary Louise McLaughlin, and art critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. Each of these women richly deserves study, and Blanchard has made a substantial contribution in giving them commanding roles in the American aesthetic movement.

Blanchard argues that for a period of about two decades, initiated by the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 but spurred by Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour of the United States, women emerged as powerful competition against men in the artistic professions. Undermining masculine cultural authority, they (and Wilde) exacerbated the male identity crisis that had been brewing since the end of the Civil War. Wilde, suggests Blanchard, invested authority on women as creative and productive artists. At the same time, he introduced a threatening style of feminized (and homoerotic) masculinity just when the decline of the manly soldier-hero ideal left a void into which such new and (to many) subversive alternatives could thrive. The Spanish-American War, however, symbolically foreclosed on this counterculture, reestablishing the soldier/hero as a cultural icon and enabling male artists and designers to close ranks against the female menace.

Blanchard begins with a discussion of Wilde’s controversial persona and aesthetic philosophy. Partly anecdotal and partly analytical, this chapter surveys the sharp division of opinion around the figure of the aesthete and attempts to establish Wilde’s impact not only on women but also on American males, who merged aesthetic style with the masculine self to produce a new, androgynous model, at home in the beautified domestic realm.

Blanchard’s chapter on Wheeler provides a useful overview of her career as designer and taste maker. The aesthetic movement “allowed women like Candace Wheeler to move outward, to excel in the commercial world of men, and to dare to influence the images of nationhood” (p. 57). The latter took shape in Wheeler’s championship of Indian corn as a new national emblem, which she identified with female nurture as opposed to martial prowess. Blanchard pairs Wheeler with Thaxter, who wrote a poem in celebration of this new national emblem. Both exemplified the cultural tensions central to the lives of strong aesthetic women: public success and inward uncertainty, a stern father and a dictatorial husband. (p. 70)

Perhaps the most bizarrely interesting of Blanchard’s quartet is the Cincinnati ceramic artist McLaughlin, most famous for her flamboyant Ali Baba Vase (1880). McLaughlin designed an aesthetic home in Madisonville, Ohio, lived with a woman friend, Grace W. Hazard, and for the last nineteen years of her life refused to leave the house or climb stairs. Her writings on ceramic craft were highly colored, transforming the pedestrian stuff of chemical formulas into occult, alchemical mysteries.

Finally, Blanchard links the critic Van Rensselaer to Wilde as the aesthete’s American counterpart, whose writings attempted to awaken middle-class consciousness to the love and need of art and beauty. Seeking converts, she developed a rhetoric resonant with ecclesiastical overtones and championed the development of an exotic, sensuous aesthetic to counter the repressive legacy of Puritanism. However, Van Rensselaer’s crusade derailed about the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, and she became a proponent of Beaux-Arts classicism. Like the other women Blanchard studies, Van Rensselaer faltered in the face of reemergent masculine hegemony.

Around these figures, Blanchard weaves a rich and consistently interesting tapestry of detail. In discussing the aesthetic interior, she covers ground previously explored, for example, by Roger Stein (in the 1986 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalogue, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement), figuring the beautified domestic realm as a therapeutic, stylized, theatrical stage set for exotic intrigue and seductive escape. (p. 112) She also draws comparisons between the aesthetic parlor and the model of the cosmopolitan, eclectic artist’s studio. More provocatively, Blanchard figures the aesthetic interior as the site of a middle-class drug culture, reading the soothing effects of aesthetic decor as the material symbol of actual consumption of opiates, tobacco, and other soporific substances.

One of the most original chapters deals with the function of female aesthetic dress. Using wonderful, rare photographs of young women in aesthetic costume and surviving examples of aesthetic gowns, Blanchard argues that such dress, flowing and unstructured, enabled women to devise new, self-expressive public images that connoted artistic taste and bohemian freedom. She documents several occasions on which women were arrested for appearing in public in these uncorseted gowns. Blanchard points out that like other aesthetic forms, these fashions at the same time gradually seeped into popular middle-class culture. Once commodified, they were assimilated and normalized, in a process of accommodation to mainstream, modernizing culture. This is the overall pattern Blanchard detects in the rise and fall of the aesthetic movement. Its style, “revamped to sell goods and celebrity,” entered the early twentieth-century mainstream. At the same time, aestheticism moved to the political margins, “ignored by feminists, absorbed by reformers, [and] barely discernible to the public now captivated by masculine virility and the machine aesthetic” (p. 243).

Blanchard is at her best when dealing directly with solid material evidence. Her interdisciplinary scope is ambitious, encompassing art, literature, social history, issues of gender and sexuality, fashion, architecture, consumer culture, and popular culture. The book is rich in images: photographs of aesthetic interiors, caricatures, trade cards and advertising, and even illustrations from the Police Gazette showing upper-class drug addicts and male dandies applying makeup. On the whole, Blanchard is successful in pressing the point that the aesthetic movement in America deserves revision, and that for every woman driven to nervous breakdown by domestic life and patriarchal control (as memorably allegorized in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”) there was one who seized on aesthetic style as a powerful medium for self-expression, subversion, and professional fulfillment.

Yet Oscar Wilde’s America is not without flaws. First, for all the weight of the evidence, Blanchard fails to make the case that Wilde was as dynamic or widely influential a catalyst of aestheticism as she claims. She goes so far as to state that Wilde was “directly responsible for the proliferation” of schools of industrial arts in the United States. (p. 35) The only evidence to support this assertion is a self-aggrandizing letter from Wilde taking credit for the spread of museums and art training programs in America. Second, it is not clear whether the aesthetic movement was as vigorous a counterculture as Blanchard would like it to be. Clearly, it offered viable alternatives to select groups of such elite bohemians as the Boston pictorialist Fred Holland Day and his circle. For the larger middle class, however, aesthetic style was a modish masquerade, affording space for theatrical posturing and the consumption of exotic luxuries. Indeed, so rapidly did aestheticism become a commodity that its moment of radicalism was fleeting.

Blanchard’s grasp of art history is sketchy. Her attempts to summarize trends in nineteenth-century American art are grossly oversimplified if not wholly inaccurate. She writes, for example, that “Before the Gilded Age, American art had been largely marginalized, seen as a craft or a foreign import, erotic and suspect” (p. 35). This account elides the mainstream native landscapes of the Hudson River School, as well as the self-consciously nationalistic agenda of such important genre painters as William Sidney Mount. In addition, the book is marred by factual and typographical errors. Van Rensselaer’s Book of American Figure Painters becomes Book of American Painters. (pp. 184, 196) Thomas Eakins is dismissed from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1882 rather than 1886. (p. 196) David Lubin’s Act of Portrayal: Eakins, Sargent, James becomes Act of Betrayal, and art historian Martha Hoppin is cited as Martha Hopping. (pp. 248, 288) The name of Charmian Maybough, a major character in William Dean Howells’s Coast of Bohemia, is consistently misspelled as “Charmain.”

This sloppiness suggests that readers should proceed with caution through Blanchard’s intriguing but often tangled narrative. There is a great deal of fine grain here, but unfortunately a considerable amount of chaff. Nonetheless, Blanchard deserves a full measure of credit for her bold revision, which opens many new perspectives on a period still in need of much further study.

Sarah Burns
Department of History of Art, Indiana University