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In Pursuit of Beauty: 30 Years of Collecting the American Aesthetic Movement

Entrance to 1986 exhibition, with a painting of a woman and a large wall text

Gallery view of In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement, an exhibition that was on view at The Met October 23, 1986–January 11, 1987. On display: William Merrit Chase (American, 1849–1916). Portrait of Dora Wheeler, 1882–3. Oil on canvas. The Cleveland Museum of Art

In October 1986, The Metropolitan Museum of Art debuted a landmark exhibition and publication: In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement. With this display of furniture, textiles, glass, ceramics, paintings, sculpture, and works on paper, a team of American Wing curators, along with scholars outside the Museum, explored how the Aesthetic movement transformed 19th-century American art and culture by promoting the inclusion of artistic principles in everyday life.[1] The Aesthetic movement's impact in the United States during the late 19th century was visible in the development of distinctive styles in painting and sculpture, as well as in an unprecedented ingenuity in the engineering and design of decorative arts; the proliferation of art publications, clubs, and societies; an intense and widespread interest in collecting and decoration; and the founding of major art museums throughout the nation.[2]

Cover of In Pursuit of Beauty, with ornate image

Front cover of In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement, by Doreen Bolger Burke, et al. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.

The material culture of this dynamic century was first presented in the Museum's 1970 exhibition Nineteenth-Century America, but In Pursuit of Beauty took a more focused look at the cultural phenomenon that gained momentum in the United States following the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Today, the exhibition's lasting impact is visible across The American Wing, where the arts of the Aesthetic movement represent one of the greatest strengths of the department's collection.

In Pursuit of Beauty also laid the foundation for deeper scholarly investigations into individual artists whose work has dramatically shaped the landscape of late 19th-century American art and culture.

Elaborate wood library table inlaid with mother-of-pearl on left; grey-green textile appliqued with pink flowers and embroidered with pink and metallic thread on right

Left: Herter Brothers (German, active New York 1864–1906). Library table from the William H. Vanderbilt house, 1879–82. Made in New York. Rosewood, brass, mother-of-pearl, and abalone, 31 1/4 x 60 x 35 3/4 in. (79.4 x 152.4 x 90.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mrs. Russell Sage Gift, 1972 (1972.47). Right: Candace Wheeler (American, 1827–1923) and Associated Artists (1883–1907), ground fabric by Cheney Brothers (American, 1838–1955). Tulips panel, 1883–87. Made in New York. Silk and metallic cloth appliqued with silk velvet and embroidered with silk and metallic-wrapped cotton threads, 74 x 50 1/2 in. (188 x 128.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the family of Mrs. Candace Wheeler, 1928 (28.34.2)

Building upon In Pursuit of Beauty's groundbreaking research, American Wing curators subsequently organized a number of special exhibitions and publications, including Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age (March 15–July 6, 1995), curated by Katherine S. Howe, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, and Catherine Hoover Voorsanger (above left); Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875–1900 (October 10, 2001–January 6, 2002), curated by Amelia Peck (above right); Augustus Saint-Gaudens in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (June 30–November 15, 2009), curated by Thayer Tolles; and, most recently, Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age: George A. Schastey (December 15, 2015–June 5, 2016), co-curated by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen and Nicholas C. Vincent.

Tall wood cabinet with intricate inlay

George A. Schastey & Co. (American, 1873–97). Cabinet, ca. 1885. Made in New York. Rosewood, mahogany, cherry, pine, pewter, brass, and mother-of-pearl inlay, 85 1/4 x 42 3/4 x 17 1/2 in. (216.5 x 108.6 x 44.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Barrie and Deedee Wigmore, 2015 (2015.51a-h)

Thanks to generous gifts, The Met has been able to expand its holdings of significant artworks created during this era of intense artistic energy. Museum Trustees Barrie and Deedee Wigmore have generously funded the acquisition of many key objects, most recently an inlaid cabinet by George A. Schastey & Company. As a result of the Wigmores' ongoing support, The American Wing is able to dedicate an entire gallery (gallery 743) to the permanent display of decorative arts, paintings, and sculpture from this period.

Today, The American Wing celebrates the 30th anniversary and lasting legacy of In Pursuit of Beauty in the installation The Aesthetic Movement in America, now on view in gallery 746 through December 10, 2017.[3] The display includes a selection of fine and decorative arts from the Museum's impressive collection that embrace the artistic ideals of the Aesthetic movement and its creative culture.

Square stained-glass window by Tiffany with organic squash shape in center and glass pebbles in frame on left; bronze plaque with relief showing head of man, right

Left: Louis C. Tiffany (American, 1848–1933). Squash window with pebbles, 1885–90. Made in New York. Glass, beach-worn quartz, lead came, 24 x 24 in. (61 x 61 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Sansbury-Mills Fund and Anonymous Gift, 2015 (2015.707). Right: Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848–1907). Cornelius Vanderbilt I, 1882. Bronze, 16 1/4 x 22 3/4 in. (41.3 × 57.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Brooke Russell Astor Bequest and David Schwartz Foundation Inc. Gift, 2016 (2016.71)

While a handful of masterworks in the gallery were included in the 1986 exhibition—such as the architectonic cabinet attributed to Daniel Pabst and Frank Furness (a detail of which served as the cover image of the catalogue)—many of the objects now on view were acquired after In Pursuit of Beauty. Several recent acquisitions feature prominently in the gallery, among them an early leaded glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany that explores early ideas of abstraction (above, left) and a bronze relief panel depicting Cornelius Vanderbilt I by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (above, right). Thirty years after In Pursuit of Beauty, the creations of the Aesthetic movement continue to inspire and delight visitors to The American Wing and highlight the rich artistic traditions of the late 19th century.

[1] In Pursuit of Beauty was a complex undertaking, and an impressive team of curators and scholars contributed to its success and continued legacy. The exhibition was conceived by Marilyn Johnson and jointly proposed with Martin Eidelberg, David A. Hanks, and Catherine Lynn. Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen served as the exhibition's project director, joined by Doreen Bolger Burke, with research assistance by Catherine Hoover Vorsanger. Those who contributed to the accompanying publication included Doreen Bolger Buke, Jonathan Freedman, Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, David A. Hanks, Marilynn Johnson, James D. Kornwolf, Catherine Lynn, Carrie Rebora Barratt, Roger B. Stein, Jennifer Toher, and Catherine Hoover Voorsanger. Each of these scholars has also made independent contributions to the study of American fine and decorative arts.

[2] Doreen Bolger Burke et al., "Preface," in In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986), 18.

[3] The Aesthetic Movement in America has been co-curated by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts, and Sylvia Yount, Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge, with assistance from Research Assistant Moira Gallagher.

Related Links
The Aesthetic Movement in America, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through December 10, 2017

MetPublications: In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement

View other objects from the Aesthetic movement at The Met.

Wood library table inlaid with mother of pearl on left Textile appliqued with pink silk velvet tulips and embroidery on right

Department: The American Wing

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