Sunday, April 8, 2012

Art in America: Nude Statues, 1803

"Art in America would not detain an intelligent Traveller one hour....," John Davis, an English ex-sailor, wrote in a book about his journeys, published in 1803.  His pronouncement was not an unusual one among foreigners who had visited the new nation.

The socially elite young men and women of Rebecca's generation,  the first to grow up as American citizens, smarted under foreigners' criticism. In reaction they developed cultural responsibilities -- to familiarize themselves with the European artistic tradition, foster an appreciation of it in their countrymen and provide American artists with educational resources.

The New York Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1802 to promote classical art.  It began by importing casts of classical sculptures as teaching tools and to be exhibited to the public.

This exhibition was greatly anticipated by Eliza (Mary Elizabeth) Fenno, the younger sister of Rebecca's best friend, Maria Fenno Hoffman.  Eliza, who was 16 in 1803, had moved from Philadelphia to New York in 1800 with her family.  In a letter from early 1803 she demonstrates her interest in art and a delight in her adopted city:  "The growing greatness of our city would astonish you, the streets swarm with people, our commerce improves daily, and the fine arts will shortly flourish here...."

But she was to be disappointed.  In July 1803 she wrote to Rachel Gratz, Rebecca's younger sister:  "There had been lately a society formed in New York [the Academy of Fine Arts] for the encouragement of the fine arts, and they have imported from France casts of the most celebrated statues which are to be exhibited in a few days at the museum, and of course our sex are to be excluded, as it would shock their delicacy amazingly."

Eliza goes on to suggest sarcastically that only when clothes have been provided for the statues will women be allowed to see them.  But then she breaks cover and blurts, "I must tell you a secret, I have seen them all....Caty [the Fenno's servant] is very well acquainted with Mrs. Savage whose husband keeps the museum and he gave us the key of the door, but this must not be known.  My delight and astonishment you may readily imagine on viewing the copies of those statues of which I had read so many animated descriptions but they surpassed all the brilliant ideas I had formed.  The gratification experienced will last me all my life."

America had its first teenage culture vulture.

While Eliza was comfortable telling her story to Rachel, who was the Gratz sister most capable of such a caper, she did not confide in Rebecca although she also corresponded with her. She seems to have  looked upon Rebecca, who was six years older, as a paragon.  Her only mention of the statuary exhibit to her is a simple statement in a letter the following March that she had gone to see it.

Obviously the men in charge of the exhibit must have changed their minds about its suitability for women, although there were probably restrictions.  Mrs. Trollope, visiting the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1830's, was shocked that men and women viewed the statuary separately.  Perhaps that was the same solution which was offered to women by the New York Academy.

(The letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.  The title of the book by John Davis is Travels of Four and A Half Years in the United States of America.  Frances Trollope's story is in her Domestic Manners of Americans.)

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