Today, the New York Times wishes a happy upcoming 150th birthday to Edith Wharton, the author of such works as the Age of Innocence and The Buccaneers, which ripped into the culture and practices of the American nouveau-riche. Wharton herself was born into the New York upper crust, but said many of these families “had not come to the colonies to die for a creed but to live for a bank-account.” Still, the Times argues, the lives of the rich have long fascinated America, seeing as we have no technical royalty about which to gossip.
The world Wharton wrote about is the same world New York socialite Peter Marié tried to capture. Beauties of the Gilded Age, currently on view in rotating installations, displays watercolor-on-ivory miniature portraits of the women of New York’s social elite, with last names like Astor (cousins of the Whartons), Roosevelt and Paget. Marié believed these women epitomized female beauty, and commissioned over 300 miniatures.
Wharton’s writing is wary of that world, which aspired to homemaking and social climbing seemingly over all else. But for most aristocratic women, an invitation to have their miniature painted was an honor. “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.”