Lavish Portraits of Gilded Age Socialites


In the years following the Civil War, America experienced enormous financial growth, ushering in an era of big-bank, railroad, and oil tycoons, along with a sense that anything was possible, as long as somebody could foot the bill. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner gave the period its name with their 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, establishing it as not just a time of wealth, but also a prosperous time for culture, when some of America’s greatest authors, from Henry James and Edith Wharton to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, wrote some of their finest works.

Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America , on view through March 9 at the New-York Historical Society, showcases the era’s famously wealthy figures in a selection of breathtaking portraits; some were the nouveau riche, others came from old money, but if you were anybody worth knowing during the Gilded Age, you had a likeness of yourself painted and hung somewhere for all to see. Click through to enjoy a preview of the show.

Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society

Samuel Untermye, 1901

Untermye was a Jewish-American lawyer and civic leader, as well as a self-made millionaire, painted by Anders Zorn.

Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society

Mrs. Jacob Wendel by John Singer Sargent

Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society

James Hazen Hyde by Théobald Chartran, 1901

Hyde inherited the majority share in the billion-dollar Equitable Life Assurance Society from his father in 1899, then set in motion the first great Wall Street scandal of the young 20th century just five years later. He also threw great costume balls.

Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society

Nellie McCormick Flagg by James Montgomery Flagg, 1906

This Midwestern socialite married painter Nellie McCormick Flagg, and became the basis for his “Flagg Girl” style of portrait painting: “She should be tall, with wide shoulders; a face as symmetrical as a Greek vase; thick, wavy hair.”

Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society

Mary Gardiner Thompson by Daniel Huntington, 1898

A descendant of a founding East Hampton family, Thompson was a ubiquitous face on the New York social scene.

Image courtesy of New-York Historical Society

Fannie Fredericka Dyckman and Mary Alice Dyckman by Henry Augustus Loop, 1876

Some family names you recognize if you live in New York because of the streets, buildings, neighborhoods, and other spots scattered throughout the city that are named in their honor. Dyckman is one of those, and that’s why their two little girls just had to be painted.

Image courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

Cortlandt Field Bishop by William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1873

He carried a trumpet and wasn’t afraid to wear a dress when he was three years old (as was the custom for boys in his day), but young Bishop would eventually go on to become a pioneering aviator and balloonist with one of the best book collections on the East Coast.