This ‘offensive’ 1874 portrait of the Vanderbilts reveals their place in Gilded Age society

Seymour Guy was a UK-born painter who came to New York in 1854. After setting up a studio in the famed Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village, Guy made a living painting portraits of city residents as well as scenes of home interiors and children in the countryside.

“Going to the Opera,” 1873

In 1874, Guy got the commission of his life: William Henry Vanderbilt asked him to paint a portrait of his family. The portrait would be done in William’s spacious Italianate brownstone home on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 40th Street (below), across from the Croton Reservoir.

Guy accepted the commission and painted “Going to the Opera.” The portrait shows William, his wife, and their children in their opulent drawing room. An avid art collector, William’s paintings surround the adults and kids in the family, almost all dressed in formal attire.

The former W. H. Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, where the portrait was painted

Curiously, one non-family member also appears in the background.

“A closer look at the piece reveals a member of the household staff standing in the back of the room holding coats—an interesting detail to have included in this family painting,” states the website for the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, the former family home of William’s son George Vanderbilt (and likely one of the boys in the painting). “The commission and future exhibition of ‘Going to the Opera’ was a definite statement reflecting the Vanderbilt family’s rise in society.”

Though the Vanderbilt family was rich and William was set to inherit his father’s estate, most individual family members were not household names in 1873. “In the early 1870s [William] Vanderbilt was not well known to the public, having yet to emerge from the large shadow of his father ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877), then considered the wealthiest man in the country,” according to americanartgallery.org.

William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt, portrait by Jared B. Flagg, 1877

William’s children, however, would soon be all over the society pages. One of his nine kids was W. K. Vanderbilt—future husband of social climbing Alva Vanderbilt, whose desperation to break into old money society culminated in her 1883 infamous fancy dress ball. It’s unlikely Alva made it into the portrait; she and William didn’t marry until 1875.

Another son was Cornelius Vanderbilt II, husband of Alice Vanderbilt, wearer of the famous electric dress at sister-in-law Alva’s ball. Alice could be in the painting, as she married her husband in 1867. (Is that Alice and Cornelius in the background standing together as a couple, looking a little glum?)

Alice Vanderbilt, 1880, by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta

What the Vanderbilts thought of the painting isn’t clear. But when it was displayed a year later at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design, the critics howled. Guy largely escaped attack; the barbs were aimed at the family.

“Several [critics] mentioned that the room was simply too small to gracefully contain such a large group of figures,” wrote americanartgallery.org. “The critic for the Nation also thought that the room was poorly decorated, and criticized ‘the complete want of individuality in the furniture, the expressionlessness of every inch of background, the machine made look of the carvings, the iron oppressiveness of the black arched molding, completely at war with the wall decoration, etc.’”

Alva Vanderbilt dressed as “Venetian Renaissance Lady” at her infamous fancy dress ball in 1883

“The critic for the New York Evening Express felt impelled to mention Guy’s picture in the context of commenting that family groups ‘on canvas are abominations at the best, but when the figures are dressed up in spic-and-span new clothes, and introduced much after the manner of a fashion-plate they become doubly offensive,’” stated the site.

Guy’s career survived the critics. And the Vanderbilts? It certainly didn’t stop them from rising to Gilded Age New York’s most elite echelon.

William Henry Vanderbilt’s last and final NYC mansion, his “triple palace” on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street

In 1882, William, his wife, son, and two daughters decamped to the family’s new “triple palace” mansion on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. Not only did it have plenty of space for his art collection, but the mansions were across the block from W. K. and Alva’s French chateau and down the street from Cornelius and Alice’s 57th Street showstopper.

[Second image: Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site/nps.gov; third image: Biltmore Estate; fourth image: wikiart; fifth image: MCNY, X2012.96.2.2; sixth image: New-York Historical Society]

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12 Responses to “This ‘offensive’ 1874 portrait of the Vanderbilts reveals their place in Gilded Age society”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Thanks for posting this most interesting glimpse into a certain aspect of New York history. My first reaction was to the cramped room and the overhanging pictures making it even claustrophobic. Certainly Guy painted well and with a sense of photographic realism, but it feels wasted here – everyone is jammed into too small a space for the picture, and perhaps the family, to breathe. Perhaps that’s why they moved uptown to their triple palace; it seems like a single one wasn’t big enough for all of them to show off.

  2. Mark Says:

    There’s even another servant holding up a cloak or coat.

    • Ted Glasgow Says:

      George Vanderbilt is the youngest, center left in red chair facing right. Frederick William left rear. He lived in the house after William Henry moved to the completed 640. The house, 459 Fifth was demolished in 1914 and Frederick and his wife Louise then moved further up the Avenue…Personally, I have always loved the decor of this room…the later Vanderbilt palaces had nothing to do with human scale or American values, beyond money…the intimacy of this portrait is perfect…and I have viewed it many times over my life at Biltmore…

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Thanks for identifying the two young sons. I do agree about the intimacy of the room—the vastness of the Triple Palace and other Gilded Age mansions have always felt so cold and remote to me. Give me a warmly lit, human scale drawing room any day!

  3. cynthia Says:

    It has been my understanding that the couple in the far right forefront of the painted (lady seated wearing the yellow dress and the man standing beside her) were Alice Vanderbilt and her husband Cornelius Vanderbilt 11.

  4. kenny Says:

    The scrutiny is reminiscent of the family portraits each season in The Sopranos where every pose and expression is a clue to the characters ultimate fate.

  5. Mitch Owens Says:

    The female half of glum looking couple is definitely Vanderbilt’s daughter Florence, later Mrs Twombly. The man appears to be her brother Cornelius 2d.

    • countrypaul Says:

      Mrs. Twombley’s mansion is now the main showplace building of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham Park and Madison, NJ. Forham Park is is part named after her – Florence.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        I never knew that, thanks! I have come across the Twombly name while researching NYC history, and then there’s Cy Twombly, the artist.

  6. David Cox Says:

    Carol

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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