PROVIDENCE — Plump and self-satisfied, Moses Gill stands with his hand on his hip, showing off his ample belly and his glossy silk waistcoat in a luxuriant 1764 portrait by John Singleton Copley. It hangs at the entrance to “Making It in America” at the RISD Museum. Gill, a 30-year-old hardware merchant, was on his way up in the world.
Gill and Copley, who was born a Boston tobacco peddler’s son, embody the aspiration and ambition at the core of this exhibition’s theme. “Making It in America” celebrates the museum’s rich collection of 18th- and 19th-century American art with an opulent display of what wealth and achievement can garner. Maureen C. O’Brien, the museum’s curator of painting and sculpture, and Elizabeth A. Williams, curator of decorative arts and design, put the show together.
Gill’s success wasn’t all due to hard work. He married twice — both times to older, wealthy women. Their portraits flank his. His first wife, pinched and pale Sarah Prince Gill, a minister’s pious daughter, looks out of place in a magnificent blue satin gown — one that she probably never wore. It appears in other Copley paintings, and was part of his retinue of signifiers of prestige.
Rebecca Boylston Gill also wears an outfit that likely did not come from her own wardrobe: a lace-trimmed, Turkish-influenced blue and red gown, with a turban. She looks slyer and more self-assured than Sarah. We can intuit she was a better partner for an ambitious merchant and politician.
Making It in America
The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of grand expansion for the United States, with land acquisition, exploration of parts unknown, and the building of vast wealth unburdened by income tax during peacetime. The Civil War, that pesky speed bump, receives barely a sidelong glance. No mention is made of the scorched earth that American lust for power left in its wake — the slavery, the slaughter, the poverty, the pollution.
Such omissions made me uneasy. Yet I nearly swooned at some of the feats of craftsmanship and luster. “Making It in America” is a giddy gallop through American dreams achieved. At times, it’s intoxicating.
To wit: the dazzling lady’s writing table and chair crafted for the 1904 World’s Fair by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, based in Providence. Ebony, silver, ivory, mother of pearl, and more swirl in a heady panoply of styles, such as the splendid curls and decorative flourishes of French Rococo and the flowers and faces of Art Nouveau. Who could write on such a thing?
All the silver in “Making It in America” comes from Gorham, and every bit of it down to the butter knives captivates with its daring. It outshines the small selection of Tiffany glassware on view. A tureen crafted in 1884 swells and burbles with waves, and features coral-like knobs for handles.
It’s cleverly positioned beside Winslow Homer’s roiling seascape “On a Lee Shore,” with its crashing, foaming waves and distant, tilting ship, which is surely doomed. The tureen and painting are among a suite of works that acknowledge Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic woodcut of a cresting wave, and the passion for Japanese aesthetics that swept America and Europe in the late 19th century.
The paintings celebrate splendor. Thomas Cole’s triumphant early “Landscape (Landscape With Tree Trunks)” swirls luminously around the central form of a dead tree, catching the sunlight like silver. Storm clouds move off, and the sun washes over a hilltop by a waterfall. A Native American atop the hill plays the role of the grateful man attuned to nature’s cycles and munificence.
There’s an early Albert Bierstadt on view as well, but it feels like a cheat. It depicts Germany, where the painter studied, and not the American West, where he made it in America, and conjured part of America’s vision of itself.
Not every work overflows with grandeur. Samuel Gragg’s 1808 “Elastic Armchair” looks simple enough, with its narrow slats and curving arms, but it was visionary. While nodding to antiquity with certain motifs, such as sweet, prim carved hoof feet, the chair sports wooden arms that were steamed, bent, and dried in a jig, an innovative system Gragg ultimately patented.
Among the many portraits of merchants, captains, and, not surprisingly, George Washington, the most searing and humane in the show is that of Hannah Muncy Smith, a Long Island widow. William Sidney Mount painted her in the summer of 1852, following the death of her only grandchild. Although she wears a lace-edged bonnet with a satin bow, neither she nor the painting is otherwise adorned.
So much can be read in her face. She looks at us directly, her blue eyes knowing and tired; she presses her lips together. Despite the pink in her cheeks, she appears spent but stoic. She looks, in short, like any of us on a bad day. She does not preen, flounce, or strut to show off her power, in the manner of Moses Gill.
Art has long been entangled with money, pampering, and self-congratulation. That’s as true today as it was in the early decades of this nation. The sheer opulence on view in “Making It in America” can be hypnotic. But it’s good to look into Hannah Muncy Smith’s eyes, and awake again to the exigencies of life and loss. I’d rather do that any day than write on a bewitching silver lady’s writing table.