High-Style American Interiors
1850–1880 Nineteenth-century Americans of means used high-style interior decoration to express their social position.
This was a period of great change spurred by industrialization. In the pre–Industrial Revolution agrarian economy people had lived in simply furnished interiors and worked the land to raise their own food. But by 1850 Americans were more likely to be wage-earning urban factory workers, and the great disparity in wealth with which we are familiar today was taking hold. The middle class created by this economic shift was somewhat at sea in this new order and to define and present itself publically, employed past artistic styles and non-Western cultures as inspiration when decorating interiors.
When this gallery opened in 1953, it marked the first time a major American art museum had presented period rooms from the second half of the nineteenth century. Although quite different in design, these rooms share an interest in rich colors, varied textures, and an accumulation of objects. The rooms thus stood in stark contrast to the pared-down white cubes in which many mid-twentieth-century Americans lived. Densely furnished interiors such as those presented here had fallen out of style and were, in fact, often reviled as bad taste by both scholars and the public alike. The Brooklyn Museum’s bold, pioneering installation of these rooms helped to reevaluate this historical period.
A Gilded Age Reception Room This room, called a reception room because it was where guests were first received, is decorated in the Aesthetic Movement style, which originated in England in the late 1860s.
Although the style usually incorporated influences from Japan and China, in this case the Near East and India provided the design sources and color scheme. As the West grew in wealth and colonized parts of Asia and Africa, Western designers employed non-Western designs for their creative impact but with little concern for their original significance.
This room was originally part of a brownstone row house, no longer standing, at 4 West 54th Street in midtown Manhattan. The house was built in the 1860s as this part of Manhattan became an up-scale residential area. Today the site is occupied by the garden of the Museum of Modern Art.
Who Lived Here?
In the early 1880s, the mid-Manhattan brownstone of which this room was originally a part was owned by Arabella Duval Yarrington Worsham, the mistress of Collis P. Huntington, one of the richest men in the United States. Among her neighbors were "robber baron" industrialists such as William H. Vanderbilt who were among the richest people the world had ever known. They wanted instant palaces to showcase their new wealth and status, and interior decorating firms were established to satisfy this desire. From 1882 to 1884 Worsham had the firm of George A. Schastey redo her house, lavishly fitting the interior with costly materials and handmade, one-of-a kind furniture.
In 1884, the year after his wife died, Collis Huntington married Worsham and adopted her son. The same year, the house was sold fully furnished to John D. Rockefeller. It was razed in 1938.
The center table in this photograph is different from the one presently in the room, which is better suited to the room’s scale. Worsham either ordered this second table just after the photograph was taken, or the Rockefellers replaced the original one after they purchased the house in 1884.
Important visitors to 4 West 54th were first met in the hall (the entry room of the house) and then ushered into the reception room, where they were greeted by Arabella Worsham. She in turn brought them into the drawing room, or parlor.
A Mid-Nineteenth-Century Parlor and Library These two rooms are decorated in revival styles inspired by an idealized past.
Viewers often ask why Americans of this time looked to the past for inspiration in decorating their houses. The answer has to do with the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century, which profoundly changed how people in the West lived.
One result of industrialization was the rapid growth of a large urban middle class in many ways at sea in this new modern world. In an attempt to anchor itself in the tumultuous present, this class looked to the past, and the idea of revival styles emerged. The decoration of these two rooms illustrates how the various revival styles became associated with specific room usage as the nineteenth century progressed.
The woodwork, most of the furniture, and many of the objects that you see come from a house that still stands in the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York. The house was built and decorated for a well-to-do lumber merchant, Colonel Robert J. Milligan, in the early 1850s and is typical of how people with means and an interest in high style lived at that time.
When these rooms came to the Museum in 1940, the original wall decoration and window treatments had long vanished. The presentation of the rooms that you see now is an enhanced interpretation intended to be more fully representative of mid-nineteenth-century American taste and includes reproduction lace curtains in the parlor, reproduction wallpapers in both rooms, and reproduction curtains and carpet in the library.
A Rococo Revival Parlor
The parlor—the most ornate room in the house—was reserved for entertaining and is decorated in the rococo revival style. Inspired directly by the curvilinear designs of the mid-eighteenth-century Louis XV style of France, rococo revival was most often used in rooms associated with women, such as parlors and women’s bedrooms. The curving silhouettes of the seating furniture and the realistically carved floral ornaments are characteristic of the style.
A Gothic Revival Library
This library is decorated in the Gothic Revival style. With its allusions to medieval monasticism and scholarly pursuits, Gothic Revival had masculine associations and was therefore deemed appropriate for a library. The forms of Gothic Revival furniture were
based on typical furniture of the nineteenth century rather than on authentic Gothic pieces because so few examples survived. Instead, the furniture was embellished with architectural details derived from Gothic architecture, such as the tracery surrounding
stained glass windows and church spires.
Much of the original library furniture, such as the large secretary bookcase on the back wall, was in the late neoclassical style, which favored large expanses of mahogany veneers and simple geometric forms as well as pointed Gothic arches. In the current installation of the library, furniture that more fully expresses the Gothic Revival style, such as the two chairs near the window, was added from the Museum’s permanent collection.