IS THERE ANYTHING MORE DELIGHTFUL THAN A CONNECTICUT FALL?
The leaves are still quite green, but we are ready for more autumnal hues.
“ A woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes … but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul …..”
― Edith Wharton, “The Fullness of Life”
Nestled amongst the piney Berkshire hills, The Mount, remains a solid architectural homage to its mistress, famed author, Edith Wharton. Upon first sight, the Lenox, Mass. estate seems a rather staid abode. A simple Georgian facade fits the aesthetic expectations of good taste and good design. But simple, The Mount is not. In reality, much like Ms. Wharton herself, The Mount is an intricate convergence of classic principles, subtle romantic fancies, and modern innovations.
Women living at the dawn of the 20th century were restricted. Like the stays of their whale-bone corsets, expectations were rigid: a compliant daughter was expected to become a compliant wife, and eventually, a compliant mother. The “Gilded Age” was a peculiar time, a strange confection of glittering manners and harsh social realities. Adherence to the the unwritten “codes” of deportment allowed one to flourish during the Belle Epoque, but failure to follow societal expectations could mean ruin and social ostracism.
With her sumptuous tales of robber barons, delicate socialites, and salons of overstuffed chintz furniture, no writer was better able to recreate the cruel beauty of this world than Edith Wharton. In her own life, being both a”career woman” and a divorcee, meant that Ms. Wharton danced dangerously close to the edge of propriety. But while her forlorn heroines often drowned in the eddies of social constraints, Edith Wharton rose to the occasion. And while Ms. Wharton was far from a damsel, there is little doubt that The Mount was most definitely her beloved castle.
Like any good Victorian lady, The Mount presents a rather pretty, if timid face.Blue-green shutters and painted brick walls shield the facade from view, a coquettish shyness much like a fluttering fan protecting a debutante’s smile.
But a few steps to either side of the estate reveal rather more lively and exuberant views of the Wharton home. White stone paths that zig and zag lazily across the property reveal a striking architectural amalgamation, somewhere between a French chateau and an Italian villa. Moving under rows of perfectly trimmed Linden trees from one end of the property to the other, one stands in a Versailles-esque flower garden at one moment, and a wonderfully Italianate sunken garden the next. The melange of tastes should clash, but at The Mount they are seamless. Each flowering area is different, yet the repetition of greens, lavenders, and whites gives a colorful unity to every acre.
During our visit, Laurie Foote, the House Manager of The Mount, brings Edith Wharton, and her times to life. Foote is a trove of Wharton factoids: listing off the scientific names of the author’s favorite flowers, as well as the names of the author’s many famous acquaintances. Ms. Foote does this at such a pace that it surely would have impressed even the most accomplished and “in-the-know” New York socialite.
Trudging down the “Lime Walk,” Foote stops to point out the amazing symmetry of The Mount. In particular she notes how the interior of the house perfectly mirrors the layout of the gardens. Employing her amazing intellect and foresight, The Mount’s mistress laid out hedges, trees, and other plant life to mimic the walls and windows of the house. It is a genius of horticultural geometry. Nothing at The Mount is happenstance. Everything is planned, but nothing is “over done.” Though assisted by architects and designers, The Mount was the brain-child of Wharton. A child of whom she was extremely proud, remarking in a letter, “I am a decidedly better landscape gardener than I am a novelist. With this house every line of which is my own far surpasses the House of Mirth.”
Landscape designers and Wharton historians have labored intensively to recreate what the grounds looked like at the turn of the century, from planting flora preferred by the author to repairing the original bubbling stone fountains . This attention to historical accuracy does not make the landscape fussy. An adjective never used to describe the author herself. Foote notes that, “she didn’t design the gardens for the flowers, she considered them an ephemeral detail.” Instead the grounds are governed by loose principles of hue and subtle aquatic elements, which allow the landscape to maintain an almost semi-wild appearance. A sense of organic freedom permeates the grounds, and one can almost imagine Wharton rambling about the 113 acres in her beloved 1904 Pope-Hartford motorcar. Edith was an avid devotee to the horseless carriage.
Up a rather grand palisade stair, behind closed doors, the interior of The Mount maintains Wharton’s principles of geometry and style. In design she governed by one principle, “all good architecture and good decoration…must be based on rhythm and logic.” It’s no coincidence that The Decoration of Houses, a guide to tasteful interior decoration, was Edith Wharton’s first major publication in 1897. Both Decoration of Houses and The Mount apply her strict codes of decor, and out-rightly reject the suffocating style of the Victorians. Of the popular heavily upholstered salons and sitting rooms common to the late 19th century home, Wharton remarked that the “overstuffed furniture [of these rooms were] fit for a lunatic’s cell.” Instead Wharton advised simplicity.
Passing from a tastefully simple dining room, we enter into an almost sparse, by Victorian standards, sitting area. Decoration and ornamentation is kept to a minimum. Ms. Wharton chose simple Louis XVI style furnishings for her beloved estate. Fine art too is minimal, with only a smattering of oil paintings and Brussels tapestries on the walls. The only hint of Ms. Wharton’s decadence is found in the wonderfully intricate, and amazingly restored, plaster details on the walls and ceilings.
Exiting these rooms, one enters an Italianate hallway, the wonderfully colored stonework puts one into mind of a Florentine villa rather than a New England country home. Adding to The Mount’s pastiche of styles, is the library. With beautifully carved dark wood paneling, this is the one “Victorian” room of the house. Edith departed from her modern sentiments in a rather touching homage to the reading room of her father’s original estate.
Ms. Foote leads us up some rather fantastic French iron stairs to the upper floors to explore the suite of rooms which were “Edith’s.” Next to her simple bedroom is a toile adorned nook, what we would today dub “Ms. Wharton’s office.” At a simple writing table the author penned some of her most famous works. It is an ironic, if cruel twist of fate that the revenues of 1905’s House of Mirth would provide the Whartons with the funds to complete their own increasingly unhappy home in the Berkshires.
Like many of her protagonists, Edith’s marriage to Edward “Teddy” Wharton was never the heady romance a la Newland Archer and Countess Olenska, but rather a union of convenience common for New York’s “old money.” But as with many of her ill-fated heroines, Wharton’s own marriage soured, leading to separation and divorce, prompting the author to relocate to Paris.
More devastating than the dissolution of her marriage was the loss of The Mount, when in 1911 and without her consent, Teddy sold their New England home. Edith Wharton would go on to decorate two more beautiful homes while living abroad, but none would so capture the public’s imagination as The Mount.
After 1911, Edith Wharton’s beloved estate passed from owner to owner, at one time a dormitory for a girls school, at another the playhouse for a troupe of Shakespearean actors. But by the end of the 20th century the house had fallen into disrepair. Despite water damage, sinking foundations, and years of monetary setbacks, The Mount has been restored. It now sits, a proud and fitting artifact, a temple to an exceptional artist, as well as a singular woman.
Thousands of visitors make their way to The Mount each year. As a National Historical Landmark and cultural center, The Mount, through the immense efforts of patrons, artisans, and the Edith Wharton Restoration, Inc. seeks to maintain the literary legacy of its mistress with seasonal lectures, literary programs, and an array of public engagements.
To join a tour, access its calendar of events, get involved, or simply find out more about The Mount go to: http://www.edithwharton.org/
Visiting Hours: May 14 – October 31st: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
A special thanks to Laurie Foote and all the staff at The Mount
Wilson, Richard Guy. Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount. The Monacelli Press, 2012.
Wharton, Edith, and Ogden Codman, Jr. The Decoration of Houses. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
Written by Mallory O’Donoghue
Graphics by Patricia Lesyk
All Photography by Patricia Lesyk and Mallory O’Donoghue
Joyeux Quatorze Juillet! Happy Bastille Day! Bon jour to la République and au revior Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. What better way to celebrate La Fête Nationale than by exploring one of the most famous of the Ancien Régime’s follies.
Apart from a predilection for carb-laden treats, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” or “let them eat cake” was actually never said by the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, the French queen is most associated with her dramatic taste in costumes.
Though only 14 when she left Vienna to marry the would-be King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette was still expected to “set the tone at Versailles,” and to downplay the formidable “Habsburg forehead.” With this stern mandate from her likewise formidable mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, and the artistic manipulations of her hairdresser, Léonard Autié, she did just that.
The result was the “pouf.” This whimsical concoction was a dome of natural hair, additional hair pieces and wiglets, feathers, ribbons, all manner of accessories, all finished with a heavy dusting of hair powder. To style these “dos” a generous dollop of pomade was employed by the hairdresser. These early hair gels were primarily made up of animal fat or lard and plant oils. Often times these fussy hairstyles could last a week. But after seven days the wearer had to beware of a distinct stench emanating from their locks, due to the putrefaction of the pomade.
Regardless of smell, French style continued to reach new heights, quite literally. In a letter from her mother, Maria Theresa scolds the young royal for her fashionable excesses. Rumors of Marie Antoinette‘s hair had reached the Viennese court, and the Empress chastised her daughter for her pouf that was said to be “36 pouces,” or 91.44 cm high (36 inches)! In order to accommodate these three foot “Franken-dos” ladies had to kneel to enter and exit carriages. Perhaps the ladylike migraines and fainting spells of court damsels were a result of these hairy burdens!?
Despite smell and weight French ladies were enamored with the Habsburg princess’ coiffure. One of Mari Antoinette‘s ladies-in-waiting noted:
“Immediately everyone wanted the same hairstyle as the queen, to wear feathers and garlands…The expenses of the young ladies were greatly increased, mothers and husbands complained, and some fools ran up debts. there were upsetting domestic quarrels, many marriages went color or split apart, and the general rumor was that the queen would ruin all French ladies.“- Madame Campan
Eventually, ladies abandoned the odd feather or ribbon for more exotic hair accouterments. Small wax dolls, fruits, and plant-life dotted the poufs of Versailles. Notable examples of these hairy extravagances include: The “pouf à la victoire,” a hairstyle complete with laurel branches to celebrate American victory after France entered the War for Independence. Other militaristic “dos” were the coiffure à la Belle Poule and the coiffure à l’Indépendance ou le Triomphe de la Liberté. Nestled in these hairstyles were models of successful French war ships. What better way to celebrate an English defeat than a thoroughly Gallic pouf?
Other styles were slightly more morbid. Women took to wearing tiny crematory urns in their wigs to indicate mourning. After the death of Louis XV, the coiffure allégorique grieved the king with a miniature cypress tree (a traditional symbol of death), whilst sporting a tiny cornucopia as a sign of a hopeful new reign under Louis XVI.
The end of the 18th century saw the zenith of these mountainous hairstyles. But at the height of this hair frenzy, court style changed. In exchange for dramatic hair and dress, Marie Antoinette and her bevy of court ladies, adopted a less fussy style. Silk dresses were swapped for less restrictive cotton gowns. And hair was now worn à l’enfant, a simple style lacking the height of the pouf.
However, these modest adjustments to the royal toilette could not save the Bourbon monarchy from the mounting unrest of the French public. On July 14th the Bastille prison was stormed, the symbolic flashpoint for what would be the French Revolution. Soon Marie Antoinette and her husband would lose their heads (and hair!).
227 years have passed since Marie Antoinette and her well-coiffured head wore the crown of France, but the lady and the pouf continue to capture society’s imagination. Every year another biography of the tragic queen makes its way to the New York Times’ Best Seller’s List, “period piece” movies like Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette attract gaggles of sartorial junkies, and exhibitions glorifying the 18th century aesthetic make their way through the museum circuit, like the Met’s recent show on court painter and Marie Antoinette favorite, Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun. 2009 even saw a brief resurgence of the “pouf” thanks to MTV’s Jersey Shore, albeit on a smaller, tanner scale.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported that current President of the French Republic, François Hollande, has been paying a steep fee for his own hair upkeep-9,895 euros a month since 2012. With such a staggering sum, we wonder if Mr. Hollande will be debuting his own Marie Antoinette style pouf?
Written by Mallory O’Donoghue
Graphics by Patricia Lesyk
Gilding, covering a surface in a layer of gold, has ensnared the human imagination for millennium. Traces of beaten gold have been found in weather-worn papyri of Old Kingdom Egypt, and in artifacts from cultures and civilizations as disparate as Ancient Rome to the “Far East.”
Since these early forays into gold plating, gilding has been used to decorate all manner of items from furnishings, signs, manuscripts, book covers, and the canvases of the finest paintings. In contemporary culture however, most associate gilding with the patinated frames and mirrors found in historic homes and museums.
But do we really see these gilded beauties? Unfortunately the answer is often no. Despite the very dear cost which these gilt creations can garner, in price, time, and labor, frames are often seen merely as a “finishing touch,” what John Peder Zane of the New York Times would dub“the Ginger Rogers” of art. It is only in the last two decades that these pieces have been elevated from a sort of artistic garnish to items requiring the same amount of craft as the paintings, drawings, and pastels which they house.
Like any craft, gilding requires the patience and labor of a skilled artisan. Water gilding, the technique most often utilized for frames, is made up of many intricate steps.
First a layer of glue is applied to the “bare-bones” of the frame (having been previously carved and sanded). Then several coats, sometimes more than a dozen, of gesso are applied, sanded, and polished. Gesso is a mixture of gypsum (also known as plaster of Paris), a rather chalky material, and animal glue (usually rabbit skin). Atop the gesso, several layers of bole (a reddish combination of clay and glue) are added and smoothed to create a perfectly even surface to apply the gold leaf. Each leaf can be up to 1/250,000th of an inch thick and are so light and feathery that the artisan must take great care not to let it simply fly away from their work surface. After these precious layers are added, the final step is to burnish the frame. This is done with an agate stone tool, or with the traditional tool which is tipped with a smoothed dog tooth. Passing the tool across the surface of the gold leaf leaves the frame with a truly brilliant shine.
A process like this means that these frames can be nearly as costly, if not more so, than the art they enclose. Recently, a frame by Eli Wilner & Co. for a Van Gogh took over 200 hours of labor and sold for $48,000. This same company constructed the 3,000 pound basewood piece which now frames the Met’s 21 feet by 12 feet Washington Crossing the Delaware . An undertaking that required 12,500 pieces of gold leaf, and cost upwards of 500,000 dollars.
The astronomical amount of labor, and the accompanying price tag, needed to complete one of these frames was true for earlier framers as well. When Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin and Child Enthroned was encased in a gilt frame the patron, Giovanni de’Bardi, paid both Botticelli and the framer the same exact commission.
Take a look at some of our favorite gilt frames here and our website!
Written by Mallory O’Donoghue
Graphics by Patricia Lesyk
Break out the color wheel because summer is here! The muted tones of winter are dramatic and alluring but we are more than ready to embrace a more vibrant palette. Kahil Gibran said, “O let me bathe my soul in colours; let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow”-and we agree!
We coordinate our daily sartorial choices around specific color combinations-“I’m a winter” or “white washes me out.” Color reflects our moods, and at the same time color can impact our mood. The perception of light by the human eye is an extremely scientific, quantifiable natural phenomenon that has visceral and emotional ramifications.
Thousands of years of pigment experimentation demonstrates this human need to replicate those hues which excite the eye and mind. Artists have sacrificed their coffers and in the case of arsenic based dyes, their lives, in order to attain that “perfect shade.”
Love, fire, blood…red is the emotive “go-to” color of ROYGBIV. Throughout history shades of scarlet were the sole prerogative of royal wardrobes from ancient China to Baroque France.
Attempting to bring attention to his shapely calves, Louis XIV of France favored a red heeled shoe in order to draw the eye.
And before you put on your favorite red lipstick remember that red pigment which gave Louie his ruby slippers is still made with cochineal. This tiny bug lives on the cacti of Central and South America, and is then dried and ground up for cosmetics and food dyes to this day. Yum!
The slightly less vibrant little brother of red, orange, evokes if not a hot response, a decidedly warm one. Before “Chrome Orange” became the hue relied upon by most artists, realgar was used by artisans as varied as religious icon painters in Russia all the way back to the scribes of Ancient Egypt. Papyrus scrolls like the Met’s Netherworld Papyrus of Gautsoshen or the British Museum’s Papyrus of Ani show the importance of this subtle ocher-y tone.
But be warned! The vital appearance of realgar belies its hazardous nature. Realgar is a derivative of arsenic and it is likely that artists working with such caustic materials met an early end while honing their colorful craft.
For much of history lapis lazuli was only found in one region of Afghanistan, the mines of Sar-i Sang. When ground into a fine powder the stone transforms into the recognizable and electric hue, ultramarine. The scarcity of this pigment meant it was reserved for the wealthiest patrons of the arts, for the most scared and exquisite commissions, namely portrayals of Jesus Christ and the heavens.
Similar to red, ultramarine evokes an array of visceral responses and connections for the viewer: the sky, oceans, the lush brush strokes of artists throughout history from Vermeer to Van Gogh. The Egyptians had a particular love of this color, lore even says that Cleopatra would shade her eyes with crushed lapis lazuli.
Susan Stanberg, “The Color Red: A History of Textiles,” National Public Radio, last modified February 13, 2007. http://www.npr.org/2007/02/13/7366503/the-color-red-a-history-in-textiles .
Ravi Mangla, “True Blue,” The Daily from The Paris Review. June 8, 2015, http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/06/08/true-blue/.
Vincent Daniels and Bridget Leach, “The Occurrence and Alteration of Realgar on Ancient Egyptian Papyri,” Studies in Conservation 49, no.2 (2004):73-84.
Written by Mallory O’Donoghue
Graphics by Patricia Lesyk