The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

II. Stanford White and Italy

PAUL R. BAKER, New York University

In some ways Stanford White was a rather unlikely person to have become so taken with Italy and Italian architecture, as was the case, for he was an "American" to the core. On his father's side, his family's roots were deeply planted in American soil: the Whites extended back to the early seventeenth-century Puritans, and there was always in the architect a real pride in his family's long-standing American background. 1

Richard Grant White, Stanford's father, was a well-known, New York-born journalist and critic, a prolific writer, and a prominent Shakespeare scholar. A man devoted to his city, he nonetheless found himself out of place in the rough and tumble of urban America. In New York, the music, the painting, and the literature he so cherished took a decidedly secondary role to commercial activities. Richard Grant White had been raised to wealth, but his father had lost his fortune and the journalist always bemoaned his relative poverty. Despite his limited rephotographers, he was a passionate collector of rare books and musical instruments. He had the reputation of being highly opinionated, snobbish, eccentric, and, all in all, not a very agreeable companion.

Stanford, the younger of Richard Grant White's two sons, was born in New York City in 1853 and raised in genteel but modest circumstances. His formal schooling was limited, and his youthful travels were confined to short excursions out of the city. His artistic talent in sketching and watercolors became evident at an early age, and as a teenager he decided he wished to become an artist. John La Farge, the painter, after looking over some of the boy's drawings, suggested he might better prepare himself for a career in architecture instead of painting. In the rapidly growing and increasingly wealthy city, opportunities for building design were considerable. At the age of sixteen, therefore, Stanford White made the decision to enter the field of architecture.

Henry Hobson Richardson, then practicing architecture in New York, was impressed by young White's artistic talent, and in 1870 took him on in his office. White spent eight years working with Richardson, learning the fundamentals of his craft and the practices of this new profession, all the while greatly influenced by the free-spending, self- indulgent, and immensely talented older architect, who became a primary model for him. Richardson's principal European ties were with France, where he had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and with England, from which his mother's family had come. Under Richardson young White was assigned the working drawings for Trinity Church, Richardson's most important project.

In Richardson's office, White became acquainted with Charles Follen McKim, the chief draftsman. McKim was six years older than White and, like Richardson, had studied at the Paris Ecole. Although McKim was interested in American colonial building, he was already falling under the spell of Italian Renaissance modes. For McKim, the city of Rome, with its wealth of ancient monuments and its Renaissance riches, was the most interesting place in the world; it frequently drew him back. There, many years later, McKim would establish his American School of Architecture, which became the American Academy in Rome, an institution that would have considerable impact on early twentieth-century American design. Like Richardson, McKim had a strong formative influence on young White, as his day-to-day instructor in the office, soon as a close friend and social companion, and later on as a professional partner.

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