The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

canvas mural perhaps echoing Raphael "School of Athens" in the Vatican Palace. Many of White's interiors for his larger houses also reflected various palazzo designs; the William C. Whitney ballroom, for example, has visual reminiscences of the grand salons of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

From the early 1880s onward, much of White's architectural work and that of the firm generally looked back to Italy. Such inspiration for design, I suggest, was the second important meaning of Italy to Stanford White. The fine lines, the elegant proportions, and the rich ornamentation of much of McKim, Mead & White's work provided notes of elegance to an often drab turn-of-the-century American urban scene. The buildings were widely noticed, the architects and their firm gained considerable fame, and their work inspired other architects. The Renaissance mode became an important architectural fashion of the times.

The historical references of these structures provided a vocabulary that spelled out, among other things, the sense of the passage of time, reminding Americans that they were not cut off from the past but in their artistic traditions were connected to much that had occurred long before. For many Americans at the close of the century, in addition, the dignified and richly ornate, Renaissance-classical modes seemed especially appropriate to the actualities of the wealthy, newly imperialistic United States, led by capitalist buccaneers. Buildings in the classical-Renaissance traditions, moreover, could give a feeling of order, balance, and restraint to an often chaotic streetscape and to an America so shaken by the turmoil of rapid change, uncertainty, and social discontent.

Such architecture as that of ancient Rome and of Renaissance Italy, with a long rich tradition and notable masterworks of the past, could bring a sense of order not only to the streetscape but also, as well, into the very lives of those who made use of stylistic elements from the tradition. For both White and McKim, turmoil, disorder, and tragedy permeated their private lives. Increasingly, by the close of the century, White's private life, characterized by lavish spending, financial speculations, poor health, continuing self-indulgence, and compulsive behavior, flew out of control. Within this personal context, the disciplined familiarity of the classical-Renaissance tradition became all the more appealing. White could at least establish order and discipline in his professional work, if not in other parts of his life.

This, therefore, I would suggest, in addition to Italy as, first, a storehouse of goods and, second, a source of inspiration for specific designs, was the third principal meaning of Italy for Stanford White. With its long record of the passage of time, its historical associations, its rich architectural dictionary, Italy could provide a vivid sense of continuity, order, and even peacefulness for the all-too-often troubled spirit of Stanford White.


NOTES
1.
For a full biographical study, see P. R. Baker, Stanny: The Gilded Life of Stanford White, New York, 1989.
2.
Arthur Acton's son, Sir Harold Acton, many years later, would donate the sumptuous villa with its art treasures to New York University, with which White himself had many connections.
3.
G. S. Parker, "The Work of Three Great Architects," World's Work xii, October 1906, 8058.
4.
Roseeliff is now open to the public under the auspices of the Preservation Society of Newport County.
5.
"Saunterings," Town Topics, XLVI, November 21, 1901, 5.

-171-

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