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Mark Twain's "Swagger" Looms In Documentary About Gilded Age Art

Jun 22, 2017

The Mark Twain House and Museum will screen a new documentary Thursday that looks at the arts of the so-called "Gilded Age" of American history. Mark Twain played a crucial role in that era and plays one in the documentary.

In fact, the term "Gilded Age" is actually lifted from a novel co-written by Twain in 1873 called The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The era, which roughly began at the end of the Civil War and lasted through the end of the 19th century was a time of unprecedented economic growth in the U.S.

Industrialization, railroads, and an immense surge in immigration and labor made the U.S. the world leader in industrial production by the end of the 19th century. Riding on the coattails of this economic boom, according to Ashford-based filmmaker Michael Maglaras were a group of skilled artists ready to make their mark on American culture.

"Those are the 45 years in which the American arts movement came into his own -- great paintings, sculpture, literature," said Maglaras, "but as we try to say in the film, that's the period where the American artistic presence in the world really is first felt."

Winslow Homer's 1872 painting "Snap the Whip"
Credit wikipedia

Maglaras contends that the arts of the Gilded Age was a happy coincidence of European-trained American artists ready to use their skills to capture the American experience, and incredibly wealthy benefactors willing to support them.

"There's ample evidence those fortunes were spent, not only in buying European art, and bringing it to the United States as J.P. Morgan did, but in cultivating American artists," said Maglaras.

In his film "America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age" Maglaras profiles some of these artists, including Winslow Homer, Mary Cassat, Childe Hassam, and Hartford, Connecticut's own Frederic Edwin Church, whose monumental painting "Niagara" seemed to capture the essence of mid 19th century America.

The film points out that Church chose not to set the falls from a vantage point on land. By eliminating that perspective, the viewer gets the sense that they are actually in the river above the falls.

Frederic Edwin Church's 1857 painting "Niagara"
Credit youtube

Included in the documentary is the only known film footage of the Mark Twain -- 90 seconds of the Twain family taking tea outdoors in Redding, Connecticut.

The footage was filmed by the Edison company in 1909. Maglaras says for him, the footage embodies the spirit of the Gilded Age.

"Look at that immaculate mane of white hair, that assured walk, that white suit," said Maglaras, "in a certain sense he is the ultimate symbol of what I'll call the American swagger - full of confidence about our future in America. Twain represents to me that kind of all-permeating American confidence."

"America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age" will be screened on Thursday at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford.