Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century opens with Giovanni’s Boldini’s Portrait of a Lady, which features a popular society woman seated on an elaborately embroidered coral silk settee fanning herself with a great black ostrich feather fan. As she leans toward the viewer with a coquettish smile, the sleeve of her black satin dress slips suggestively down her shoulder, openly inviting the viewer’s stare. With her conspicuous display of wealth and sexuality, she epitomizes the self-confidence of the British aristocracy at the advent of twentieth century, which believed that its wealth and political power were destined to remain unchallenged.
The Yale Center for British Art’s Edwardian Opulence surveys the visual and decorative arts in Britain during the reign of King Edwards VII (1901-1910) The exhibition is comprised of 170 objects including whimsical bell pushes crafted by Carl Faberge for the royal palaces, two exquisitely delicate diamond broaches, the marble bust of Lady Melba whose acting career was described by one admiring critic as “decades of monotonous brilliance,” and cinema clips of the British royal children driving around the streets of London in miniature Cadillac motors cars.
The exhibition delights in documenting the flamboyance of the Edwardian period; nevertheless, it insists that the period resists easy definition. The exhibition acknowledges the Edwardian period has become “almost synonymous” with the Gilded Age and Belle Époque in today’s imagination, evoking associations of ostentation, unbridled consumption, and indolence. The British Empire’s expansive trade networks and its robust manufacturing industries flooded the British aristocracy with mercantile wealth of the newly affluent upper-middle class that demanded entry into its ranks. With the invention of photography and the proliferation of illustrated newspapers, the social conventions, habits, and rituals of elite long hidden from view were documented for the first time.
The exhibition, however, challenges that notion that the Edwardian period was nothing more than a “lingering coda” to the Victorian Age—a protracted garden party abruptly ended by the outbreak of the Great War. The exhibition reminds us the preoccupation with the opulent lifestyles of the entrenched ruling elite belie “a turbulent cataract of social, economic, and political change.” The short period witnessed the rise of the Labor movement, agitation for women’s rights, and unprecedented technological innovation. The Suffragette and electricity light-switch belong to the Edwardian Era just as much as lavish parties and country houses. With its careful selection of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and decorative art, the exhibition highlights the dualities that define Edwardian period.
Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century runs through June 2, 2013. The exhibition is accompanied by an exquisitely illustrated catalog, edited by Angus Trumble and Andrea Wolk Rager and published by Yale University Press. A slideshow of images from the exhibition is featured on the blog for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.