Portraits Of The Poor: Dignity In Times Of Despair Taxing Visions is a new exhibit that depicts the underside of the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. The artwork on display at the Huntington in San Marino, Calif., pays tribute to the men, women and children hit hardest by the economic downturn.
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Portraits Of The Poor: Dignity In Times Of Despair

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Portraits Of The Poor: Dignity In Times Of Despair

Portraits Of The Poor: Dignity In Times Of Despair

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NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg visited the show.

SUSAN STAMBERG: At first glance, it looks like an ordinary Victorian family scene. A nice upholstered chair and isn't that a chandelier or a fancy mantle piece? Charles Knoll's late 19th century painting shows a smart living room.

JESSICA TODD SMITH: Very nice carpet, fine textiles, all symbols of what would be upper-class trappings.

STAMBERG: But Jessica Todd Smith, chief curator of American Art at the Huntington, points out that the painting is called "Panic of 1896," and the people in that nice living room look devastated.

TODD SMITH: The man is sitting in a chair with the paper at his feet, announcing the panic. His hand is covering his face. His other arm reaches dramatically for his wife, who's turned in the other direction, looking disconsolate. The baby is crawling on the floor, complete disregarded in the mayhem.

STAMBERG: The family has lost everything in that economic downturn, one of many that took place in this country in the late 1800s, which was also the age of the mega-rich industrial Robber Barons - Rockefellers, Carnegies, Huntingtons.

STEVEN KOBLIK: We know that this great wealth developed. But in fact, between 1873 and the turn into the 20th century was a huge depression.

STAMBERG: Steven Koblik is president of the Huntington.

KOBLIK: The money was not well divided, and this great wealth was concentrated in the hands of the few.

STAMBERG: For instance, the woman in a painting called "Tattered and Torn."

KEVIN MURPHY: She's wearing what can really only best be described as rags.

STAMBERG: Kevin Murphy, associate curator of American Art, is looking at a picture by Alfred Kappes. He made it in 1886.

MURPHY: Her clothes are torn and faded.

STAMBERG: Curator Jessica Todd Smith thinks that despite her exhaustion, the woman has great dignity.

TODD SMITH: She is concentrating so carefully on lighting this match to light her pipe, as though it were the one small pleasure remaining.

STAMBERG: And maybe the last tobacco she can afford. The same woman, nameless now, appears in another work in this Huntington show. The engraving, taken from another painting by Alfred Kappes, is called "Rent Day".

TODD SMITH: And the title says so much. There are two figures, leaning one another, sort of counting their pennies. You have this stress of whether or not they're going to be able to come up with the amount. And that's a theme that's really throughout the show, is this sense of the difficulty of getting - making ends meet.

STAMBERG: Putting two cents together.

TODD SMITH: Putting two cents together, exactly.

STAMBERG: Their fingers are bony. You can see that they don't get quite enough to eat.

TODD SMITH: And patched clothes and shoes that are open at the toe; so all of these symbols of people who are struggling to get by financially.

STAMBERG: The artists in this exhibit pay attention to outsiders of their day: Blacks, women, artists; several paintings of artists locked out of their studios because their rent hasn't been paid, and children. A blind beggar in Julian Alden Weir's 1879 picture "The Flower Seller," stands behind a little girl who holds a tray of flowers. The man looks sad, resigned. But the little girl is angelic. So is the girl in another picture.

TODD SMITH: This painting by John George Brown is of a charming little girl, looking wistfully past a small bouquet of lowers to a potential buyer. And one of the typical devices John George Brown used are these wonderful, limpid, large brown eyes that are meant to engender sweetness and sympathy, and convey the longing of the child.

STAMBERG: She's poor, but sort of happy. Sentimentalized, says curator Kevin Murphy, as are several of these painted children.

MURPHY: They really were. And in fact, one of the artists that is most associated with them once was asked why he didn't paint them dirty. And you can imagine that these children that were out on the street all day would be pretty dirty. And he said that if he painted them with dirty faces, they wouldn't sell.

STAMBERG: But Kevin Murphy says some of the paintings of this period did sell.

MURPHY: There were quite a few paintings of street urchins, boys selling newspapers, sometimes people selling matches or fruit. Some of these were quite popular at this time because a lot of the very wealthy people were either immigrants or were one generation removed from being immigrants and being poor. These images provide sort of a nostalgia, but also reinforce that everything was possible in America; and that you could start off being a flower seller on the street or a match seller, and become Andrew Carnegie.

STAMBERG: In California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And at NPR.org you can see these portraits of poverty.

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