October, 1882, The Magazine of Art, Vol. VI, pages 137-143, An American Palace,,
AN AMERICAN PALACE.
"NO art has more rapidly developed in the United States during the last decade than architecture. No new school has been created, and no new types of beauty have been formulated; but building has become artistic, and new modifications of antique and foreign styles have been adapted to local needs and fresh material. Domestic architecture is especially remarkable for beauty of treatment and excellence of workmanship. Of course there is yet much that is worthless; but when there is a tendency towards progress, criticism must not be too severe, nor praise be grudgingly withheld. The chief merits in American architecture are a clear perception of the fact that decoration should be constructive, a certain exuberance of fancy, some skill in relieving monotony of tone by the use of coloured stones, tiles, and terra-cotta mouldings, and unquestionable dexterity and ingenuity in the production of interior conveniences. In recent years large sums have been lavished upon our private residences, and many sumptuous buildings have risen in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and other leading cities, but more especially along Fifth Avenue, the justly celebrated street of New York. Herein the marble palace of the late A. T. Stewart — which is reputed to have cost 1,500,000 dollars — has until now been most conspicuous. It is, however, of a severe style, and its aspect is frigidly elegant rather than cheerful. Of late, too, the new house of the Union League Club has been occupied, and has attracted much attention for the variety and richness of its interior appointments. But every private residence ever before constructed in America is entirely eclipsed by the house of the American Railway King, Mr. William H. Vanderbilt.
Here I should note that it is but one of five magnificent houses recently built by Mr. Vanderbilt and his two sons on Fifth Avenue, between Fifty-First and Fifty-Seventh Streets. The last two are widely diverse in style and plan. That of Mr. W. K. Vanderbilt was designed by Mr. R. M. Hunt, brother the late William M. Hunt, the well-known painter. The material, a light-grey limestone, would be more agreeable if of a warmer tint; but it has a fine grain and is easily carved. The style is of the Transitional, or Later Gothic, and without imitating suggests the yet extant buildings of that period. The architect's object has been two-fold: to achieve a pyramidal effect by making his lines converge to the central gable on the Fifth Avenue side; and while lavishly employing decorative sculpture on his walls, so to mass his ornamentation as to produce a number of wide unbroken spaces, thereby gaining in breadth and concentration of effect. The carving is profuse and good, and the gables and pinnacles are surmounted by statues, one of which, as in mediaeval architecture, is a portrait of the architect. The bracket or corbel supporting the oriel on the Fifty-Third Street side — which aspect of the house is shown in our first picture — is surrounded by a remarkable frieze of cherubs. The most important feature is the beautiful angle turret. The residence of Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt was designed by Mr. George Post, and was suggested by the Seventeenth Century French Chateau, with an harmonious interfusion of ideas adapted from the Flemish and Jacobean schools. The material employed is red brick, with facings of grey limestone. The combination, of colour thus secured is warm and agreeable — It no means an unimportant feature in a climate like that of New York. The stone-work and carving are elaborate in parts ; but as the lines — accentuated on either side by a large gable or dormer window, not altogether in harmony with the other forms — are simple, the design must be studied to be fully appreciated. The interior adornments, by Messrs. Colnian and Tiffany, are after the more recent fashion of decorative art.
The residence of Mr. William H. Vanderbilt, the father, with the adjoining house built for his daughters, are, however, the most important of the group, both in respect of dimensions and of general design. The plan of these houses was made by Mr. Vanderbilt himself. The decoration, including the furnishing, was done by the Messrs. Herter Brothers, of New York, and the construction was superintended by Mr. Snooks. The material employed is the rich brown freestone so common in the elegant mansions of New York. It must be frankly admitted that no especial originality is apparent in the exterior, and that the external decorations are not in accordance with the canons of architecture — that is, they are not always constructive, but have been contrived as adjuncts rather than as component parts. At the same time it would be idle to deny that the general effect is uncommonly elegant, attractive, and imposing. The carving is elaborate and the execution conscientious and thorough. The band of oak leaves, which entirely encircles the lower storey of each building, is an exquisite piece of work, and may be sincerely admired even by those who take exception to it as being not constructively decorative. The metal-work in the railings, of which we give a specimen farther on, is admirably designed, and offers a good example of the excellence attained by the American artisan in the industrial arts. The rather heavy uniformity of sombre colour is relieved by a band of scarlet in the dead wall of the balcony recess, and the railings are gilded. Externally the northern house is one building; within it is divided into two, for the accommodation of Mr. Vanderbilt's daughters. They enclose a grass plot in the rear, and are united by a common vestibule, entered from Fifth Avenue. Access to each mansion is obtained herefrom ; and thus, while each is entirely separate, on festive occasions guests can pass from one to the other without exposure to the elements. The vestibule walls are of marble, inlaid with panels of Venetian mosaic by Tinetti. The floor is also of marble, and of imitation Roman mosaic. In the centre stands the famous colossal Malachite Vase from the Demidoff Sale. The roof is of bronze, lighted by delicate stained glass. The entrance to Mr. Vanderbilt's house is guarded by admirable copies in bronze of Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise," made by Barbedienne, at a cost of 25,000 dollars. They open into an inner vestibule, on either side of which are bronze doors leading, the one into a snug but sumptuous cloak-room ceiled and lined with polished mahogany, and the other to Mr. Vanderbilt's private office. It is not until, through a double door opposite the entrance, you pass into the Central Hall that you completely realise the plan of this magnificent abode. It is built in the form of a hollow square. The Central Hall, or Court, runs sheer to a roof of stained glass, which diffuses a subdued light over the court below and the surrounding galleries, on which the living-rooms are built. The floor is composed of inlaid woods. Opposite the entrance is a grand fireplace of carven wood, reaching to the ceiling, and supported on either hand by caryatids.
On the hearth is a pair of immense and elaborate antique brass andirons, which in the ages past perhaps graced some ducal hall. Above, the sides of the surrounding galleries are embellished with sumptuous carvings of wood — of gilded cherubs and garlands on a ground of sea-green gold. At every corner the galleries are supported by square piers of polished African marble of a reddish tint (resembling Scotch granite), whose capitals are in figured bronze picked out in gold. The galleries, which are hung from ceiling to floor with superb Gobelins, are reached by a broad, imposing staircase, panelled to a height of six feet with English oak. The three windows on each landing are filled with stained glass designs by Mr. John Lafarge, of New York, and are in the best style of an artist who probably has no superior in America. The leadings are so skilfully arranged that every part of the design is formed of a distinct piece of glass ; so that the lead nowhere interferes with the flow of line, nor is ever supplemented by paint overlaid to aid the drawing.
The Drawing-Room — an angle of which is pictured in our fifth illustration — is on the east side, facing Fifth Avenue, and is entered through sliding-doors directly from the Hall.
This superb apartment is nearly square. It presents what might be called a Harmony in Crimson and Gold. The walls are hung with figured velvet of jiale crimson, which in certain light; ts assumes the effect of peach bloom. The carpet is of the same hue. The vaulted ceiling, which is in jiale azure picked out with gold, with figured gold in the groinings, is united to the walls by a noble cornice of carved wood, covered with gold and pale metallic green gilding on a ground of mother-of-pearl. Over each of the three massive gold-encrusted doors are cherubs, and on either hand of each door-post stands a pillar of onyx, jewel-inlaid, supporting a gilded sphere which encloses a cluster of lights. The abruptness of the angles is modified by an arrangement consisting of pedestals supporting female figures, one-third the size of life, in solid silver. In either graceful hand these royal maidens sustain a spear with a circlet of jewelled metal attached, behind which is a diadem of lights ; while in rear of each are mirrors of burnished crystal. The west entrance is flanked by two cabinets by Barbedienne, inlaid with iridescent mother-of-pearl and bearing five Limoges enamels by Sayer. A superb gilded table (carved in New York) stands near the southern end; the top is of the same exquisite material as the cabinets.
The seats of the Louis Seize chairs are covered with costly Chinese embroideries. A cloisonne cabinet by Barbedienne, one of the finest pieces produced in Europe, and other noble objet d'art, contribute to the magnificence of this drawing-room — the handsomest in all America. When the lights are burning its splendour is akin to the gorgeous dreams of oriental fancy; and yet with all this dazzling opulence there is no hint of tawdriness. The effect has been perfectly massed, and the profuse decorations are harmonised with consummate taste.
South of the Drawing-Room is the Japanese Room — shown in our fourth picture. As the great doors between them are always open, and the draperies are always drawn, the two apartments really form a suite of reception rooms. Every portion of this charming nook, the bronzes and other portable ornaments alone excepted, has been made in New York. But the effect is precisely that of the boudoir of some oriental princess. The rafters of the ceiling are iijicn, as if tn f.lmw liic mof above; and the upper part of the walls is finished in bamboo. A light cabinet with shelves and open work runs round the room, and this, like the woodwork generally, is tinted with rich red lacquer. In one corner is a divan cushioned with figured silks from Japan. On either side the door, supporting a cluster of lights, stands a great female statue in Japanese costume, cast by Christofle of Paris, in imitation Japanese bronze.
Opposite the door is a large and elegant fireplace, whose mantel and every ornament are Japanese likewise. For the window, looking on to Fifth Avenue, Lafarge has executed stained glass compartments representing flowers and birds. The tail of a peacock is rendered with marvellous splendour and faithfulness to iiatmc.
The Library — a corner of which is figured on the preceding page — is on the other side of the Drawing-Room, and corresponds in size and place with the Japanese Room. The paneling and shelves are of rosewood, touched with satin-wood, and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The hangings, drapery, carpets, and upholstery are of a tender turquoise-blue. Masterpieces by Gerome, Verboeckhoven, Meissonnier, are judiciously distributed about the walls. The mantel serves to relieve the heaviness of the array of mono-tinted woods. It is of wood carved in rustic fashion —in crossbars, gilded with dead gold. The spaces between are inlaid with small diamond-shaped mirrors, which give a certain airiness, as if you were looking through the ceiling into space.
The Dining-Room is entered both from the Japanese Room and the Central Court. It is, perhaps, the most satisfactory, from an artistic point of is faced with agate and topped with Limoges enamels by Sayer and Solon. The brazen fender is decorated with globes of opalescent glass. Admirable vases from Sevres or from Minton's, and superb specimens of glassware, are scattered about; and bookcases, stored with choice editions of standard authors, line the lower half of the walls. The library table is one of the finest pieces of cabinet-work ever turned out in America. It was designed and carved in the establishment of the Messrs. Herter, and is of black walnut, highly polished, and inlaid with mother-of- pearl. The ceiling is a most interesting feature, and view, of the many sumptuous chambers in Mr. Vanderbilt's mansion : as, after the Picture Gallery, it is also the largest. The floor is inlaid with patterns in colour, and the walls are of English oak, profusely and elegantly sculptured. The rich golden-yellow of this wood gives an indescribable warmth and cheerfulness to an apartment which, owing to the buildings on the other side of the street, is lighted only from the south and east, and then chiefly by reflected light. The windows are filled with stained glass by Oudinot, of Paris, representing the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The vaulted ceiling is decorated with hunting scene by Luminals. The sideboard is carved of oak ; the chimney-piece, reaching to the ceiling ; the chairs, which are covered with leather stamped and coloured — in fact all the exquisite and elaborate carving in this superb nfuest -chamber was executed in New York, and reflects the highest credit on American industrial art.
The Picture Gallery and the Conservatory till the rear of the house. The former, as may be seen by our picture — the third — is of stately dimensions : the ceiling, twice the height of the adjoining rooms, receiving its light through a roof pierced with delicately figured glass. It is approached from the Central court through an archway on the right, and through a triple doorway from Fifty-First Street, for Mr. Vanderbilt intends to open it to the public on certain days in the month. These street doors are of bronze, and the vestibule is paved with Caen mosaics, and lighted through stained and jewelled glass. The gallery is divided into two apartments : a principal hall with a smaller showroom in snife. The main entrance is a deep alcove, containing a noble mantel and chimney-piece of carved wood.
The floor is paved with paly-tintofl marbles, and the lofty wainscoting of ebonised Circassian wood harmonises well with the rich maroon hangings, which are stamped with gilded designs. The vaulted roof is gracefully united with the walls by a cornice of small panels in light and dark woods, and its subdued monotony is variegated by carvings of amorini in panels, and by caryatids exquisitely sculptured in wood. A luxurious and costly oriental carpet overlies the central floor, and midway upon it stands a massive ebony table, with drawers for rare prints and art volumes. The visitor's comfort is further completed by luxurious sofas and fauteuils. The oriental-looking balcony over the archway is intended for an orchestra. The smaller Gallery includes, half-way up, a second gallery, devoted to water-colour paintings. Its railing is carved in Indian patterns ; it is reached by a door in the entresol on the main stairway in the Central Court. Gracefully as this has been managed, it is still a break in the continuity of movement by which you pass from one scene of beauty to another : even as in sleep you glide through the successive phases of a gorgeous dream.
The pictures are hung with great judgment. It is evident that they have been chosen with a decided taste for certain schools and subjects, and a certain indifference to other subjects and schools. There is, for instance, but a single Corot — an excellent specimen of the master's genius. Another feature of the collection is the uniform cheerfulness of the subjects selected. With the exception of the De Ntuvilles and Detailles, almost every composition pictures some quiet domestic scene, some gala day resplendent with laughter and song and brilliant costumes, some group of lovely women luring the fancy with their charm of dress and their witchery of person. Now it is a troop of spirited horsemen ; now a tranquil river scene; now a sunlit forest glade; and now a quiet pastoral or a joyous fete champetre. Here you may while hours away undisturbed by the mighty city's roar, and passing quietly from the contemplation of one painting to another, forget that nature is ever aught but smiling, or life anything but a series of happy episodes passed amid scenes of beauty and woven into harmonious sequence by love and song. The art with which this result has been obtained is none the less triumphant because it was, perhaps, unconscious and intuitive. Here are works by Constable, Thomas Faed, and W. M. Turner, who is responsible for a small but very choice water-colour. There are also capital paintings by Defregger and Knaus, the latter represented by a large and noble village fete. But by far the larger part of the collection is devoted to the contemporary Flemings, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Italians. Alma Tademia, Van Leys, Clays, and Israels; Gerome, Millet, Meissonnier, Couture, Delacroix, Detaille, De Neuville, Bonnat, Diaz, Troyon, Rosa Bonheur, Rousseau, Dupre, Jacque, and Daubigny ; Albert, Tapiro, Boldini, Villegas, Fortuny, and Madrazo, are among the celebrated artists who are Mr. Vanderbilt's favourites. They are in most cases represented by several examples of their best styles. Among well-known pictures are Gerome's celebrated "Sword Dance;" Alma Tadema's "Entrance to a Roman Theatre ;" Fortuny's "Dance of Arabs;" "The King's Favourite," by Zamacois; Munkacsy's "Breakfast Scene;" and De Neuville's "Le Bourget," which pictures the storming of a church by the Germans in the Franco-German war, and the wounded captain, hurt unto death, carried forth by his comrades, while the Prussians gaze upon them with a stolid and half-brutal respect. In the small gallery, opposite the window, whose light counterbalances the shadow of the Water-Colour Gallery above, is the miniature half-length th portrait of Mr. Vanderbilt, painted by Meissonnier.
The Vanderbilt Collection is remarkable in that it contains but little statuary. Plastic art, indeed, except of a purely decorative type, is scarcely represented in this noble mansion. An abundance of admirable carvings greets one everywhere in the friezes and cornices; but, except a small and very beautiful ivory statuette in the drawing-room, and superb bronzes here and there, the sculptor's art is hardly recognised at all. It is to be noted, too, that the Picture Gallery contains no pictures by American artists, with the exception of a couple of portraits by Baker of New York. Some might be inclined to grumble at this, and to consider it evidence of a lack of interest in native art. But, in other parts of his residence, Mr. Vanderl)ilt has employed native talent wherever it would answer his purpose. Evidently he decided to form a collection of the highest order of contemporary foreign art, which would give pleasure at the present time and would have an historic and educational value in future ages ; for the truest historic painting is that in which the artist derives inspiration from his own time, and paints the men and scenery of to-day for the children of tomorrow.
The living-rooms of the family are on what Americans call the second floor, the first according to Continental usage. Mr. Vanderbilt's Bedroom is on the south-east comer, and is furnished with simplicity, but at the same time with the utmost elegance. Connected with it is his Dressing- Room, fitted up in exquisite style. The bath, which is of silver, is concealed by sliding doors which reach from floor to ceiling, and, as in all the apartments, are lined with mirrors of the purest glass. Mrs. Vanderbilt's Room, leading out from Mr. Vanderbilt's and occupying the centre of the fayade, is especially noteworthy for the beauty of its half-vaulted ceiling, of which the large flattened centre is superbly painted by the artist of "La Cigale." It represents Aurora chasing Night. The form of the goddess, clad in a delicate cymar, disparted to show the beautifully modelled limbs, is one of the finest pieces of flesh-painting Lefebvrc ever produced. The whole work is, doubtless, the noblest decorative painting yet seen in America.
The Guest-Chamber adjoining this apartment, and the other rooms occupied by the family, are fitted up with the same lavish luxury, each different, yet each in entire harmony with the common scale of sumptuousness and with the general system of good taste. This impression, of consonancy with difference, is one of the remarkable features of this magnificent abode. Nowhere is there repetition, yet nowhere is the taste offended by violent contrasts, or by incongruities or solecisms in arrangement. You pass by easy transition from one room to another, the eye enchanted, the imagination fixed, as if in some fairy palace. An equable, summer-like temperature pervades every part; the garish light of noonday is tempered by massive embroideries or pictured panes; and at eventide the gleam of clustered lights, flashed back by crystal mirrors, is modulated to a genial glow by jewelled screens. Nowhere is there evidence that comfort has been sacrificed to display; but splendour has been so guided as to give an aspect of home to what, less delicately and skilfully managed, might have been but sorareous cheerless palace.
by S. G. W. Benjamin.