Then as now New York was known for its art exhibitions. What follows are Woolson’s reactions to the art world of 1871. Not particularly trained in art history or criticism, she tended to react personally—and humorously—to paintings. She knew what she liked . . .
The Academy of Design, opposite the magnificent building of the Young Men’s Christian Association on Twenty-third street, is probably familiar to all who are interested in pictures. The winter exhibition is now open with some fine paintings, although the large majority are foreign importations, filling up the blank spaces caused by the withdrawal of some American artists, who, dissatisfied with the unfortunate “Hanging Committee,” prefer to exhibit in their own studios.
Wandering through the five handsome rooms and giving a hasty glance at the rows of gilt framed paintings one above the other, the eye is bewildered, the mind confused, and the uninitiated stranger is glad to take a chair and sit quietly down until his senses return to him. Then he tries it again with the aid of a catalogue, severely reading the artists’ names and patiently making a systematic journey through the whole four hundred and twenty.
By this time he has grown bolder, and steps back and forth in attitudes before the large pictures, shading his eyes to get the right light, and writing profound criticisms on his catalogue with an air of mysterious wisdom, which causes strangers to suppose he is a critic getting up Art Notes for one of the papers. The fourth time round he takes a chair and plants himself before a small picture, no matter which, gazing at it in absorbed abstraction until a crowd of aimless wanderers, glad of any anchor in the sea of uncertainty, gather behind his chair and murmur, “sweet thing,” “powerful outlines,” “exquisite expression.,” “a perfect gem” in grateful chorus.
Then is his time; if he knows anything he leaves suddenly, and everybody wonders who he is, and thinks he must be an artist, or, perhaps a rich patron, collecting for his private gallery, while the cause of the discussion leaves the variegated walls of the Academy behind him, with the proud consciousness that he has done his duty, and ever thereafter considers himself quite a connoisseur.
Among the fine pictures this winter is “Orestes Pursued by the Furies,” by Bouguertau, representing Orestes stopping his ears running forward over a dusky plain, while the three Furies with wreathing snakes in their hair, thrust the body of his murdered mother before his eyes and shriek their wild denunciations. The weird effect of the pictures is heightened by the red, green and blue light thrown over the Furies, and the dark crimson drapery of the dead body with a dagger in its heart.
. . . In the corridor there is an athlete struggling with two utterly impossible horses standing on nothing, and hidden away in an opposite corner is a lovely little picture of the Christ-Child, according to a German legend, bearing a Christmas tree across a snowy field to a lighted cottage beyond. A number of fine portraits watch you curiously, their eyes always meeting yours no matter in which direction you turn, one young man in particular with auburn hair, marked a “Portrait by William Page,” is perfectly ghostly, and would drive a nervous woman distracted with his persistent mocking eyes. A head of Edwin Booth by Le Clere, is fine, but who wants to see Edwin in everyday clothes? Let him be Hamlet or nothing!
. . . In the large room, occupying a prominent position, is the ‘Landing of the “Pilgrims,” by Wopper, who certainly omitted the ‘A’ in his name. What the reason is we cannot say, but this subject is extremely conducive to falsehood, and there have been more lies told both in print and on canvas about these worthies than upon any other subject of American history, not even excepting De Soto discovering the Mississippi in the strictly probable costume of white satin pants, pink velvet coat and yellow gloves.
In this particular lie, the Pilgrims in their store clothes are all sitting for their picture, and trying hard to advance into the flowery interior and smile sweetly upon the audience at the same time. One woman who in addition to this is obliged to recline upon the shoulder of her husband, is much to be pitied owing to the evident dislocation of her neck and the absence of any spinal column, but in spite of her sufferings, she smiles bravely on. Poor Pilgrim Fathers! may [sic] your pious, prudent and genteel bones rest quietly in their graves, in spite of the lies of your imaginative descendants.
–“Gotham. A Bit of Bright Womanly Gossip,” Cleveland Herald Supplement, Jan. 14, 1871.