The Mount: Edith Wharton and the American Renaissance






 

Kay Davis
University of Virginia
© 2001-2003

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American Renaissance > Italian Influences > Landscape Architecture and Interior Design >
White City
> Significance

Italian Influences

Artists of the Italian Renaissance used classical models for painting and architecture. They believed that art should conform to mathematical principles and display balance, harmony, and perspective. (7)

Several books published in America in the 1870s brought the Italian Renaissance to the attention of American artists. These included:

  • Studies in the History of the Renaissance by Walter Pater (1873)

  • The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burkhardt (1878)
Many artists came to believe that they could recapture the spirit of the Italian Renaissance through their own artistic works.

Symmetry and Harmony
In American Renaissance: A Review of Domestic Architecture, architect Joy Wheeler Dow argued that domestic architecture should be modeled after Renaissance models. (8)

Dow called the Gilded Age "the reign of terror," as it produced an "exaggerated architectural grammar" derived from medieval Europe. (9)

Dow promoted symmetry, harmony, good lines, balance, and proportion, all principles that artists of the American Renaissance would follow.


Architectural Training
In the late nineteenth century, architectural training included the study of history; major architectural styles; and books on classicism, such as Vitruvius, Alberti, Palladio, and Ware's American Vignola. (10) Architects also studied formal compositional rules such as proportion, mass, and symmetry.

Architects attending the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and the newly formed American Academy of Fine Arts in Rome could view renaissance works firsthand.



Renaissance Architects
Richard Morris Hunt, trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, closely studied historical styles and modeled many of his works after French Renaissance chateaux and Italian villas.


McKim, Mead, and White
Renaissance architects
McKim, Mead, and White


The architectural firm of Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White adopted classical models for American residential and civic architecture. McKim, who founded the American Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, summed up the firm's philosophy as follows:
"As Rome went to Greece, and later France, Spain and other countries had gone to Rome for their own reactions to the splendid standards of Classic and Renaissance Art, so must we become students, and delve, bring back, and adapt to conditions here, a groundwork on which to build." (11)

Joseph Wells, chief designer for McKim, Mead, and White, remarked, "The classical ideal suggests clearness, simplicity, grandeur, order, and philosophical calm." (12)

Villard Houses
Villard Houses
New York City

The classical ideal is evident in the following McKim, Mead, and White works:

  • Villard Houses in New York City

  • The Boston Public Library, which features statues of American heroes and Venetian and Pompeiian paintingsM

  • Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch in Brooklyn, New York

Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch
Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch
Brooklyn, New York

In fact, the McKim, Mead, and White firm became known as "the best 'Classic' training school in America." (13)


Like the Masters
Some American architects and artists modeled themselves after their Italian Renaissance counterparts. McKim and White referred to themselves as Italian artists in their office, McKim as Bramante, and White as Cellini. (14)

Louis Comfort Tiffany's Associated Artists, formed in 1879, was modeled after an Italian Renaissance workshop. Each partner was in charge of a department, such as glass, textiles, or fabrics. (15)


Similarities

There are several similarities between the Italian Renaissance and the American Renaissance:

  • The artistic works were funded by capitalists

  • Mathematical principles governed artistic creation

  • Artists valued harmony between scholarship, science, and art

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