Sunday, December 14, 2008

Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects: American Women Collectors and the Making of American Culture, 1800-1940. By Dianne Sachko Macleod. Berkeley: University of California Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-520-23729-2, $45.00. 328 pages.

Review by Stephanie Jacobe, American University

In her newest book, Dianne Sachko Macleod, Professor Emerita of Art History at the University of California, Davis, investigates the lives of American women art collectors from roughly 1800 through 1940. She argues that collecting art liberated women of the nineteenth century from the gilded cage of the home created by the cult of true womanhood. Macleod employs case studies of women collectors to support her arguments. She focuses her arguments not on the content of collections but more on how the acquisition of those objects and the need to share them with others brought women outside the home. She also demonstrates that within the language of collecting, gender became more fluid.
Macleod is very honest in her introduction, admitting that she specifically chose her examples because they best fit with her thesis. She discusses the lives and collecting habits of thirty-seven women through five chapters and an epilogue. Although each chapter includes anywhere from three to eleven women in its analysis, each chapter focuses on one women as the primary example, with the others holding secondary roles in the discourse.
The first chapter is the only one in which Antebellum America is discussed, and it is by far the weakest of the five. Macleod examines Eliza Bowen Jumel as her primary example. Eliza Bowen was born in Rhode Island. Her early life was characterized by turmoil and financial hardship. She worked as a prostitute and actress before her marriage to shipping magnet Stephen Jumel in 1804. Macleod argues that Jumel flaunted gender conventions through her involvement in her husband’s business as well as her art collecting. However, Macleod does not discuss the political ramifications of the Early National Period that pitted Francophiles like Eliza and Stephen Jumel against those who favored a more British influence. Macleod also did not deal with the correlation between Jumel’s lower-class upbringing and early life with her seeming rejection of upper-class feminine ideals. The relationship between class and the cult of true womanhood is not discussed. Considering Jumel’s early life, the independence of her later years is not as surprising as it otherwise might be.
The later four chapters and the epilogue showcase the women collectors of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Macleod begins her look at the later nineteenth century by focusing on well-known women collectors, such as those described by Earl Shinn, who produced the first history of collecting in America. Macleod argues that Shinn did not have any respect for the women whose collections he documented, but instead saw them as extensions of their husbands. Macleod also introduces the concept of collecting-as-play. Macleod shows that women used their collections as a basis for psychological escape from not only the domestic sphere but also the rapidity of the modern world. As described in this book, collecting-as-play is almost an extension of the type of play children engage in with toys. Macleod also makes a case for the blurring of gender lines: men sometimes had these same playful tendencies.
Macleod next turns her attention to women collectors who also became activists in the fields of education, art, and suffrage. She focuses her story on Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, who spearheaded the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. Macleod goes to great pains to show how women’s involvement with the World’s Fairs, beginning in 1876 and culminating in 1915, provided an avenue to the world outside their traditional place in the home. Surprisingly, not all the women Macleod discusses were fully in favor of women’s suffrage. Instead they displayed a range of opinions, from being against the idea completely to women’s limited participation in local politics to full national suffrage.
In the fourth chapter Macleod turns her attention to the creation of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, and the Cooper-Hewitt, by women collectors. She demonstrates that women such as Abby Rockefeller and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had emerged from their domestic spaces but that the male-dominated world did not accept that change. In fact, by the beginning decades of the twentieth century, men were beginning to extend their sway over the arts and saw women’s influence as unhealthy.
Finally, Macleod focuses on Gertrude and Leo Stein and their circle in Paris and the United States. It is in this final chapter that Macleod’s arguments concerning the gender of collecting come to fruition. Gertrude and her brother lived a reversal of gender roles within their personal as well as their collecting lives. Though Macleod employs gendered language in discussing aspects of art collecting throughout the book, it is not until these later examples that those arguments become convincing.
In Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects, Dianne Sachko Macleod has opened the discussion about the influence of art on women’s independence from the domestic sphere. Her work is by no means the final word; instead, it can be hoped, it will spur new studies that explore women’s art collecting in greater detail.

No comments: