Through gradual public acceptance of once controversial “modern” styles, the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th marked the final decline of the long-standing struggle between the formalized academicism expoused by such institutions as France’s École des Beaux-Arts and the possibilities for expression offered by such movements as impressionism. For some European and American artists, the great wealth of the “gilded age” of the late 19th century helped support their work, elevating the role of artists in a variety of media to a new celebrity status. For others, the challenges presented in their work would offer little immediate recognition, but would provide them and their colleagues with new directions in establishing ever newer means of visual expression. The subject matter, whether reflecting images of the wealthy, the energy and turmoil of city life, or ideal visions of the vanishing landscape, took on new significance in their work. In the same period, both the simple and the excessive could be truly seen as valuable expressions of the era.
Following the impressionists’ first exhibition in 1874, painters throughout Europe and American gradually began to take note of this seemingly new approach to the depiction of light and color. For artists such as John Twachtman and William Merritt Chase, American artists studying at the Munich Academy during the 1870s, the impressionists’ loose brushwork, flat compositions, and shimmering tones would have a profound effect upon their future works. Chase, a highly influential teacher of art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, achieved great success with his portraits of American society, in much the same manner as his contemporary, John Singer Sargent. Chase’s portraits of Columbians Dr. B. Walter Taylor and Marianne Heyward Taylor were produced in 1902 as a result of his winter trips to the South. The Taylor’s daughter, Anna Heyward, would study with Chase in 1903 and become a well-known artist in her own right.
The supreme achievement of the 19th century fascination with nature is most evident in the works of France’s Art Nouveau style. This style, influenced by sources including Japanese art and symbolist works, reveled in the use of opulent materials and bold ornamentation. The unusual massing and balanced platforms of Louis Majorelle’s armoire are but one aspect of its form which indicates its associations with the asymmetry of Japanese designs and Art Nouveau. The elaborate marquetry scenes of birds and flowers, surmounted by a carved, life-sized cat reflect a playful quality to the work, intended to create a fantastic environment from a single piece of furniture. In all such works, from architecture to the smallest objects, the use of common elements such as carved or inlaid flowers or plants, both naturalistic and stylized, would help form a unifying theme for the homes in which the style flourished in the first years of the 20th century. However, by 1915 and the advent of World War I, the attitudes which formed and supported such work had vanished in the face of the realities of a modern world, and the achievements of artists such as Majorelle were quickly forgotten.