Donate |Membership |FAQ | Volunteer | Jobs | Press Room | Contact Us | Join our Mailing List
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Keeping the Partridge Table

Previous Next

    Influencing Vizcaya

    The Gilded Age and Chinoiserie

    Presented by Nathaniel Sandler, Writer,
    with Gina Wouters, Curator

    Vizcaya is a prime example of the grand estates built by America’s wealthy during the Gilded Age, the span from the 1870s to the 1920s that comes to us with a dual legacy. The era takes its name from Mark Twain’s first novel, the social satire The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), co-written with Charles Dudley Warner. The novel depicts the period as one marked by corruption and greed, poorly camouflaged with a thin veneer of glitter. But the Gilded Age was also a transformative time of explosive industrial and economic growth that gave rise to America as a major player on the world’s stage.  

    Architecture and patronage of the arts flourished in these decades, a byproduct of economic development. America’s initial class of super-rich built mansions in places like Newport and Long Island (and, in the case of Vizcaya, Miami) and collected art, much of it European, to fill these new homes.

    It is generally accepted that the novel’s title—and therefore the name for the era—derives from Shakespeare’s lines: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,/…../Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”  However, there is a second possibility. Within the book itself the phrase “gilded age” is attributed to a Chinese maxim.  Oddly, one of the initial pages in the novel consists entirely of Chinese characters. The phrase, according to the authors, may be “freely translated” as: “Two heads, working together, out of commonplace materials, bring THE GILDED AGE.” Whether the authors meant to link their notion of this time period in America specifically to China is unclear, especially given that they open every chapter with different proverbs from all over the world. What is clear, however, is that the Chinese characters create a sense of mystery.

    We see a similar scenario of borrowing from the exotic, and China in particular, played out in Gilded Age interior design and its affinity for the chinoiserie style, of which Vizcaya has a prime example in its Cathay bedroom, located on the second floor of the Main House, next to the Main staircase.  The room is quaint, even cozy, and stepping into it transports the visitor to a different place entirely.

    Chinoiserie, French for “Chinese-esque,” is a broad term for a European style meant to reflect a fanciful vision of China. The technique thrived in England and Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the first large-scale chinoiserie-style interior design plan at Versailles. During the Gilded Age, America’s newly minted upper class typically looked to Europe for aesthetic guidance, and chinoiserie made the ocean crossing.

    The style was popularized in the United States by Elsie de Wolfe, credited as America’s first interior decorator. De Wolfe was well respected and incredibly influential. Her lineage feeds directly to Vizcaya, as does her liberal use of chinoiserie. James Deering, Vizcaya’s owner, initially approached de Wolfe to decorate his Chicago home. She referred the job to Paul Chalfin, an associate. He must have done a good job, as he was subsequently retained as Vizcaya’s artistic director, responsible for overseeing the creation of the estate.

    Chalfin was well-versed in the nuances of the chinoiserie style. Not only had he worked closely with de Wolfe, but he had been the Curator of the Department of Chinese and Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the early years of the century.

    In designing Vizcaya, Chalfin created themes for the rooms in the Main House and designed those rooms around elements such as furniture or other decorative features. The Cathay bedroom is one such example.

    In a March 27, 1917 document with the heading, “The Symbols employed at Vizcaya,” Chalfin explains the themes of many of the named rooms. Of the Cathay bedroom he writes: “Cathay is chosen for a room obviously designed in Venice in a manner supposedly Chinese. The generic name for China, used in a vague way during the 18th Century, was Cathay.”

    The room’s focal point is a suite of painted wooden furniture acquired in Venice. While it was sold as a unit, the suite is clearly cobbled together from pieces that are believed by experts to be of late eighteenth century, primarily Italian origin. The items include a bed frame, two mirrors, two small cabinets/side tables that held chamber pots in Deering’s time, two lamps, and a secretary desk that is a market piece, meaning it was assembled by the dealer from various other pieces.

    Each piece is adorned with vaguely Asian decorations—flowers, birds and sages of no apparent meaning. Some of the pieces were altered after purchase, many by Chalfin himself. Though today we would cringe at this approach, it was a common interior decorating practice at the time. We know Chalfin transformed the lamps, adding parasol tops to match the canopy fixture, and he changed the appearance of the bed with bedding and new drapery. There is some suggestion he changed other pieces in the room through varnish and paint, as was his practice for many of the items at Vizcaya.

    The bed is spectacular, draped luxuriously in a silk-blend canopy dramatically suspended from a fixture attached to the wall, resulting in “a Venetian idea of a Chinese bed,” according to Chalfin. The elaborate tassels are a stellar finishing touch and were contemporary additions to the canopy, commissioned by Chalfin and designed by the influential writer, decorator and society hostess Muriel Draper.

    While chinoiserie is the theme in the Cathay bedroom, many additional examples of the style are integrated throughout the Main House. Chalfin sought to infuse an element of Asian exoticism through these objects, with China as a suggestion rather than a prevalent idea. (Appealing as the notion of China was, at the time of Vizcaya’s creation the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was in effect, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers.) 

    The Cathay bedroom suite was purchased from Dino Barozzi, a Venice-based arts and antiquities dealer and a count from one of Venice’s most established aristocratic families. He was Vizcaya’s primary supplier of Italian items; the museum’s archives include correspondence written in his hand. Barozzi had “a rather unusual pedigree for an art dealer; he was active between the 1890s and World War I, very prominent, always based in Venice with an important international clientele,” according to Flaminia Gennari Santori, a former curator at Vizcaya. Much like Deering, Barozzi spent a good deal of his life working on a beautiful home filled with fascinating objects, the fifteenth-century Palazzo Soranzo-Van Axel in Venice.

    Records of the pieces purchased from Barozzi are found in Vizcaya’s purchase ledger, a fascinating leather tome compiled during the house’s construction. The records include the name, price, style and location of every piece Deering bought for Vizcaya and for his home in Chicago. Thus, we know that the Cathay bedroom suite was purchased in 1914 for 8,000 lire, or $1,544, in a transaction handled by Chalfin.

    The chinoiserie found within the walls of Vizcaya did not go unnoticed by the design world.  Vizcaya’s archives include a 1918 letter to Chalfin from Richard F. Bach, Editor of Good Furniture in which he wrote: “I am writing to ask whether you have available any photographs of your executed work showing the Chinese taste, and if you would permit me to use such photographs to illustrate an article on the Chinese motif in decoration.” Further investigation reveals that Chalfin penned an article on the style that appeared in the magazine’s August 1918 issue, in which we learn that his liberal hand with chinoiserie was not reserved for clients; he speaks of the chinoiserie in his own apartment in New York and the importance of using the style to thematically join various elements in a room.

    One can argue that the chinoiserie at Vizcaya and the Chinese text that fronts The Gilded Age are related—in both cases, these elements lend an exoticism and perhaps a sense of worldly sophistication. Despite any similarities, it’s a safe guess that the authors of The Gilded Age would not have warmed to Deering. As Vice President of International Harvester, he was a wealthy industrialist, producer and product of the Gilded Age that they skewered.

    It’s interesting, though, that the novel and Vizcaya share additional commonalities. The Gilded Age was a collaboration and celebrated itself as such, both with its prominent placement of a Chinese proverb that extols collaboration (“two heads, working together”) and the authors’ emphasis in the Preface: “There is scarcely a chapter that does not bear the marks of the two writers of the book.” Similarly, Vizcaya was nothing if not a collaboration, the joint creation of Deering, Chalfin, the estate’s architect, Francis Burrall Hoffman, Jr., and its landscape architect, Diego Suarez.

    The similarities continue—the proverbs that precede each chapter in The Gilded Age can be read as similar to Vizcaya’s aesthetic of borrowing with abandon from an eclectic mix of places and times. The authors’ chapter headings, plucked from many countries and historic periods, are “attractive scraps of literature” meant to “pleasantly inflame the reader’s interest without wholly satisfying his curiosity,” according to the authors.

    These same words could easily apply to the spirit of appropriation that is so integral to Vizcaya.

    --January 2015

    For more information on the series “Keeping the Partridge Table,” contact