"America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age" film poster (Image courtesy 217 Films)
I caught up by phone with independent documentary filmmaker Michael Maglaras about his latest project with Executive Producer Terri Templeton of 217 Films. He’d finished editing “America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age” around midnight the previous evening at his Connecticut studio. It’ll be ready for a world premiere in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Friday, Jan. 20, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased here.
Maglaras has brought other films to Richmond, notably, “Enough to Live On: Arts of the WPA” and “The Great Confusion: The 1913 Armory Show.” "America Rising," Maglaras says, he’s thought about making for a decade.
“And as happens, this project sat there and sat there,” he says, in a lustrous voice that comes from an extensive background in opera, “and then I realized in an epiphany that we were nearing the 100th anniversary of the First World War.” The United States, at first a neutral bystander with a president who vowed to keep the nation out of a European conflict that augured no direct existential threat to the country, entered the war in 1917. Unrestricted submarine warfare that sank the ocean liner Lusitania with Americans aboard, but also the threat to unrecoverable U.S. foreign investments, amped up the pressure to send our military and its auxiliaries “over there.” The war we at first said we didn’t want to get into killed 116,000 Americans.
What concerns Maglaras here, though, is the milieu and subtext of the culture that walked up the gangways and onto the ships and off to the slaughter in France.
He explains, “In the 45 years between the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the death of Mark Twain in 1910, America came into its own as an economic and political power, and just as importantly as an artistic force. In painting, in literature and in sculpture, no period in the history of American art was more fertile or more meaningful, and therefore more relevant to Americans today.”
Here in Richmond, the Civil War seems (and literally is) closer to us — the trenches of Petersburg more real than those in Flanders. Though the national cataclysm in which Richmond became the crucible was just two long lifetimes ago, the Great War is more recent. The Carillon was built to honor the sacrifices made during 1917-1918.
Not far from the Carillon, by the Byrd Park tennis courts, a flagpole installed by the American Legion has on its pedestal plaques memorializing the names of the city’s World War I dead.
Maglaras, who is 67, remembers how as a youngster he watched veterans of 1917-1918 marching in parades. For his third birthday in New Hampshire he sat in the lap of a Confederate veteran who’d enlisted as a bugler at age 12. “He was touring state fairs and charging people three bucks to get a picture with him,” he chuckles. “And he had his wife in tow. But this demonstrates how in the lives of the people who’ll come to the hall on Friday, that this time period remains quite alive in them. We are products of the Gilded Age.”
Many of the artists active in “The Gilded Age” continued working through World War I. One was painter Winslow Homer, and Maglaras argues that Homer isn’t just a genre painter of rural life and ocean rescues. “He was one of the finest painters America has ever produced," he says. Homer’s “The Veteran in a New Field,” when seen in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, carries a palpable sense of loss and survivor’s grief. A former soldier, the subject of the painting has cast aside his wool service jacket because he’s worked up a sweat cutting wheat with a scythe. Not long ago, this man would’ve marched through fields like this one and come under fire and feared for his life while he also sought to end the the lives of others. His back is turned to us. But he labors on the new crop and thus toward the future, uncertain as it may be.
"The Veteran in a New Field" by Winslow Homer, 1865 (Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot [1876–1967], 1967)
“I wanted to show the ultimate American paradox,” Maglaras says, “that at a time of this recovery from the Civil War, and growing as a force in the world and dominated by great commercial forces — we were also producing art of great importance.”
The film is premiering in Richmond for several reasons. “For our films, we’ve had the most magnificent turnout at the VMFA," Maglaras says. "There’s such a widespread support for that institution that when Terri and I were sorting through world premiere locations, we said, 'No, let’s do it in Richmond.' "
And a major component of that decision is the McGlothlin Collection, which has many of the Gilded Age artists represented. including its rock stars, John Singer Sargent, Frederick Childe Hassam and Mary Cassatt. "The McGlothlin Collection is an amazing group of works that demands repeat visits,” Maglaras says. “So it’s the ideal place to premier this film.”
Maglaras and Templeton enjoy traveling with their films because of the engagement with audiences. They want to hear what people think of what they've just seen. And Richmonders are enthusiastic and ask good questions.
The premiere is also on the evening of the presidential inauguration, a date chosen with discernment. John Singer Sargent, who spent much of his adult life abroad, and made a living painting the wealthy elites of his day and his friends desporting themselves in sun-drenched languor, couldn’t have anticipated the gruesome end of the era with which he is most associated. His massive “Gassed” is derived from being an eyewitness to the aftermath of a poison gas attack in France. He was 62, and there on service to the British government. Sargent was out of his environment, but the work is heroic in scope yet awful in its violence and demonstrates the incomprehensible waste of the war.
Those lazy Sunday afternoons of the Gilded Age are over, and we live now in the long shadows gathering at dusk.