Mrs. Chamberlain’s art collection from The Gilded Age series

Did it really belong to her real-life character?

HBO’s key project of the beginning of 2022, The Gilded Age by the Downtown Abbey star series writer Julian Fellows proved to be a success and was immediately extended for the second season (more to come, we may assume).

Perhaps, it owes its wide popularity not only to the exuberant costumes and lavish mansions that make every episode a visual pleasure for the eyes but also to the oddly attractive fact, that the majority of the main characters are actually loosely (and sometimes, rather precisely) based on real-life people and their life events that shaped America and it’s social and economic development at the edge of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The mysterious Mrs. Chamberlain, an immodestly rich widow ostracised by New York’s ton is one of those heroines.

The series portrays her as a visionary art collector — an array of first-class artworks by her then-controversial and now-household-name contemporaries is richly sprinkled by producers and decorators around her lavish mansion.

Yet could she or her real-life prototype really own those pieces of art?

In this article, I shall identify all the main artworks spotted in her Fifth Avenue house and trace their provenance history (line of ownership) from the time of creation until today.

By the way, if you enjoy watching movies that are filled with art, have a look at my extensive list of the best films on the topic. You’ll find some nice art- and artists-inspired movies and series selection for your evening in style.

An Homage to Arabella Huntington

Indeed, looks like the character and life trajectory of Sylvia Chamberlain were inspired by the remarkable Arabella Huntington (1851–1924), an American philanthropist once known as the richest woman in the country.

A really nice write-up in Vogue summarises, that like Chamberlin, Huntington was the second wife to an extremely wealthy American industrialist, Collis Huntington. Their love story was a complicated and, at the time, controversial one: she married Huntington nine months after his first wife died of cancer. “The newlyweds moved to Fifth Avenue, but even that address could not overcome Arabella’s mysterious past and Huntington’s ruthless dealings — notable even in that rapacious age. The Astors and Vanderbilts barred them from New York society,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Like Chamberlin, the new Mrs. Huntington also had a son born out of wedlock.

Another trait that unites both ladies is their impeccable taste in arts. During her lifetime, Arabella assembled an impressive collection of paintings, jewelry, antiques, and other luxury items.

The San Marino estate gallery in California, pictured above, with Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings, French gilded bronzes and inlaid furniture, was railroad magnate Henry Huntington’s tribute to his late wife, Arabella. Photo: Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

And here comes the first major difference between the two — Huntington was particularly interested in Old Masters (that’s how they typically call painters who were born in the period until the end of the 18th century) while the walls of the house of her fictional alter ego Mrs. Chamberlain are taken by the masters of the 19th-century Realism and her contemporary Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

This way, there is no chance the artworks featured in the series did really belong to Arabella. Yet could they’ve (at least theoretically) been part of the large collection of Mrs. Chamberlain?

By the way, what is your preferred art style, genre, or period? While art-infused series is a perfect starting point to your personal journey of art history discovery, I invite you to continue the exploration with my Smart Art — Art History Escape app, created for art lovers like you.

Famous Paintings spotted in the Gilded Age Series

The series’ events take places in the booming New York of the 1880s.

One of the first paintings an art lover immediately spots in the drawing-room of Mrs. Chamberlain is the signature ballet piece by the French Edgar Degas (1834–1917).

The Dancing Class was painted by the artist in about 1870. It exchanged hands of dealers and private collectors from Paris and London up until 1916 when it finally ended up in New York within the illustrious H. O. Havemeyer Collection which was then bequeathed to The MET Museum in 1929.

Interestingly, much of Arabella Huntington’s collection, in fact, was later given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art too.

This way, yes, theoretically, this piece could’ve been owned by Mrs. Chamberlain, but in reality, it did travel overseas much later than The Gilded Age series events unfold.

Another picture on the easel in the spacious drawing room is the work by the French Camille Corot (1796–1875) again, from the present collection of The MET. The Curious Little Girl was painted between 1860 and 1864 and presumably features Emma Dobigny, who later became Corot’s favourite model.

Already in 1891, it was sent across the Atlantic to a private collector in Montreal and then moved permanently to New York in 1965.

Another piece that could’ve been part of Mrs. Chamberlain’s collection, though, perhaps, in the second season, when we all move on to the 1890s.

This is another monumental Corot — his Forest of Fontainebleau from 1834. This piece belonged to a couple of Parisian art collectors before it was sold to an American banker Chester Dale. This happened only in 1934 and soon after his death in 1962, the painting was transferred to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. according to his bequest.

Dale lived in a large apartment in the Plaza Hotel near Central Park in New York and kept his extensive collection of the French Realists and Impressionists, whom he was particularly fond of.

His taste in art is fully shared by the fictional Mrs. Chamberlain.

This screenshot features three immediately recognisable works of art.

The first one is another Degas — a brilliant and particularly famous sculpture of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen executed by the artist sometime in 1878–81.

A meter-tall (38 15/16 in) statue from beeswax and clay with a metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton faille bodice, cotton and silk tutu, and linen slippers was the only sculpture that Degas would ever exhibit in public.

Hated by raging critics, it still remained one of the artist’s most beloved works of art.

One contemporary reviewer even called it a “terrible reality.”

Degas never sold it (perhaps, he didn’t even have such an intention) and it was inherited by his children and remained in France until 1955. This way, it had zero chance to land in Mrs. Chamberlain’s hall in the 1880s.

Purchased by Paul Mellon in 1956, it was bequeathed to NGA in 1999.

Right behind the statuette, there is a tall full-length portrait of A Venetian Woman — apparently a reproduction of the work by and an American fashionable society portraitist John Singer Sargent (1856–1925).

He painted his model during his second stay in Venice back in 1882. Apparently, Sargent planned to show it at the annual Paris Salon, though ultimately did not submit it.

Mrs. Chamberlain could’ve been right on target to secure this piece to her collection immediately after its completion.

In reality, the ownership path is rather obscure. The Cincinnati Art Museum doesn’t unfold the complete provenance of the picture and only attributes its credit line to The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial.

Another large canvas was hiding in the back of the above-featured scene. It is a huge scene of Paris Street; Rainy Day painted by another French master Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894) back in 1877.

This masterpiece dominated the celebrated Impressionist exhibition of 1877, largely organised by Caillebotte himself, who (thanks to his privileged financial circumstances) was one of the major sponsors of the movement and a caring patron to his fellow Impressionists. This way, Caillebotte had no need to actively sell his pieces and he used to keep most of them to himself or present them as a gift to friends.

This picture remained with the artist until his death and was kept in France with his descendants until the 1950s. It was then sold to New-York based Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. and after that, in 1964, landed in the Art Institute of Chicago where it has been hanging in the gallery’s permanent collection ever since.

In other words, this marvellous cityscape had no chance to appear on the wall of Mrs. Chamberlain’s mansion in the 1880s.

This painting is almost a mystery piece that was hard to crack, I shall confess (I even had to crop it out and ask AI to help me with the visual search, and nope, Google image search didn’t help).

It belongs to the hand of a lesser-known French painter Jean-Jacques Henner (1829–1905). A Bather (Echo), is one of his signature nude pieces, which is now in the collection of The MET (though in storage and not on display).

Why did the series producers choose this rather ordinary piece of art?

Perhaps, because it was commissioned in 1881 by an American philanthropist and art collector Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, a great patron of contemporary French painting and of the Metropolitan as a replica of a well-known composition of the same year now in the Musée national Jean-Jacques Henner, Paris.

This way, it became another nod to the American women patrons of art of the Gilded Age. Mrs. Chamberlain is by all means representing one of them.

And here is another super-famous Caillebotte. His Skiffs from 1877 are now hanging in the Main Floor Gallery of the NGA in Washington D.C.

Just like the above-mentioned Paris cityscape, this picture has been kept within the artist’s family even after his death and was purchased by the Mellons only in 1966. Nineteen years later they would present it as a gift to the museum.

Last, but not least, is this exquisite Woman with a Parasol — Madame Monet and Her Son painted by the crowd-favourite artist (and happy husband and proud father) Claude Monet (1840–1926) in 1875.

The spontaneity and naturalness of the unconventional portrait were praised when it appeared in the Second Impressionist exhibition in 1876. No wonder it was immediately purchased by admirers and changed numerous French owners until purchased by the Mellon family in the second part of the 20th century and transferred to the USA.

Could’ve Mrs. Chamberlain be the first to negotiate the deal with Monet on such a desired piece? It’s up to you to judge!

And finally, there is a really challenging whodunnit for the savviest art connoisseurs.

Could you identify those two pieces on both sides of the wall with the fireplace?

They look like some Corot landscapes typical to Barbizon school, don’t they? Please, if you happen to have an idea, let me know, and I’ll add that to this article with due credit to you!

My name is Marina Viatkina and I am an art history writer and collecting advisor. You may read my other art-related articles, watch videos or reach out to discuss this blog and address your art enquiries here or on my website marinaviatkina.com.

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Marina Viatkina

Marina Viatkina

Art | History Writer & Collecting Advisor → marinaviatkina.com | Founder of Smart Art — Art History Escape app → getsmartart.com