CRAVING FOR NATURE Tiffany's 'Favrile Cup.'

Romantic craving for nature perhaps reaches its apogee in sexy, turn of the 20th century Tiffany glass vases resembling shimmering flowers and a stupendous 1903 silver, wood, and mother-of-pearl lady’s writing table and chair by Providence’s Gorham Manufacturing Company. It’s decorated with ravishing swirling patterns of flowers and vines punctuated by silver heads at the tops of the legs and an owl under a mirror. Wildness is no longer threatening. It’s something pure and beautiful and lost — something we’re forever trying to recapture.

Portraits didn’t totally disappear. Frank W. Benson’s sugary sweet 1909 painting Summer depicts white women in crisp white gowns on a hillside overlooking the Maine shore. The style is American Impressionism, which tends to be a showy, shallow version of French Impressionism. Benson, a Boston painter, scrapes the pigment on thick like cake frosting.

Here Benson’s daughters and a niece represent the Gibson girl American ideal of that era — fresh, sporty, optimistic, confident. Three of the women sit in the grass, but one stands, as sturdy as the figurehead of a ship, shading her eyes as she gazes into the sun. She seems to be staring into the bright future of the modern, industrial “American Century” ahead.
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