Amassing a prized collection of friends and loved ones is part of our everyday life. The practiced poses of our acquaintances, displayed in jpeg albums, are subject to our friendship approval at the click of a button. Though a new phrase, social networking is hardly a new concept, and visual records of cliquey curation date back hundreds of years to the likes of King Louis XIV and King Ludwig I. Housed in the Nymphemburg Palace in Munich, King Ludwig’s Gallery of Beauties features 36 portraits of, in his opinion, the most beautiful women in Germany between 1827 and 1850. Such collections were commonplace among elite men, whose personas attracted women of exceptional beauty. An exhibition at the New-York Historical Society features one such collection from Peter Marié, a gentleman who continues to entertain historians and spark a healthy debate.
Born into a life of privilege, Peter Marié took over the family business and amassed a fortune in the New York City mercantile industry, retiring in 1865 at the age of 40. He remained a lifelong bachelor, often marginalized and even derided in major newspapers as an opponent to the sanctity of marriage. While the newspapers attempted to rationalize his life choices, Marié was an ever-welcomed guest at balls, dinners and society outings. “His life as a bachelor suited him,” stated his obituary in The New York Times. “It was the custom for men to marry young in the antebellum days, and Mr. Marié was one of the very few bachelors in town, who, although most gallant and most devoted to the fair sex, was content with his own lot, and who lived in a house of his own and entertained as a bachelor host.”
No one could resist an invitation to dine at Marié’s house in lower Manhattan. Not only did his amiable personality make for good company, he was avid collector, filling his library with antiques, books and even illuminated manuscripts. Yet nothing compared to the buzz surrounding his collection of beauties. In 1889, Marié set out to memorialize the women whose beauty, in his eyes, was unparalleled. Initially, Marié thought to commission porcelain plates painted with the likeness of each woman, yet the process of glazing and firing the dishware proved too unreliable. Instead, he settled on small, cameo-like disks of ivory, which, when painted with watercolors, gave accurate, life-like coloration.
Marié hired painter Fernand Paillet, and set to scouring New York City for beauties. The woman who holds the distinction of Marié’s first beauty is Maude Adams, a stage actress famous for her Broadway debut role as Peter Pan. Wildly popular, Adams earned an unbelievable $20,000 a month, or about $480,000 in today’s terms. Rarely appearing in public, Adams may never have crossed paths with Marié. “My suspicion is that Peter Marié did not know her personally, but perhaps commissioned a miniature from a publicity photograph,” said Margaret K. Hofer, curator at the New-York Historical Society where Marié’s portraits are currently on display.
By 1895, Marié sought a new portrait artist, turning to the talents of husband-and-wife team, Carl A. and Fredrika Weidner. As an American-based duo, the artists provided greater opportunities for painting miniatures from real life, but often still relied on photos. Out of the 87 miniatures they painted, perhaps their most notable is of Mrs. Edwin Main Post. Dressed in a lace-like white gown with a domineering black hat, the portrait depicts a beautiful young woman whose real-life marriage was the stuff of tabloids. Her marriage ended in divorce after her husband’s affairs with every chorus girl in town became a public scandal. Yet Mrs. Post, whose first name was Emily, found ultimate revenge in publishing a book on etiquette in 1922. Her books are still thought to be the epitome of grace and good manners.
“The most engaging miniatures, in my opinion, are of sitters dressed for costume balls,” reflects Hofer. Requiring attendees to don lavish and creative costumes, dress balls were a fixture of Victorian-era social life. Marié’s presence at balls was practically a given; his desire to charm elegant young ladies was insatiable, which undoubtedly added more subjects to his portrait collection. In 1897, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley Martin threw a masquerade ball that fed the newspaper headlines for weeks. Mr. Martin dressed as Louis XV, while his wife went as Mary, Queen of Scots, donning a costume valued at more than $400,000. Marié’s collection features a miniature of Mrs. Bradley in costume, complete with a high, frilly lace collar and a tiara resting on her head. The newspapers slandered the couple, outraged that anyone could hold such an excessive affair during a nation-wide economic depression. The Bradleys escaped to England, removing themselves from the controversy.
Whether Marié’s subjects are beautiful will always be up for debate. The collection survives as an indispensable historical documentation of a specific time and place, reminding us that the definition of beauty is constantly in flux. But for a brief period of time, when Marié approached a woman and asked if she would sit for his portrait artist, it was the ultimate flattery, used as social currency for a ladder-climbing young woman. With a Zuckerberg-meets-Hefner persona, Marié proves that social curation and the drive for acceptance among peers is far older than the Internet, inciting women to strike their most favorable pose for ultimate posterity.
To view the portraits in person, visit the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.