|Description: ||Signed at lower left: "Benjamin Gilman. 91."|
Exhibited: Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, Pennsylvania Building, 1893, no. 85, as "A Connoisseur."
Benjamin Ferris Gilman was a native of New York whose mother Julia Ferris Gilman had taught elementary drawing classes at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art). In 1877 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, whose faculty included Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) and Christian Schussele (1824–1879). There he met his future wife Claudine Scott (1853–1901) of Steubenville, Ohio. Shortly after the couple married in 1878, they went to Paris. Benjamin entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study under Henri Lehmann (1819–1882), Jean-Leon Gerome (1824–1904), and Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), and exhibited at the Paris Salon between 1880 and 1882. Claudine attended the private atelier Academie Julian, and eventually became a pupil of Carolus-Duran (1838–1917) and of his colleague Jean-Jacques Henner (1829–1905).
The Gilmans returned to Philadelphia late in 1882 and began to exhibit regularly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Benjamin became a portraitist and still life painter, and exhibited at the academy until 1900. Little is known of his later life, other than that he painted landscapes in northern Italy in 1920. Claudine, who became a specialist in floral still life, ceased contributing to the academy’s exhibitions after 1891. Although surprisingly little information on the Gilmans survives, they were significant figures in the late nineteenth-century Philadelphia art world.1
A decade after Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly opened Japanese ports to foreign trade in 1853, European and American artists became fascinated to the point of obsession with Far Eastern objets d’art and costume. This interest in Japan, a phenomenon known by the French term Japonisme, inspired James McNeil Whistler (1834–1903), Claude Monet (1840–1926), and William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), among many others, to paint full-length images of women dressed in kimonos surrounded by Japanese, and occasionally Chinese, art and crafts. Gilman’s A Connoisseur Fantasia participates in this tradition by representing a model in an embroidered red Chinese silk costume posing amid objects that are recognizably Chinese. Certainly the painting invites comparison with Claude Monet’s famous La Japonaise (1876, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which shows the artist’s wife Camille cavorting in a red kimono. But as Gilman’s title suggests, the emphasis here is on aestheticism and connoisseurship, as the vaguely oriental looking model thoughtfully inspects a small polychrome figurine amidst a profusion of chinoiserie. Whistler had painted a number of similar genre subjects between 1863 and 1864, the best point of comparison being Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks (1864, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Yet another possible source of inspiration may have been Chase’s large pastel Spring Flowers (Peonies) (c. 1889, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago), in which a model is attired in a red kimono.
A label fragment that remains attached to the original oak frame indicates that A Connoisseur Fantasia was exhibited at the architect Thomas P. Lonsdale’s Pennsylvania Building (a replica of Independence Hall) during the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.2 These subsidiary exhibitions were designed to showcase the industry, resources, and arts of each state, and are not to be confused with the event’s main art exhibition, where Gilman is known to have exhibited a portrait.
1. For biographical information on the Gilmans see Robert W. Torchia, The Gilmans [exh. cat. Schwarz Gallery] (Philadelphia, 1996). 2. This is confirmed in Catalogue of the Exhibits of the State of Pennsylvania and of Pennsylvanians at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Harrisburg: Clarence M. Busch, 1893), p. 21.
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