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by Robert Moeller
Diane Sachko Macleod, Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects. American Women Collectors and the Making of Culture 1800-1940, University of California Press, 328 pp., $45.

Noel Daniel, ed., The Circus, 1870-1950, Taschen, 670 pp., $200.

There are rallying cries and then there are rallying cries. "The home is the center of life, and if we can take art into the homes and then through the homes into the neighborhoods, and then from one neighborhood into another, we shall soon make our whole city beautiful." Naïve? Well, perhaps. But given that these words were spoken in 1910 by the president of the Chicago’s Woman’s Club, one can easily excuse her of any excess bravado.

Dianne Sachko Macleod certainly does, and with good reason. The author of Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects. American Women Collectors and the Making of Culture, 1800-1940, Macleod points out that at least four of New York’s major museums -- the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Cooper-Hewitt -- were founded, in large part, by women.

But that is closer to the end of the story than the beginning.

Eliza Bowen Jumel (1775-1865) first exhibited her collection of paintings in 1817. It was a decidedly European collection, but the gesture itself was fundamentally American. Jumel, already divorced from Aaron Burr, was at the time suffering some criticism and worrisome doubts about her character, about which she cared not a bit. One of the most colorful characters of revolutionary America, Jumel began as a prostitute and married upward, eventually becoming a wealthy woman, whose home is now a public museum, the Palladian-style Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights.

Macleod says that the exhibition of Jumel’s collection at New York’s Academy of Fine Arts, then located on the north side of City Hall Park and housing as well the New-York Historical Society, marks "a milestone in the history of American culture." And well it should. At least half of the 229 works in her collection were put on view, and the exhibition garnered extraordinary attention. Macleod casts Jumel’s desire to enter the public realm in a feminist light, but the attempt is not altogether convincing, since few collectors of either sex had made much of a mark in America at the time. More notable than her gender is the fact that she was inclined to such an enterprise at all.

And here, some trouble arises. Macleod, Professor Emerita of Art History at the University of California, Davis, brings an interdisciplinary approach to her subject, which, while interesting, commits the reader to a certain amount of academic drudgery. Macleod, at times, can’t seem to resist adding a crushing weight to her prose. These learned bangles, used with some restraint, might shimmer. Used in excess, they tend to blind the reader.

Still, with some patience, an interesting and largely untold story unfolds.

The book races through history and touches upon some of America’s wealthiest families. Edith Rockefeller McCormick (1872-1932), the daughter of Standard Oil scion John Rockefeller Sr., was the wealthiest woman in America in the 1920s, and her tastes ran toward "Rococo tapestries, old English silver, Aubusson carpets, and objets d’art patinaed with age." Her focus on decorative refinement accompanied a white-gloved attention to progressive causes that raised the public’s awareness of her as both art patron and benefactor.

She had an imperial fascination with Marie Antoinette, which apparently was not uncommon among upper-class women at the time. This misguided nostalgia, coupled with an extravagant budget and abundant self-indulgence, produced decorative brilliance but little in the way of true artistic merit.

Macleod wrangles Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) into place and, despite some awkward sexual formulations involving Pablo Picasso exploring his "queer desire" and a listless revisiting of Stein’s lesbianism, rightly positions her, along with her brother Leo, at the forefront of the 20th-century avant-garde.

Seeing Stein parsed like this is enlightening. It’s easy to forget how intrinsic a figure she was, despite our familiarity with her. Stein’s salon was an important destination for many American women traveling the continent -- notably Clarbel and Etta Cone, but many others -- and that destination was a jumping-off point that was critical to cultural developments to come later.

In all, Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects, American Women Collectors and the Making of Culture, 1800-1940 is a valuable addition to our belated understanding of the crucial role that women played outside the studio and inside the museum. One only wishes that this story was told with a little more verve.

There are women collectors. . . and than there are collections of women. Take, for example, Madame Giradelli, "The Celebrated Fireproof Woman," or "The Pig Faced Lady," actually a freshly shaven bear wearing a dress.  Or how about "Maggie Udder in Her Titillating Incomparable Achievement," which seemed to consist of balancing herself upside down upon her breast while it rested in a vase. Titillating, indeed. There is, too, Carlotta, "The Lady with The Steel Teeth," and ZaZel, "The Human Projectile."

These resplendent women, all circus performers, once captured the American public’s attention and, frankly, it’s not hard to see why. As Noel Daniel in her introduction to The Circus 1870-1950 notes, "Long before the Beat poets made ‘on the road’ a generation’s rallying cry, circus performers personified the romance of the open road and the grit of individualism." This large-format book -- the size of a small headstone -- celebrates a time well before the tenets of political correctness and strangulated prissiness. Appetites were unbridled, and to some degree, indiscriminate. Stuffiness was out the door and an unschooled vibrancy took center stage.

Lavishly illustrated with posters and photographs, The Circus 1870-1950 provides a picture of the circus from every angle. Weegee leans into the audience and trains his camera on people’s upturned faces and sees the rapture and fear as some unseen performer twirls above them. Lisette Model sets a photograph of the legendary Wallendas in the dark heavens at the top of the tent, as the performers ride bikes across the high wire, with one balancing a chair upon which a man stands with a woman on his shoulders. Walker Evans’ work appears, too, with several shots of the black minstrel shows which were usually segregated outside the main tent.

What’s more interesting, however, are the many photographs documenting the performer’s lives between shows. Costumes flutter on clotheslines strung between tents and the back lot is alive with children playing alongside performing chimpanzees and acrobats practicing their routines in the open air.

This treasure trove of archival material is accompanied by several essays by Dominique Jando and Linda Granfield, which, along with the captions, are translated into both French and German. Jando’s essays are especially rich in detailing the minutia of circus life, and includes enough material to service even the longest running soap opera’s plot lines.

This oversized book is one of the few I’ve seen that merits its swollen dimensions. An amazing tableau unfolds as each page is turned. The circus gave rise to a gritty pioneer spirit that has mostly disappeared, and with it a hucksterism and abandon that was as charming as it was misleading. 

What these books share is the prominent role that women play in them. What they don’t share, however, is the same vitality. Macleod’s book tends to be academic and plodding, draining the life out of her subjects. Luckily, this mistake is not repeated in The Circus 1870-1950.

ROBERT MOELLER Is a writer and painter living in Cambridge, Mass.