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The “Bachelor Aesthetes” who Redefined American Interiors

Jun 6, 2024

Meet four pathbreaking interior decorators from prominent New England families whose queerness defied social norms and defined American style in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This summer, Historic New England invites visitors into the private world of four captivating bachelors—men whose homes defined American style from the Gilded to the Jazz Age, yet whose personal lives have until recently remained mostly in shadow: gambler-collector-dealer Charles Leonard Pendleton (1846-1904), renowned designer Ogden Codman Jr. (1863-1951), writer Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr. (1874-1954), and interior decorator Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934). 

Each of these New England designer-collectors came of age when, for the first time in the modern era, the bachelor household had become an aspirational domestic model—a marked shift from the previous generation, which had believed the American home’s highest and even exclusive goal was to support family life. This development not only introduced a wider range of possibilities for non-traditional households, but it also led to a newfound fascination with interior design and individual expression in their own right—a phenomenon clearly seen in the wide range of styles these men adopted, both in their own homes and in others’. All four practiced professional interior decoration, and two in particular—Codman and Sleeper—shaped the emerging field in important ways. 

The elevation of the bachelor household may be directly traced to Oscar Wilde. During his extraordinarily popular, year-long American lecture tour in 1882, the writer professed the Aesthetic Movement’s “art-for-art’s-sake” credo. Insisting that artistic creativity should be divorced from moral purpose, Wilde claimed that beauty constituted an end unto itself. Translated to the realm of domestic design (Wilde’s most frequently delivered lecture in 1882 was “The House Beautiful”), this message sought to replace the home’s traditional aims—to nurture children and inculcate Christian virtue—with the presumably higher calling of individual artistic expression. Pendleton, Codman, Gibson, and Sleeper were the very men Wilde had in mind: acolytes of beauty whose collections, homes, and even whose very persons exemplified his decree that “the secret of life is art.” 

Codman was himself so enamored of eighteenth-century style, beginning with his ancestral Lincoln home, that he codified its principles in the authoritative 1897 treatise he co-authored with Edith Wharton, The Decoration of Houses. Drawn both to Yankee simplicity and Continental excess, Codman developed his successful decorating style by reconciling these seemingly opposing approaches; though generally conservative in his approach, he insisted that any false element in decoration (a faux finish, a dummy window) was acceptable as long as it provided visual pleasure. Through a wide collection of furnishings, plans, and personal materials from the Codman Estate and Historic New England’s Codman Family Papers, visitors to the exhibition will learn how the renowned designer’s family home served as his first design laboratory, emotional touchstone, and primary legacy — and also how the opposing figures of his patrician and rakish ancestors informed his signature style. 

At Beauport, one of the best known of Historic New England’s properties – and certainly, one of the most widely published houses in America – Sleeper orchestrated beauty in a surprising range of forms. Using color, line, scale, pattern, and visual humor, he disregarded historical accuracy to achieve powerful visual effects. At the Eustis Estate galleries the nature of these strategies will be distilled to a dazzling collection of Beauport artifacts; even those familiar with the house will see new juxtapositions that illuminate Sleeper’s decorating strategies, and important objects that, given the house’s wonderfully distracting variety, have sometimes been overlooked. Here, too, visitors will consider the personal connections that drove Beauport’s development, a circle that included collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, painter Cecilia Beaux, and the dashing financial scholar and politician, A. Piatt Andrew, Beauport’s primary muse. 

The Importance of Being Furnished: Four Bachelors at Home presents a unique opportunity to see the New England home in a new context. Many of the Historic New England artifacts on display have never been seen outside their properties or the Historic New England archives, and none of the loan objects from RISD or the Gibson House Museum have traveled before. Together, this constellation of works illuminates an underexamined story in the history of American interior design, all within the walls of a historic home that is, itself, an important example of Aesthetic Movement design. Wilde himself could not have chosen a more appropriate venue. 

The Importance of Being Furnished: Four Bachelors at Home exhibition is open June 21 through October 27, 2024, at the Eustis Estate in Milton, Massachusetts. This blog post is excerpted from an article by guest curator  R. Tripp Evans in the Winter 2024 issue of Historic New England magazine. Evans is a Professor of Art History at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, where he specializes in American material culture and historic preservation. Historic New England’s exhibition is drawn from Evans’s book of the same title, a full-color examination of the four homes and their creators published by Rowman & Littlefield this month.

Portriat Details ( Click Here)
  • Wallace Bryant, Henry Davis Sleeper (1906). Oil on canvas (60 7/8” x 66 1/4” x 2 1/4”). Gift of Stephen Sleeper.
  • Thomas Newbold Codman, Ogden Codman Jr. (1887).
  •  Portrait of Charles Leonard Pendleton (c. 1861). Ambrotype with hand tinting (1 7/8” x 1 3/8”). Gift of Fred Stewart Greene, 04.1466. Courtesy RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.
  •  James E. Purdy, Charles Hammond Gibson Jr. (1904). Gibson House Museum, Boston, Massachusetts.