The New York Years
The Upper East Side has long been home to “social” New York, but it’s also where you’ll find Museum Mile–a stretch of Fifth Avenue that holds the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and (tucked at the north end of Central Park), the Museum of the City of New York. Tasked with celebrating the city’s diversity and “perpetual transformation,” this gem of a museum recently mounted an exhibit that looks at the work of 20th-century photographer and artist, Cecil Beaton, and his extraordinary career in New York. Along the way, the show offers proof of the power of glamour, and the transformative effect it can have on portraitist, subject and viewer alike.
Beaton first came to New York in 1928, but he maintained alliances within the city’s elite social circles from the Jazz Age through the 1980s. Over the years, the stylized British dandy could be seen hobnobbing with society hostesses like Mona Bismarck and Diana Vreeland. Through these personal connections, Beaton also gained access to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars–including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn–whose portraits are displayed in small groups (an ode to each goddess) throughout the exhibit.
Beaton’s subjects were typically dressed by a distinguished fashion house (Balenciaga, Charles James and Lanvin were favorites), and were often shown in elaborate settings Beaton was very likely to have created himself. Many of his portraits appeared in Vogue, where he was a contributor (until a deliberate anti-Semitic scribble in one of his illustrations led to his dismissal).
Beaton is justifiably famous for having won a Tony Award for his costumes in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady; and, in 1964, he went on to win two Academy Awards, for both costumes and sets, for the film version of the same. But Beaton was also celebrated as a designer for the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet, and examples of this work are on display, including “ancient” Chinese gowns created for the opera Turandot (1961), and some original costumes (from La Traviata) that date to the Metropolitan Opera’s opening season at Lincoln Center.
The exhibit is expertly done and clearly laid out, making it easy to see how Beaton took elements of high art, high fashion and grand living; combined them with popular culture; and created a dynamic that was rarely attempted (and rarely successful) in Beaton’s era and milieu. Thanks to Cecil Beaton: The New York Years, you can follow this remarkable career from its origins in photographs and sketches (shown in vintage Vogue magazines), to the costumes that propelled him to fame. It’s a lesson in fashion history that also serves as a chic introduction to the Museum of the City of New York!
All photographs courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
- Museum of the City of New York
- 1220 Fifth Ave.
- New York, NY 10029
- +1 212 534 1672