At the Metropolitan Museum of Art this weekend I discovered Tea Leaves by William McGregor Paxton. It’s just gorgeous—and, sadly, like so many of the greats of his day, subtly exploited for propaganda purposes in the descriptive paragraph on the Met’s website. Gilded age figurative painters, with their absurd interest in irrelevancies like beauty, were aiding evil capitalist exploitation and treating women as objects.... Because beautiful women elegantly painted = sexist exploitation and oppression = capitalism.
Needless to say, there’s no evidence of this in the actual painting, or in any of Paxton’s other work, so far as I can see. Instead, we see here a marvelous student of Vermeer whose elegance evokes an era certain aspects of which are overdue for reappraisal. From now on, I think anyone who mentions Thorstein Veblen when looking at a painting from 1865 to 1950 deserves to be punched in the back of the head.