America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age (Video)

An American era of great hope, tremendous change, and powerful emotion is masterfully depicted in a documentary about its art, ranging from painting to photography to music.

Jun 13, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
america rising arts of gilded age
A screenshot of the documentary film America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age. Source: 217 Films, LLC


The Gilded Age in America is considered a unique era, unthinkable anywhere else. The documentary America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age explores this era of unbridled growth, optimism, and hope through its works of art. These paintings and photographs depict the wonders of America and the result of its rapid expansion from East to West, especially Manifest Destiny and Western Settlement. Unlike paintings in Europe, America’s artwork during the Gilded Age was free of restrictions and limits—symbolizing its historic growth. The art, including music, was a metaphor for national growth and aspirations, often mesmerizing and inspiring viewers. Enjoy this documentary and feel uplifted by the nation’s amazing art from this bold and exciting era!



Written & Directed by Michael Maglaras

Patty Satalia (left) interviewing filmmaker Michael Maglaras (right) in January 2024 as part of the “Conversations from Penn State” series. Source: 217 Films, LLC


America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age is written and directed by veteran filmmaker Michael Maglaras, who has created many other acclaimed documentaries about historical eras. In addition to American art during the 45-year period of the Gilded Age, Maglaras has also explored art during the Great Depression and the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York City, which introduced many Americans to modern art. His directing work goes back to 2005, and his most recent release is Ralph Waldo Emerson: Give All to Love.


As an experienced writer and director, Maglaras does an excellent job explaining and revealing the surge in American art, both domestically created and imported from Europe, during the Gilded Age. He covers the roots of the Gilded Age in the new technology of the Civil War, with photography sparking the creation of new art. Throughout the film, Maglaras covers many genres of art, from photography to painting to sculpture, depicting the breadth of American art as artists were able to use their training, resources, and inspiration to create new works.


Produced by 217 Films

An image from Michael Maglaras’ video explaining the mission and vision of 217 Films. Source: 217 Films, LLC

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Michael Maglaras and 217 Films seek to provide high-quality, engaging, and informative documentaries that explore the arts. These videos are full of rich dialogue and imagery that draw in the viewer. Right away, the viewer is drawn into the world of art—there is no lengthy prologue! Helpful subtitles allow the reader to quickly link each artist with their work, providing information for later exploration.


Maglaras’ guiding dialogue is well-paced and highly skilled, combining key information with bits of humor. The narration is pleasing and leaves the listener eager to hear more. The pacing is on point, with the documentaries neither rushing nor dragging. The viewer is carried along at a quick and enjoyable clip, making them excited to see the next revelation or innovation. Maglaras adds to this excellent pacing by including information from other experts who interject key pieces of knowledge to provide additional context.


The Director’s Statement on America Rising

Abraham Lincoln (left) and Mark Twain (right) were the famous figures whose lives bookended the Gilded Age. Source: Humanities Texas (left) and National Endowment for the Humanities (right)


In his well-crafted director’s statement, Maglaras explains that the Gilded Age was a complex and challenging era to explore, with many unexpected twists and turns. This era, which Maglaras defines as the time period between the death of US President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the death of famous writer Mark Twain (who coined the term “Gilded Age” in his 1873 book The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day) in 1910. So much art was created during this era that Maglaras had difficulty narrowing down the most important innovations!


Maglaras points out that the influences of the Gilded Age technically began before 1865 and extended after 1910, with many of the era’s most famous artists being active outside the strict Gilded Age timeline. The ideas and norms generated during the Gilded Age carried through to the great debates in the aftermath of World War I, when America had to decide which route it would take on the world stage: international peace-keeper or isolationist. Even today, Maglaras explains, we are influenced by the DNA of the Gilded Age.


Why Now? Today’s Similarities to the Gilded Age

A graph revealing that income inequality has returned to levels last seen during the Gilded Age and Roaring Twenties. Source: The Washington Center for Equitable Growth


Why is now a good time to re-examine the Gilded Age? Maglaras points out that, a hundred years after the end of the era, we are entering a new Gilded Age in terms of income and wealth inequality. The release of America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age took place on January 20, 2017, when the nation’s first billionaire president was instated. This occurrence, regardless of one’s political leanings, highlights the role of wealth in relation to political power.


Art, wealth, and political corruption are similarities that we today share with the Gilded Age. New technology, from social media to artificial intelligence to 3-D printing, will someday be judged in terms of its influences on art, similar to how photography sparked a new era of art at the beginning of the Gilded Age. How will today’s artists capture the complexity of our own era, particularly compared to how Gilded Age artists did a hundred years ago? Likely now as then, powerful artists will both praise and criticize the excesses of our era.


Exploring Influences: Immigration & The Promise of America

A drawing of immigrants from Europe seeing the Statue of Liberty upon arrival in New York. Source: The Gotham Center for New York City History


It was not just American farmers and factory workers who dreamed of joining the capitalist class and enjoying the fruits of the technological and infrastructural boom of the Gilded Age. Maglaras explores the role of immigrants, many of whom sought the economic promise of America during the era. Almost twelve million immigrants, mostly from Europe, arrived in the United States during this era. These immigrants, most of them arriving with very little, inspired artists with their optimism, ambition, and determination.


The hard work of immigrants, both in the factories and as new farmers, helped fuel rapid economic growth. Artists captured the new life of arriving immigrants in photographs and paintings, energizing cities and building landscapes. As factories boomed, immigrants were joined by rural residents in flocking to cities, creating an era of urbanization that also inspired artists. The pace of American life quickened as labor moved to electric-lit factories, which could run all the time, rather than the agrarian life that was governed by the rising and setting of the sun.


Exploring Influences: American Artists Study in Europe

Pablo Picasso’s famous painting People in 1900 Paris, which exemplified the many Americans visiting Paris during the Gilded Age. Source: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation


Economic growth during the Gilded Age created a growing class of wealthy Americans. These families could now afford to travel to Europe, where their members could study the arts in popular destinations like France and Italy. This would, in turn, intensify the creation of great art back in the United States. American artists of means would be influenced by European schools but would also influence these schools in turn, which Maglaras explores in detail.


Most great American painters of the Gilded Age were influenced, to some degree, by French impressionists. Some lived in Europe for long periods of time but retained their American backgrounds. Other artists of the era were born in Europe but moved to the United States, which adopted them as burgeoning talents. During the Gilded Age, America evolved from an agrarian nation to an urban nation and from a consumer of foreign artistic culture to a producer of its own artistic culture.


Exploring Influences: American Expatriates in Europe

A photograph of American expatriate artist John Singer Sargent in Paris, circa 1884. Source: The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, Chicago


The state of art on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean was influenced by a growing class of American expatriates who lived in Europe. These Americans, typically wealthy, moved to Europe but largely retained their US citizenship. The increase in Americans living in Europe, often studying and consuming art, signified America’s development as an economic power. No longer did the nation just absorb those seeking economic opportunity, but rather sent back those who had “made it” to seek enrichment. As a whole, America had “made it.”


American expatriates were not just absorbing European culture but also influencing it. Business contacts were made, and traditional norms in Europe were challenged. The sometimes tense relationships between wealthy Americans (“new money”) and European nobility (“old money”) could create drama that influenced art, especially literature. One common theme was wealthy American women marrying European nobles, which challenged norms on both continents.


Exploring Contrasts: Realism in Literature vs. Happiness in Paintings

A photograph of a child laborer during the Gilded Age, exemplifying the harsh realism of much of the era’s literature. Source: Annenberg Foundation


Maglaras does not shy away from the harsh conditions faced by most Americans during the Gilded Age—he also explores the realism used by some prominent authors to highlight their struggles. These authors described the terrible conditions faced by the working poor and criticized the wealthy for doing little to improve their condition. Although some focused on the exciting settlement of the West, the plight of the urban poor often drew them back to contemporary events, including struggles like feminism against a deeply patriarchal society.


Frequently, the literature of struggle contrasted with paintings that focused on bold, happy colors and domestic achievements. This can be seen as analogous to the Gilded Age itself, at least in its early decades. Much of the art depicted America’s promise and fashion, while some depicted images of life in Europe. Part of this may have been due to necessity: those who could purchase paintings were typically wealthy and would thus want scenes resembling their own lives and aspirations.


Exploring Effects: Wealthy Art Collectors of the Gilded Age

An 1896 photograph of the first Carnegie International exhibit at the steel tycoon’s famous art museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Source: Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh


The growing wealth of the Gilded Age created a class that could afford to collect art for the first time. As fortunes were made in coal, oil, steel, and railroads, tycoons wanted to surround themselves with luxury and sophistication, including fine art. By the 1880s, some wealthy Americans began to consider art as an investment as the prices of paintings kept rising. Around this time, art collectors also began exhibiting their collections in large galleries. As collectors accumulated more art, they began seeking different types, increasing demand for new schools of thought and helping expand artistic expression.


Famously, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie founded his art museum in 1895. The Pittsburgh Museum is considered the first modern art museum in the country. During the Gilded Age, the government allowed spending on arts as well, such as the first art installations for the White House. Portraits became very popular, with the wealthy having portraits of themselves made at unprecedented rates…and collecting famous portraits at unprecedented rates as well. This included US presidents of the era, who circulated their portraits as a way to boost popularity among voters.


Exploring Further: Other Documentaries by 217 Films, LLC

An image of the most recent documentary created by Michael Maglaras and 217 Films. Source: 217 Films, LLC


Fortunately, viewers of America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age will find several other films by Michael Maglaras and 217 Films to enjoy. Eight other documentaries are available to watch for free on the company’s website, giving viewers a chance to learn about famous writers and artists from multiple eras. Painter and poet Marsden Hartley is explored in Cleophas and His Own: A North Atlantic Tragedy and Visible Silence: Marsden Hartley, Painter and Poet, and painter John Marin is seen in John Marin: Let the Paint be Paint! 


Graphic artist Lyn Ward is analyzed in O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lyn Ward, and America’s first mass exposure to modern art is explored in The Great Confusion: The 1913 Armory Show. After the Gilded Age, the art of the Great Depression is explored in Enough to Live on: The Arts of the WPA. The effects of the British documentary Civilisation, which came out during the Vietnam War, on American culture is analyzed by Maglaras in Civilisation and America fifty years after its 1970 release. Finally, iconic American literary figure Ralph Waldo Emerson is explored in Ralph Waldo Emerson: Give All to Love, released in 2023.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.