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American Art from the Great Gatsby Era

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, with its central contrast between the glamour of Long Island socialites and the dark secret of Jay Gatsby’s humble beginnings, speaks to the economic paradox of American society in the Roaring Twenties. In the same way, American art of the time shows the divide between urban wealth and rural poverty and the plight of the American worker. This exhibition of prints and photographs from the Museum’s permanent collection, offered in conjunction with Cornell’s New Student Reading Project’s assignment of The Great Gatsby to all first-year undergraduates, offers a varied picture of America during the twenties and the Depression years. Works included range from Martin Lewis’s New York prints of charming young women in twenties fashions, to the riveting works of great WPA-era printmakers and photographers like Thomas Hart Benton, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothea Lange who documented the effects of hard times on impoverished Americans and celebrated their determination. Also featured are objects from the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection, which is housed in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall. All of these items date from the Gatsby era, and would have been standard fare for a lady or gentleman of the time. Together, these works provide an eloquent commentary on the thin veneer of prosperity seen in The Great Gatsby, and reinforce the relevance of the novel in our own time, resonating with the ever-widening gap between American rich and poor.