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EDITH WHARTON (1862-1937)
by Edward Harrison May (1824-1887)
Chronicler of New York's elite society and "its power of debasing people and ideals," Edith Jones Wharton was the most celebrated American woman author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the youngest child born to an affluent New York couple, Wharton led an exciting life—winters in Paris, summers in Newport, Rhode Island, and an array of New York's elegant dinner parties and gatherings. By the age of sixteen she had written her first novel, published several poems, and developed a taste for "pretty clothes, pretty pictures, [and] pretty sights." Preferring Europe to New York's "intolerable ugliness," Wharton spent much of her adult life in France. The distance permitted her poignant observations on American high society that manifested themselves in novels such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Age of Innocence (1920).

British-born Edward Harrison May also spent his childhood in New York, but he moved permanently to Paris in 1851. There he maintained a flourishing portrait practice, catering to wealthy Europeans and Americans. May's portrait of Wharton—a testament to her privileged childhood—was probably completed during the last year of the Joneses' two-year stay in Paris.
Oil on canvas, 1870
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
NPG.82.136
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