The works in Like Breath on Glass date from 1872 to 1919. The United States saw dramatic change in those years: a transformation from agrarian to urban culture, industrialization and the rise of labor movements, struggles for universal suffrage, the closing of the frontier, and major tides of migration and immigration. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, together with technological advancements such as internal combustion engines, automobiles, manned flight, the telephone, and electric light challenged time's natural rhythms and connected people together across vast distances. International fairs brought together material cultures from around the world. William James, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, along with European thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein, revolutionized knowledge and challenged religious, social, and political order. Violence—with Reconstruction's end, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and World War I—punctuated the era.
Modernity pressed on the physical and emotional lives of the nation's cultural elite. Some of this class—or those who aspired to it—sought refuge in Gilded Age aestheticism, the rugged outdoor life, or Arts and Crafts handiwork. Others turned to transcendental thought and Eastern mysticism, cultivating otherworldly spiritualism. Collectors—among them Charles Lang Freer, William T. Evans, John Gellatly, and Isabella Stewart Gardner—often felt the lure of both Asian art and of the meditative approach toward it. Seeking the ineffable in an ever more material and fast-paced world, they also provided the principal patronage for the artists in Like Breath on Glass.