Published: July 25, 2006
In the decades following the Civil War, ambitious American artists flocked to Paris – the world’s art capital – to study, hone their skills and try to establish reputations. Some, enrolled in the city’s many academies and ateliers, sought to improve their work with academic instruction. More established artists sought to participate in the prestigious annual Paris Salons and other exhibitions to help further their careers.
Some made Paris their permanent home, forming part of a significant expatriate community in the French capital. As novelist Henry James famously observed of the “irresistible city” in 1887, “It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when today we look for American art, we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a good deal of Paris in it.”
The majority of the American artists who spent time in Paris eventually returned to the United States, adapting their experiences and French-influenced styles to depicting the American scene. Melding academic draftsmanship with brilliant colors borrowed from French Impressionism, these artists set new directions for the nation’s art.
What these Nineteenth Century American painters found in Paris and the French countryside, how they responded to their training and experiences, what they retained from this overseas exposure and how they applied French influences to art in the United States is the subject of a stunning and informative traveling exhibition, “Americans in Paris, 1860-1900.”
Organized by the National Gallery, London, and the Museum ofFine Arts, Boston (MFA), in association with The MetropolitanMuseum of Art, “Americans in Paris, 1860-1900” comprises nearly 100paintings that represent some of the finest of Americanmasterpieces. After opening at the National Gallery earlier thisyear, the exhibition is at the MFA through September 24, and at theMet October 17-January 28. The curatorial team includes theNational Gallery’s Kathleen Adler, the MFA’s Erica E. Hirshler andthe Met’s H. Barbara Weinberg.
Organized both chronologically and thematically, the exhibition opens with a section called “Picturing Paris,” illustrating the attractions of the historic city.
Pennsylvania native Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), whom curator Hirshler calls perhaps the “most French of all the painters in Paris,” often depicted the glamour and excitement of Parisian cultural pursuits. Her bright and luminous “Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge,” 1879, shows a radiant, red-haired young woman – presumably an American – dressed to the nines amid the opulence of an evening at a Parisian theater.
French influences are evident in the unusual perspective, cropped composition and informality of Cassatt’s “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair,” 1878. Her elegant apartment in Paris was the site for “The Tea,” circa 1880, showing Cassatt’s sister and a visitor communing in the well-appointed space, as well as affectionate portraits of her mother, brother and nephew. She settled permanently in France.
Born in Italy to American expatriate parents, John SingerSargent (1856-1925) found inspiration in the beauty of the streetsand parks of Paris, as reflected in his romantic “In the LuxembourgGarden” of 1879. He also executed numerous portraits in Paris.
Bostonian Childe Hassam (1859-1935), who studied extensively in the French capital, reveled in Parisian cityscapes, particularly canvases of horse-drawn vehicles on the wet or snowy broad boulevards of modern Paris. In “At the Florist,” 1889, he depicted a “vibrant display of autumn flowers, each bunch as perfectly wrapped as the elegant lady who admires them,” in curator Hirshler’s words.
The section covering “Artists in Paris” examines the lives of expatriates, such as painter Thomas Hovenden, whose disheveled appearance in “Self Portrait of the Artist in his Studio,” 1875, suggests his bohemian predilections. Particularly interesting is a “Self Portrait,” 1885, by old-line Bostonian artist Ellen Day Hale (1855-1940), whose confident, forthright pose was reflected in her bold paintings.
“Paris as Training Ground and Proving Ground” documents efforts by Americans to gain recognition by exhibiting in the keenly competitive, annual Paris Salons. The highly ambitious James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who made his way to Paris via Lowell, Mass., Russia, London, Connecticut and West Point, was initially rebuffed when his portrait of his mistress and model, Joanna Hiffernan, “Symphony in White, No. 1, The White Girl,” 1862, was rejected by the Salon. It did appear in the alternative display, the Salon des Refuses in 1863, helping to burnish Whistler’s reputation as a daring and controversial figure.
Whistler had better luck a decade later when his iconic “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother,” showing Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler in a somber, erect, profile pose was a hit at the 1883 Salon. Later purchased by the French government and now in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay, “Whistler’s Mother” is making its first appearance in this country since 1983.
The great Winslow Homer (1836-1910) spent part of 1867 in Paris frequenting exhibitions and galleries. His lovely canvas, “Summer Night,” 1890, showing two women dancing by moonlight in front of his Prout’s Neck, Maine, studio, hung unsold for years at the Cumberland Club in nearby Portland. After its appearance in the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, it was purchased by the French government and is now in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
Two quite different full-length likenesses of American womenin Paris by Sargent, “Mrs Henry White,” 1883, and “Madam X,”1883-84, document his daring and genius in portraiture. Whereas thegraceful Mrs White, wife of a diplomat, appeared in an elegantsatin gown, the notorious Virginie Gautreau, married to a Frenchbanker, struck a bold pose in a revealing dress. The latter was soharshly criticized at the 1884 Salon that Sargent fled to London.
Philadelphian Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), inspired by “Whistler’s Mother,” painted her sister and nephew in “Les dernier jours d’enfance” in 1885 in her hometown and exhibited it in the Paris Salon two years later. Two other notable Beaux works on view are portraits of her handsome cousin (with her black cat), “Sita and Sarita,” 1893-94, owned by the Musee d’Orsay, and of her appealing 2-year-old niece, “Ernesta,” 1894, in the Met’s collection.
William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), who famously declared, “My God, I would rather go to Europe than to go to Heaven,” actually studied primarily in Munich, but he frequented Paris and showed works at the Paris Salon, including a view of a student, “Miss Dora Wheeler,” 1883, inspired by Whistler’s maternal image.
The section on “At Home in Paris” is highlighted by Sargent’s large fascinating painting of the four children of a fellow expatriate artist in their elegant Paris apartment, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” 1882. The most ambitious painting by the 26-year-old artist, its unconventional composition was based on Diego Velazquez’s celebrated “Las Meninas” of 1656, which Sargent had copied at the Prado.
Heir to a sugar plantation fortune, Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855-1919), was born in Philadelphia, but lived in Paris from the age of 10, becoming a leading society figure. He excelled at large canvases of the elite at leisure, including images of actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Lily Langtry. Stewart’s “Woman in an Interior,” 1895, depicting a stylish “New Woman” in a luxurious setting, recalls the naturalism of French English painter Jean-Jacques Tissot.
Working on both sides of the Atlantic, John White Alexander (1856-1915) did his best work in Paris in the 1890s, where he combined contemporary French aesthetics with elements of symbolism in paintings of idealized women in elegant interior settings. The sinuous curves and provocative poses of the models in “Repose,” 1895, and “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” 1897, far different from the more wholesome females depicted by most American artists, marked Alexander as the most “overtly erotic” of his contemporaries, says Weinberg.
Like their French counterparts, American artists in Parisescaped to the countryside in the summer, bent on paintingoutdoors. The “Summer Places” section of the exhibition offerspastoral views of summer art colonies. Sargent’s lush “Claude MonetPainting at the Edge of a Wood,” 1885, reflects the American’s longfriendship with the French master and how his visits to Giverny hadthe effect, as curator Weinberg suggests, of “reinforcing hiscommand of Impressionism.”
A singular figure among the American expatriates was African American painter Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937), who received academic training in Philadelphia and Paris, and made the French capital his permanent home after 1891. Before he concentrated on biblical subjects, Tanner recorded views of Paris, and drawing on summers in Brittany, painted “The Young Sabot Maker,” 1895, showing a young Breton making wooden shoes in a setting that evokes Jesus in Joseph’s workshop.
The final section of “Americans in Paris,” called “Back in the USA,” examines the manner in which Americans sought to adapt their French training and exposure to distinctly American subjects. Some, like Theodore Robinson, who had excelled in Monet-like views of Giverny, found depicting American scenes difficult. By contrast, two friends and fellow New Englanders who trained together in Boston and Paris, Frank W. Benson (1862-1951) and Edmund C. Tarbell (1862-1938), combined academic and Impressionist techniques in memorable paintings around New England, and became influential teachers at the School of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Benson’s “Eleanor,” 1907, starring his 17-year-old daughter, is one of a number of glorious, sun-splashed views he painted of his children and wife at their summer home on North Haven Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. Tarbell’s bright and airy “Three Sisters – A Study in June Sunlight,” 1890, features a conversation among his sisters and his wife (holding daughter Josephine) in the center, conversing on a leisurely summer afternoon.
After early academic training in New York, Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1891) successfully adapted the bold brushwork and brilliant colors of Impressionism he learned in Europe to paint bright, sunny, atmospheric views of New England. His gorgeous “Chrysanthemums,” 1888, depicts the greenhouse of art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband in suburban Boston. It was completed a year after a sojourn in England when Sargent imparted to Bunker a “more fluent technique and a new awareness of sunlight effects,” according to Weinberg.
After initial training in his native Massachusetts, Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) studied in Paris, painted in Giverny and returned to New England to become a premier Impressionist landscapist of the region. His lyrical, brilliantly hued “Gloucester Harbor,” 1895, offers an inviting view of that busy seaport.
The curators astutely included lesser-known but talented artists, such as John Leslie Breck, Charles Courtney Curran, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low and Elizabeth Nourse, whose work deserves greater recognition.
Upon returning to the United States, Hassam applied his vibrant brand of Impressionism to colorful, sun-filled, appealing images of leisure life in New England, including unforgettable homages to Celia Thaxter’s effulgent garden and other wonders of Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals, off the Maine-New Hampshire coast.
The exhibition appropriately culminates with one of Hassam’ssplendid World War I flag scenes in New York City, “Allies Day, May1917,” in which the stars and stripes and France’s tricolor fly inglorious harmony, symbolizing both the wartime and artisticalliance of the two countries.
The organizers of this appealing exhibition took on a daunting challenge in trying to convey the variety and achievements of American artists in France in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. They have succeeded admirably by selecting masterworks by titans and lesser-known painters alike, and weaving them together in a well-organized fashion.
The exhibition catalog is equally admirable, providing informative and interesting essays by curators Adler, Hirshler and Weinberg and art historians David Park Curry, Randolphe Rapetti and Christopher Riopelle, along with hundreds of color plates and black and white photographs. The 288-page book is published by Yale University Press in association with National Gallery Company, and it sells for $65 (hardcover) and $40 (softcover).
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is at 465 Huntington Avenue. For information, 617-267-9300 or www.mfa.org.
All images courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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