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Americans in Paris, 1860-1900

October 24, 2006 - January 28, 2007


In the late 19th century, American artists by the hundreds -- including such luminaries as James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer -- were drawn irresistibly to Paris, the world's new art capital, to learn to paint and to establish their reputations. By studying with leading masters and showing their work in Paris, these artists aimed to attract patronage from American collectors who had begun to buy contemporary French art in earnest soon after the end of the Civil War. Paris inspired decisive changes in American painters' styles and subjects, and stimulated the creation of more sophisticated art schools and higher professional standards back in the United States.

The landmark exhibition Americans in Paris, 1860-1900 features some 100 oil paintings by 37 Americans whose accomplishments proclaim the truth of Henry James's 1887 observation: "It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when to-day we look for 'American art' we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it." Representing the breadth of artistic activity in Paris, the exhibition includes painters who were aligned with vanguard tendencies -- particularly Impressionism -- as well as those who espoused the academic principles that many American patrons preferred.


An overview of the exhibition:


Picturing Paris

Aware that the time they had in Paris was precious, most Americans devoted themselves to their studies. Yet many responded to the city's vitality and flux and recorded its handsome parks and boulevards and its glittering theatres and cafés. The installation at the Metropolitan opens with some of these scenes. Three pictures portray the elegant Luxembourg Gardens on the Left Bank. An alluring 1879 canvas by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) captures a well-dressed couple on a romantic twilight stroll (Philadelphia Museum of Art). A panel painting of 1889 by Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942) focuses on a solitary young woman quietly feeding birds that gather at her feet, while livelier activities take place in the distance (Terra Foundation for American Art). And women playing with a baby while seated on a bench are the subject of the 1892-94 panel painting by Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), a study of texture, pattern, and color (Terra Foundation for American Art).

The audience at a matinee at the Théâtre Français is the focus of the intriguing 1878 canvas In the Loge (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). A fashionable woman peers through opera glasses -- at the stage or, perhaps, at the other theatergoers -- while a man in a nearby box gazes through his opera glasses at her. Like the views of Parisian parks, this image conveys the appeal of the city's social spaces, which invited people to see and to be seen.


Artists in Paris

Through more than a dozen portraits, the exhibition introduces some of the American art students and their prominent mentors who participated in the Parisian art community. The unconventional 1875 self-portrait of Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895) shows him every inch the bohemian in his cramped Paris studio, where he slouches, dissolute and disheveled, with a violin in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth, as he stares at a canvas on an easel (Yale University Art Gallery). In contrast, the bold 1885 self-portrait of Ellen Day Hale (1855-1940) communicates forthrightness, strength of character, and an independent spirit -- in short, the personality traits of a modern young professional woman (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

In his 1886 portrait of William Walton, J. Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917) signals the migration of French styles to America by placing his dapper subject -- a former colleague in Paris -- against a background of Impressionist landscapes in Beckwith's New York studio (The Century Association). The influence of James McNeill Whistler, who was then living in Paris, is evident in the muted tones, thin paint application, and monogrammed signature in the circa 1896 portrait by Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945) of his fellow student Henry Ossawa Tanner, who would become the era's foremost African-American painter (The Art Institute of Chicago).

The Metropolitan is the only American venue to include two impressive portraits of leading French artists. John Singer Sargent's likeness of Carolus-Duran, painted shortly after the young American had left his renowned teacher's atelier, captures both the master's self-assurance and his famously elegant apparel (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute). It was highly praised when it appeared in the 1879 Paris Salon. The dignified 1898 portrait by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1856-1942) of the renowned animal painter Rosa Bonheur depicts the elderly artist in the year before her death, seated at the easel, paintbrush in hand, her white hair transformed into a halo by the play of sunlight (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

At Home in Paris

About one-third of the Americans who studied art in Paris in the late 19th century were women, of whom one of the most distinctive and successful was Mary Cassatt. One of the principal American expatriates in Paris and the only American to show with the Impressionists, Cassatt was devoted to recording the world of women like herself. Living in the company of her parents and sister, who moved to Paris in 1877 to be with her, she often portrayed them and their visiting relatives.

Reading Le Figaro (Portrait of a Lady), painted in 1878, shows Cassatt's mother, who was fluent in French and interested in current affairs, intently reading the French daily newspaper (private collection). The Tea, painted about 1880, depicts a young woman in the Cassatt family's well-appointed Paris apartment playing hostess to a visitor in the daily afternoon ritual (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Paris as Proving Ground

Key to the professional ambitions of most late 19th-century American painters, even those who never studied in Paris, was recognition by the Parisian art world. The largest and most prestigious showcases were the official Salons, immense juried exhibitions administered by the French government until 1881 and by the Société des Artistes-Français thereafter. In 1863, the infamous Salon des Refusés presented works that had been rejected by the Salon jury. In 1890, a second, less conservative Salon, held under the auspices of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, was added to the annual calendar. Huge Expositions Universelles, scheduled toward the end of every decade, offered further opportunities to make one's mark, as did displays in commercial art galleries.

The international reputation of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) for boldness and controversy was launched by his captivating Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (National Gallery of Art, Washington), painted in 1862. The model -- who was also Whistler's mistress -- stands impassively before a white drapery in a white dress, her long auburn hair falling loosely, as she holds a white flower in her hand. Rejected by London's Royal Academy in 1862, and then by the 1863 Paris Salon, the enigmatic painting was shown at the Salon des Refusés -- where it attracted notoriety for its lack of any decipherable narrative -- and in the American section of the 1867 Exposition Universelle.

John Singer Sargent hoped to garner success by painting and showing an impressive portrait of a dazzling subject -- the celebrated Louisiana-born beauty Virginie Avegno, who had entered Parisian society by marrying Pierre Gautreau, a wealthy banker. The picture, with which Sargent struggled in 1883-84, conveys the subject's haughty demeanor as she poses in a daring black dress, her head in profile, her shoulders tinted with mauve powder, her ear rouged. Sargent sent Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) to the 1884 Salon, where, instead of the hoped-for acclaim, it attracted so much negative criticism that it effectively ended Sargent's career in Paris. He moved to London in 1886, and made it his headquarters for the rest of his life. The painting -- which he considered to be his best work -- remained in his possession until 1916, when he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum.


Summers in the Country

Although they had been drawn to Paris by its schools, museums, and exhibitions, artists almost always fled the city in summer, seeking respite from professional pressures and relief from the heat. Traveling by railroad, then by horse-drawn carriage, and finally, sometimes, on foot, they sought out rural retreats -- usually not too distant from the capital. Such places offered picturesque subjects and vestiges of earlier, simpler times, as well as cheap accommodations, modest living costs, and opportunities for camaraderie. While some painters spent time in several of the art colonies that flourished during the period -- Barbizon, Pont-Aven, and Grez-sur-Loing, for example -- others visited only one, and a few even purchased homes in hospitable locales, built studios, and remained for years.

John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet apparently became acquainted in 1876 and they remained lifelong friends. In 1885, the year after the failure of Madame X in the Salon, Sargent visited the Norman village of Giverny, where Monet had been living for two years. There the American created his Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood (Tate, London), which shows the French master immersed in nature, working en plein air. An important art colony, populated mainly by Americans, would begin to develop in Giverny by 1887.

Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) was one of the very few Americans in Giverny's community of artists with whom Monet became friendly. Robinson painted his unique canvas, The Wedding March (Terra Foundation for American Art), in 1892 to commemorate the marriage in Giverny of American painter Theodore Butler to Monet's stepdaughter, a union that Monet opposed.

Childe Hassam (1859-1935) depicted another bucolic site in 1888 in his canvas Geraniums (The Hyde Collection). The setting is the garden at the home of friends in Villiers-le-Bel, just north of Paris. Hassam's wife can be seen through the open window, partially obscured by blossoms, as she tends to her sewing.


Back in the United States

When American artists returned home, they sought out rural retreats that resembled those they had frequented in Europe. These places, which were often in New England, provided opportunities for outdoor painting, connection with old-fashioned values, and a welcome change from modern urban life. The vivid 1888 canvas Chrysanthemums (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) by Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890) - among the first Impressionist canvases made in the United States - shows the riotous floral display in the greenhouse at Green Hill, the Massachusetts summer home of the art patrons John L. and Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Three Sisters - A Study in June Sunlight (Milwaukee Art Museum), painted in 1890 by Edmund C. Tarbell (1862-1938), was the artist's first important work in the Impressionist style. Tarbell's wife (holding their daughter) and her sisters sit in a sun-dappled New England garden, probably in Dorchester, a historic village that had been annexed recently to Boston.


Catalogue and Related Programs

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. It was written by the exhibition's curators Kathleen Adler (Director of Education, National Gallery, London), Erica E. Hirshler (Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and H. Barbara Weinberg (Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), with contributions from David Park Curry, Rodolphe Rapetti, and Christopher Riopelle, and with the assistance of Megan Holloway Fort and Kathleen Mrachek. The book is published by the National Gallery Company and is available in the Museum's book shops

A variety of educational programs will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including gallery talks, family programs, and a screening of the film An American in Paris. Seven speakers -- including Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker and distinguished professors and curators -- will participate in a symposium to be held on November 30. A Sunday at the Met program of lectures and discussion by authorities on American Impressionism is scheduled for December 3.

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery, London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The exhibition is organized at the Metropolitan Museum by H. Barbara Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, with assistance from Elizabeth Athens, Research Assistant.


Editor's note: Readers may also enjoy TFAO's listings of further resources in Artists Abroad.


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