Published  04/04/2006

Americans in Paris, 1860-1900

Americans in Paris, 1860–1900

The National Gallery, London
22 February-21 May 2006

Paris, at the end of the 19th century, encompassed European tradition and the avant-garde. Having superseded Rome and London as the art capital of the world, it drew artists from all over Europe and beyond. If Paris was the Mecca for art, Americans came largely to pay a pilgrimage to the Old World. Artists came for a better training than was available in the US; travel became easier after the end of the Civil War in 1865, releasing thousands of Americans to travel. They went to Europe, especially to Paris to see exhibitions, to study art and to absorb the atmosphere of 'the great art studio' that was Paris. Henry James aptly described the phenomenon:
It sounds like a paradox, but it is the 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 great deal of Paris in it.1

Liberating for art and liberating socially, a third of the Americans in Paris were women (c.1888). Artistic maturity was gained there, reputations established, exhibitions organised and collectors found. Paris allowed a freedom in life and unconventional ways that contrasted greatly with the strictures of life at home. Concepts of bohemia were used to justify excessive alcohol consumption, life in the Latin Quarter, late nights and a disregard for appearance and middle-class habits. As the exhibition reveals, however, American artists sought to emulate the establishment rather than the avant-garde.

Paris itself was evolving artistically and growing physically to an extraordinary degree; yet daily life was still manageable:

There was no sense of bursting expansion, in spite of a healthy prosperity. The population of Paris had risen as a result of extending boundaries. For the next 20 years it was to remain virtually unchanged. Paris remained a small community where it was easy and natural to meet people with shared interests; bread and wine were cheap, and you could get a meal at a modest restaurant for two francs. Friends still walked or - a new fashion - cycled to visit each other, and wrote copious letters, though the telephone was widely used by the better off.2

The combination of old and new in architecture, art and manners, the splendour of the new boulevards of Napoleon III's and Haussmann's Paris, the theatres, cafés, language and food all conjured an intoxicating and marvellous atmosphere. Many American visitors stayed for a matter of weeks, others for years. Artists often stayed as long as their funds allowed and their artistic achievement (exhibitions and commissions) lasted. The Belle Epoque, 1870-1914, was marked by an influx of foreign artists, unprecedented in size and diversity. Many were from Eastern Europe, from Russia after the Franco-Russian alliance, and America. Montmartre became the artistic centre of Paris at large.

In 1930, Cecilia Beaux, looking back on this period, wrote: 'The immense value to the student, in Paris, lies in the place itself … Everything is there. It is his own fault if he does not perceive.' William Merritt Chase, on visiting Paris (he later exhibited there), remarked: 'Oh God, I would rather go to Europe than go to Heaven'.3

Paris at the end of the 19th century was characterised by rapid growth and economic prosperity, in marked contrast to many countries where economic depression took place.4 The optimism that Americans felt in the spring time surrounded by the beauty of so fine a city was in part due to the French bourgeoisie who enjoyed the fruits of the rapid industrial revolution and an improved standard of living. French and American artists alike celebrated the fête galante, the mood of optimism and prosperity, and the very best in architecture, art, couture and food. The portraits and family groups in 'Americans in Paris' capture the manner in which Americans attempted to embrace what both they, and the French themselves, perceived was a superior culture. In contrast to life in most of America, during and after the Civil War, Paris represented a cultural centre that many wanted to take home with them, to emulate for the future.

The very centre of the Parisian art world was the Salon des Beaux Arts, which was founded in 1831. Its annual exhibition was surrounded by great pomp, 'Until the very last years of the century the Salon gave artists their only chance to exhibit their work; here reputations were made, commissions handed out and prizes distributed'.5 The Salon was held annually from the middle of the Second Empire until 1898, in the vast spaces of the Palais de l'Industrie; crowds of 10,000 a day visited to view the thousands of paintings and works of sculpture. Crammed in side-by-side, and sometimes overlapping, the Salon was chaotic; artists were hung alphabetically, sometimes so high on the wall as to be out of sight. Medals were awarded and proved pivotal to an artist's career. However, the risks at being accepted were generally thought to be less serious than following avant-garde art practice. The exhibition, 'Americans in Paris', reflects that foreign artists erred on the side of caution; and the conservative and, at times, dull works in the exhibition can be explained in this light. As Kathleen Adler concurs, 'Failure to meet the standards of the Jury, and then to occupy a place where the work could be seen, was held to mean oblivion not only in Paris but on returning to compete in the art market in America'.6 The Salon des Refusés was established in 1863 by Napoleon, in response to the hegemony of the Salon. The Salon des Indépendants, which maintained its existence as a more lasting institution, was founded by Georges Seurat, Odilon Redon and Paul Signac, in 1884. To have work accepted by the Salon or its offshoots was the greatest aim of foreign artists. In terms of subsequent commissions, exhibitions and economic survival, it was pivotal.

'Americans in Paris' reveals the extent of conservatism in the artists who lived in Paris from 1860-1900. The only hint of bohemian informality is the extent of cigarette smoking portrayed. In terms of technique, the paintings are extremely conventional - dark and tonal. Only in the second room of the exhibition does one encounter James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt, true exponents of Impressionism. Anybody who has seen Mr Bean's The Ultimate Disaster Movie will be greatly relieved to see Whistler's 'Portrait of the Artist's Mother' completely intact. Cassatt's paintings are alive with Impressionist light and tone. As in the case of artists from the colonies, in the late 19th century, Americans came to Europe not to be radical but to be accepted by the art establishment. Like Australian artists of that period, Americans were conscious of a New World inferiority. A sound academic base gained in Paris could thus be transplanted to cities in America where art education sought to emulate the French system. At the same time, they wanted to be true to nationalistic sentiments. Rodolphe Rapetti quoted William Page, President of the National Academy of Design, in 1873, aspiring to future achievements: 'Why shall not the Art of the World be done by America, as the other work of the World is destined to be done by her in the inevitable course of human events?'7 Notions of America's future world prominence in the arts were half-seriously proposed.

'Americans in Paris, 1860-1900' displays the importance that this period abroad had for women artists. Of the 37 artists in the exhibition, seven of them are women. The central figure of the whole exhibition is Mary Cassatt. Although she was American through and through, a graduate from Pennsylvania Academy, and from a respectable and wealthy Philadelphia family, she settled in Paris for life in 1865. Not only did she become the only American artist to exhibit with the Impressionists, she played a pivotal role in advising prominent collectors in America to buy important Impressionist paintings. She also advised her brother, Alexander Cassatt, to buy important paintings; by 1881 he owned a Pissarro, a Monet and a Degas. He was, thus, one of the earliest Impressionist collectors in America.

Ellen Day Hale painted her self-portrait towards the end of her second stay in 1885. She depicts herself as an independent, modern woman in front of a stylish Japanese wall covering, with a severely cut fringe and androgynous style. Hale first travelled to Europe in 1881 and studied at the studio of Carolus-Duran and then at Julian's. She admired Gustave Courbet and Manet, as 'unusual and challenging exemplars'.8

Mary Fairchild was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris from 1885 to 1888 where she enrolled at Julian's. She met her future husband there, but her priority for art led her to postpone the marriage to safeguard the scholarship. The couple went to Giverny in 1890, as part of a wave of foreign visitors who visited the village after Claude Monet settled there in 1883. The MacMonnies had a summer residence there in the mid-1890s with a beautiful garden, where Fairchild made paintings of her life in the French countryside, as painter and mother. Like Cecilia Beaux and Mary Cassatt, Fairchild's images of mother and child are tender and natural; in terms of the combination of the roles of mother, wife and artist they are significant.

Women artists at this time tended to operate within female professional networks, studying and living together, but largely segregated from the men's art world, although they competed on equal terms for awards and recognition at the annual Salon … Like their male counterparts, they devised various strategies to pay for their studies, from selling copies of works in the Louvre to attempting to find portraiture commissions. Many of them regarded the expense of their studies as an investment, a necessary part of a plan for future success and earnings, particularly on their return to the United States.9

By the 1890s, commentators and critics claimed that women were winning the 'race' for artistic achievement. Elizabeth Jane Gardner was one of the first three women artists to enter Julian's studio in 1870. She became a very successful painter, exhibiting at the Salon from 1868 and becoming the first American woman to win a medal there in 1887. Following her acceptance and success, many women studied at Julian's in the 1880s.

James McNeill Whistler was one of the first American artists to become firmly established in Paris. Unlike most of his compatriots, Whistler was fluent in French (as were Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent) having spent much of his childhood in Russia. He was at the heart of the avant-garde in France, becoming friends with Henri Fantin-Latour (1858) who subsequently introduced him to his friends and leading artists and writers: Charles Baudelaire, Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet. Courbet, the French champion of realism, praised Whistler's 'White Girl' at the Salon des Refusés in 1863; when painting with him in Normandy, Courbet described Whistler as, 'an Englishman who is my student'. Whistler also knew the Impressionists with whom he shared important views on art.

Whistler's emphasis on the formal aspects of his paintings, particularly in his landscapes, finds echoes in the spare, decorative seascapes produced by Degas and Monet in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Both French painters knew and admired Whistler's work. … Whistler and Degas held similar attitudes about art, both believing in the superiority of the hand and mind of the artist over mere vision. Nature was a source of inspiration, but one that should be improved rather than replicated. Both men prized their personal freedom and the independence of their art from any prescribed school, they shared a keen intelligence and sharp wit, their friends and associates overlapped considerably, and they saw one another as frequently as they could.10

John Singer Sargent was born and raised in Europe as part of a close-knit, cosmopolitan family. He consequently managed to balance the two worlds in Paris: the American colony, with its round of social events, church, contacts, dealers and collectors, and the sophisticated circle of French artists and writers. Sargent's family settled with him in Paris, so he had a proper home. He was also fluent in French. He studied in Carolus-Duran's studio, impressing fellow pupils with his talent and achievement. His work was primarily portraiture: one of the most impressive works in the exhibition is the painting of the four daughters of Edward and Louisa Boit (good friends of Henrietta Reubell and Henry James) in the foyer of their apartment. Painted in 1882, 'The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit' is a large painting in which Sargent used the composition from Velazquez's 'Las Meninas' (1656), which he had copied in Spain in 1879. The painting has a subdued palette and stage-like setting. Narrative is avoided, furnishings and objects arbitrarily placed. Sargent had social as well as artistic ambitions. He painted elegant sitters such as Madame Pierre Gautreau. His painting of her, entitled 'Madame X' (1883-84) represented her as she wanted to be seen: 'as a quintessential Parisienne, sophisticated, perfectly groomed, elegantly dressed, urban and independent … her head similarly turned to show off her beautiful profile'. Mme Gautreau was in fact American with a notorious reputation with wealthy men; like Sargent she wanted to be 'truly French'.11

Of all the Americans in Paris, in this exhibition, Mary Cassatt was the artist who became the most 'French'. She settled in Montmartre in 1874; later to the prestigious 8th arrondissement, where she stayed all her life. From 1877 her family had lived with her, her home and family becoming the subject of most of her paintings. In the first years in Paris, Cassatt submitted her paintings to the Salon but they were rejected. When Degas invited her to participate in the exhibitions of the Impressionists she accepted. She was the only American to be an official member of the French movement. Degas described her as having 'infinite talent'. Cassatt preferred Paris to America for she wrote, 'Women do not have to fight for recognition here, if they do serious work'.12 She was hospitable but guarded her privacy. She depicted women of her own class, mothers with babies, always in situations suitable for a woman of her class - the theatre, the home, driving - never in public places. On holiday in Marly-le-Roi, 23 kilometres west of Paris, Cassatt portrayed members of her family in the domestic environment. Her painting, 'Lydia crocheting in the Garden at Marly', suggests:

The cosseted existence of many affluent women, portray[ing] the sitter fashionably dressed, insulated by a walled-garden from modern hurly-burly and absorbed in the sort of old-fashioned, genteel handicraft that was increasingly prized at a time when factory manufacture by working-class women was escalating.13

The dazzling colour of the flowers and sunlight were Cassatt's primary concern, one year after her first showing with the Impressionists in Paris. Also showing at The National Gallery in London is a small exhibition of Mary Cassatt's prints. The exhibition includes prints from all stages of Cassatt's career, all from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; among them one of the finest extant editions of the colour prints. It was in 1879, two years after Cassatt had exhibited with the Impressionists, that Cassatt joined Degas and Camille Pissarro in contributing to a journal of original prints. In 1890, a large exhibition of Japanese art affected her deeply. The influence of Japanese art is strong in this small exhibition; the prints reveal her strong sense of spatial organisation, her fine draughtsmanship and sense of subtle relationships between figures. Pissarro described Cassatt's ten colour prints as 'rare and exquisite works'.

'Americans in Paris: 1860-1900' is most successful in its social history remit. The associated issues and scholarly catalogue are regrettably more interesting than many of the art works themselves. And, indeed, Mary Cassatt, so well represented in the show, comes forward as much for the impact she had on taste making and her contribution to American connoisseurship as to the effort she made to tutor the Havemeyers, the American collectors who acquired the great El Grecos and Goyas, which they subsequently bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was one of the most important benefactions in American museum history. Mrs Havemeyer declared that Cassatt was the godmother of their collection; her relationship with the Havemeyers lasted 50 years. As early as 1911, Mary Cassatt told a Philadelphia newspaper, 'All the pictures privately bought by rich Americans will eventually find their way into public collections and enrich the nation and the national taste. This is the case with all great collections in Europe'.14

Christopher Riopelle, in his catalogue essay, American Artists in France/French Art in America, states:

For several decades at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the following century the constituent elements were uniquely, if briefly in place for a few American artists to effect the development of American taste by promoting modern French art. The first of these elements was, simply enough, their presence in Paris itself. On its own, the decision to relocate there was a vote for broadened ambitions and an international perspective. As Robert Rosenblum has pointed out: "Abandoning their provincial and limiting backgrounds for Paris, [American artists] could at last flourish in an international community of artists who painted for the whole world".'15

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Quoted by Kathleen Adler. We'll Always Have Paris. Paris as Training Ground and Proving Ground. In: Adler K, Hirshler EE, Weinberg HB. Americans in Paris, 1860-1900. London: The National Gallery, 2006: 11.
2. Gosling N. Paris: The Miraculous Years, 1900-14. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978: 9.
3. Adler K. In: Op cit: 14.
4. Pérouse de Montclos JM. Paris, City of Art. New York: Vendome Press, 2003 (English edition): 569.
5. Gosling N. In: Op cit: 9.
6. Adler K. In: Op cit: 40.
7. Rapetti R. Assimilation and Resistance, 1880-1900. In: Ibid: 182.
8. Adler K. In: Op cit: 24.
9. Ibid: 33.
10. Hirshler EE. At Home in Paris. In: Ibid: 61.
11. Ibid: 79.
12. Ibid: 84.
13. Weinberg HB. Summers in the Country. In: Ibid: 129.
14. Quoted by Christopher Riopelle. Americans Artists in France/French Art in America. In: Ibid: 220.
15. Ibid: 218.

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