Paris Top Destinations

Americans in Paris

In the late 19th century, the City of Light beckoned Whistler, Sargent, Cassatt and other young artists. What they experienced would transform American art

"It is a very simple truth," novelist Henry James wrote in 1887, "that when today we look for 'American art' we find it mainly in Paris." John Singer Sargent captured the pearly light of dusk in Paris in his 1879 work In the Luxembourg Gardens. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John G. Johnson Collection)
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Her skin powdered lavender-white and her ears provocatively rouged, Virginie Avegno Gautreau, a Louisiana native who married a prosperous French banker, titillated Parisian society. People talked as much of her reputed love affairs as of her exotic beauty. In late 1882, determined to capture Madame Gautreau's distinctive image, the young American painter John Singer Sargent pursued her like a trophy hunter. At first she resisted his importunings to sit for a portrait, but in early 1883, she acquiesced. During that year, at her home in Paris and in her country house in Brittany, Sargent painted Gautreau in sessions that she would peremptorily cut short. He had had enough free time between sittings that he had taken on another portrait—this one commissioned—of Daisy White, the wife of an American diplomat about to be posted to London. Sargent hoped to display the two pictures—the sophisticated Gautreau in a low-cut black evening dress and the proper, more matronly White in a frilly cream-and-white gown—in 1883 at the Paris Salon, the most prestigious art show in the city. Instead, because of delays, the finished paintings would not be exhibited until the following year at, respectively, the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy in London. Seeing them together as Sargent intended is one of the pleasures of "Americans in Paris, 1860-1900," now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (after earlier stops at the National Gallery of London and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) through January 28, 2007.

The two portraits point like opposing signposts to the roads that Sargent might choose to travel. The Gautreau hearkens back to the 17th-century Spanish master Velázquez, whose radically pared-down, full-length portraits in a restricted palette of blacks, grays and browns inspired Édouard Manet and many modern painters. The White recalls the pastel-colored depictions by 18th-century English society painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney.

Gautreau's upthrust chin and powdered flesh, with a strap of her gown suggestively fallen from her shoulder, caused a scandal; both painter and sitter were vilified as "detestable" and "monstrous." One critic wrote that the portrait was "offensive in its insolent ugliness and defiance of every rule of art." At Sargent's studio on the night of the Salon opening, Gautreau's mother complained to the artist that "all Paris is making fun of my daughter. She is ruined." He resolutely denied her plea to have the picture removed. But after the exhibition closed, he repainted the dropped strap, putting it back into its proper place. He kept the painting in his personal collection, and when he finally sold it to the Metropolitan Museum in 1916, he asked that it be identified only as a portrait of "Madame X." It is "the best thing I have done," he wrote at the time.

The outraged response to the Gautreau portrait helped push Sargent toward the safer shores of society portraiture. He was more interested in pleasing than in challenging his public. That may be what novelist Henry James had in mind when he wrote to a friend in 1888 that he had "always thought Sargent a great painter. He would be greater still if he had one or two things he isn't—but he will do."

James' description of the influence of Paris on American painters of the late 19th century also still rings true: "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," he wrote in 1887. "When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it."

The City of Light shone like a beacon for many American artists, who felt better appreciated there than in their own business-preoccupied country. By the late 1880s, it was estimated that one in seven of the 7,000 Americans living in Paris were artists or art students. For women especially, the French capital offered an intoxicating freedom. "They were Americans, so they weren't bound by the conventions of French society," says Erica E. Hirshler of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, one of the exhibition's three curators. "And they were no longer in America, so they escaped those restrictions too."

A striking self-portrait by Ellen Day Hale, painted just before she returned to her native Boston, makes the point. Seen from below, her head tilted slightly, Hale is every bit the flâneur—that disengaged but acutely perceptive stroller through Parisian crowds celebrated by poet Charles Baudelaire as the archetypal modern figure (by which he, of course, meant "man"). "It's an amazing portrait for a woman in 1885 to be that forthright and direct and determined-looking," says Hirshler.

In America, only Philadelphia and New York City could provide the kind of rigorous artistic training, based on observation of the nude model, available in the French capital. "Go straight to Paris," the prominent Boston painter William Morris Hunt told a 17-year-old art student. "All you learn here you will have to unlearn." Paris offered the aspiring artist three educational options. Most renowned (and the hardest to enter) was the École des Beaux-Arts, the venerable state-owned institution that gave tuition-free instruction—under the supervision of such Salon luminaries as artists Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alexandre Cabanel—to students admitted by a highly competitive examination. A parallel system of private academies dispensed comparable training for a fee. (Women, who were barred from the École until 1897, typically paid twice what men were charged.) The most successful of these art-education entrepreneurs was Rodolphe Julian, whose Académie Julian drew so many applicants that he would open several branches in the city. Finally, a less formal avenue of tutelage was offered by painters who examined and criticized student work, in many cases for the pure satisfaction of mentoring. (Students provided studio space and models.)

The feeling of being an art student at the time is convincingly rendered in Jefferson David Chalfant's jewel-like 1891 depiction of an atelier at the Académie Julian (p. 81). Clusters of men at easels gather around nude models, who maintain their poses on plank tables that serve as makeshift pedestals. Weak rays of sunshine filter through the skylight, illuminating student drawings and paintings on the walls. A veil of cigarette smoke hangs in air so visibly stuffy that, more than a century later, it can still induce an involuntary cough.

Outside the halls of academe, starting in the 1860s, the French Impressionists were redefining artistic subject matter and developing original techniques. In their cityscapes, they recorded prostitutes, lonely drinkers and alienated crowds. In their landscapes, they rejected the conventions of black shading and gradually modulated tones in favor of staring hard at the patterns of light and color that deliver an image to the eye and reproducing it with dabs of paint. Even when depicting something as familiar as a haystack, Claude Monet was rethinking the way in which a paintbrush can render a visual experience.

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