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Americans in Paris, 1860–1900

October 24, 2006–January 28, 2007

Summers in the Country

By July, after the Salon season had ended, American painters in Paris, like their international counterparts, sought respite from the city's art scene and summer heat. They settled temporarily in picturesque rural villages that were redolent of tradition, old-fashioned values, and spiritual authenticity.

Most of the alluring country retreats were in the suburbs or in Normandy and Brittany. They were all easily accessible, first by railroad to a larger nearby town and then by horse-drawn vehicle or on foot-journeys that in themselves signified beguiling transitions from the present to the past. These bucolic locales invited artists to work outdoors in the company of like-minded colleagues and to live for a while as bohemians in pastoral calm, even to don wooden clogs and straw hats as practical—and symbolic—accessories. Key attractions were modest living costs, cheap accommodations, and farmers, fisherfolk, and other local types who were willing to pose for a few sous. "The life in the open air, together with the absorbing, delightful occupation of painting from nature, followed by the pleasant reunions in the evening, constituted an ideal existence to which I know no parallel," recalled one artist.

The colonies that developed in some of these rustic communities—Barbizon, Pont-Aven, Grez-sur-Loing, and Giverny, for example—attracted dozens of artists each summer and a few who bought houses, built studios, and remained for years. In the countryside, painters made sketches for later reference or completed more ambitious canvases on the spot. The ultimate goals were works for exhibition—perhaps in the next year's Salon—and sale.