Paris was the art capital of the nineteenth century. The city’s art schools, museums, and exhibition spaces, along with the popular attitude that the arts were an integral part of everyday life, attracted painters, sculptors, and architects from around the world. The American painter May Alcott observed that Paris “is apt to strike a new-comer as being but one vast studio.” Her compatriot Cecilia Beaux exclaimed, “Everything is there.”
In the decades following the Civil War, hundreds of Americans joined the throngs headed to Paris. Needing to compete with French artists, especially the academics whose works were being snatched up by wealthy American collectors, they enrolled in the prestigious government-sponsored École des Beaux-Arts and in thriving private academies and studios. They studied the masterpieces hanging in the Louvre and marveled at the modern works on display at the Paris Salons, world’s fairs, and other exhibitions, including the eight shows of the Impressionists. The Americans established their own professional credibility by presenting their paintings and sculpture in these forums.
The experience of Paris transformed American art. As Henry James remarked in 1887: “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.” This essay examines why Paris was a magnet for Americans, what they found there and how they responded to it, and which lessons they ultimately brought back to the United States.
During the late nineteenth century, Paris grew dramatically, drawing citizens from all over France as well as foreign visitors and expatriates. In 1853, the year after Emperor Napoleon III ascended the throne, he hired the civic planner Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to transform the ancient capital into a modern metropolis. After the city was besieged and badly damaged during the Franco-Prussian War and Paris Commune in 1870–71, its renovation resumed during the Third Republic. The uniform height and human scale of many of its buildings, along with the Seine winding through its center, gave Paris a distinctive, harmonious appearance that was enhanced by tree-lined boulevards that Haussmann ruthlessly cut through old neighborhoods, grand vistas terminating in impressive monuments, and hospitable parks, refurbished squares, and verdant promenades. Statuary, redecorated churches and public structures, and the luxurious new Opéra underscored the city’s cultural authority and its commitment to art and good taste.
Aware that the time they had in Paris was precious, most Americans devoted themselves to their studies. Yet many responded to the city’s beauty and dynamism and recorded its emblematic sites in quick sketches and more complex exhibition pictures. Other painters were drawn to its myriad entertainments—lively concerts, theaters, and cafés—which they usually depicted from the audience’s point of view, thus denoting their own roles as visiting spectators.
Artists in Paris
Americans were entranced by two stereotypes about the artist’s life in Paris—the impecunious bohemian and the self-confident flâneur. Painters often adopted one of these distinctively Parisian personas in their self-portraits or in their depictions of one another, thus claiming for themselves a certain cosmopolitan sophistication.
The bohemian ideal was first characterized by the French writer Henri Murger during the 1840s. In a series of magazine articles based on his own experiences, Murger told stories in which artists sacrifice creature comforts in order to devote themselves to their muse. His tales were turned into a successful musical in 1849, published as a book in 1851, and translated into English in 1888. Murger’s stories inspired Giacomo Puccini’s popular 1896 opera La Bohème and continued to captivate Americans for decades.
Described by Charles Baudelaire in his essays of the 1850s, the flâneur was a modern character, “a gentleman stroller of the city streets.” Consummately well dressed, he was a man-about-town, an impartial observer of contemporary urban life.
At Home in Paris
American artists, who formed the largest contingent of foreign painters and sculptors in Paris, were only one segment of the capital’s extensive American colony, which also included writers, businessmen, diplomats, and others in more-or-less permanent residence. Many American artists stayed together, and enclaves of them developed on the Left Bank, along the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs and near the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian’s headquarters.
Several American artists moved easily within French society. They were fluent in French and thus able to interact with their French colleagues, to keep up with current criticism and events, and to comfortably read a novel, attend the theater, or participate in social engagements. Although some lived in Paris for long periods—even the rest of their lives—most insisted on identifying themselves as American.
Life at home in Paris provided several painters with subjects for their brush. Julius LeBlanc Stewart achieved notice for a series of pictures of Parisian society, while Mary Fairchild recorded more modest images of everyday life. Mary Cassatt was completely at ease in Paris. French-speaking, independent, fiercely devoted to her work, and committed to making a living as an artist despite her wealth, she was the only American member of the French Impressionist group, exhibiting with them four times between 1879 and 1886. She made the home her most frequent subject, applying her modern painting technique to traditional domestic themes.
Paris as Proving Ground
Recognition from the Parisian art world was central to almost every artist’s plans—even if he or she had returned home after studying there or had never studied there at all. Nowhere but Paris could an artist be judged according to the highest standards and earn credentials that would ensure future success. Criticism flourished, with many French newspapers and journals providing lengthy reviews. Their comments were picked up by the American press, which also covered Paris exhibitions extensively.
The annual Salons were showcases for thousands of paintings and sculptures that were seen by tens of thousands of visitors. Pictures reflecting an inevitably miscellaneous mix of subjects and styles were usually installed frame-to-frame and from floor to ceiling in immense galleries. Artists competed fiercely for admission, position, and prizes, all of which were controlled by juries of leading masters.
The official Salon was administered by the French government through 1880 and by the Société des Artistes Français thereafter. In response to artists’ complaints about a particularly rigid jury in 1863, Napoleon III authorized a Salon des Refusés, the first of a handful of such exhibitions of rejected works. In 1890, the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts organized a second, slightly more liberal Salon to challenge the established annual exhibition.
Each decade, an Exposition Universelle provided a further opportunity to make one’s mark in Paris. National committees chose entries for these huge world’s fairs, and the various displays shifted in tenor from one exposition to the next: the 1867 United States committee emphasized American subjects (and postbellum reconciliation); the 1889 committee stressed international themes rendered in a variety of French styles. The Impressionists exhibited together eight times between 1874 and 1886, and commercial galleries, having begun as purveyors of art supplies, expanded to become representatives for living artists and locations for showing and selling art.
Summers in the Country
By July, after the Salon season had ended, Americans 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.
Summers in the Country: Giverny
Many American painters were drawn to Giverny, the ancient Norman farming hamlet on the Seine, about 53 miles northwest of Paris, where Claude Monet had settled in April 1883. John Singer Sargent, the only American known to have been acquainted with Monet before traveling to the village, apparently visited in mid-summer 1885. Willard Metcalf, who is said to have discovered Giverny by chance in 1885, made his first extended visit in September 1886 and was joined there by several Americans in summer 1887. As early as October 1887, a writer for Art Amateur could marvel: “Quite an American colony has gathered, I am told, at Givernay [sic]. … A few pictures just received from these young men show that they have all got the blue-green color of Monet’s impressionism and ‘got it bad.'” Although Monet set an artistic example for the Americans at Giverny, he avoided most of them and even threatened in March 1892 to sell his house and leave the village because of the attention two of them were paying to his stepdaughters. Giverny would continue to flourish as a rural retreat for American painters until about 1915.
Back in the United States
When they returned to the United States, artists worked to reconcile the lessons they had learned in Paris with American subjects and taste. Among the other styles that repatriated artists espoused, the American brand of Impressionism enabled them to announce their cosmopolitanism while also responding to the growing sense of national identity that emerged in the 1890s.
Like their French mentors, the American Impressionists maintained that personal experience was the only appropriate source for subjects, which should be transcribed freshly and directly. Thus, they recorded burgeoning American cities and familiar rural locales, especially in New England, a region that evoked reassuring historical associations in a time of bewildering change. The Americans created a distinctive version of Impressionism, often combining the solid, substantial forms they had learned to paint in Parisian academies with a new interest in natural light, luminous color, and flickering brushwork. This stylistic duality is conspicuous in American Impressionist figure paintings, many of which also proclaim the national preference for a genteel, wholesome feminine ideal.