We'll always have Paris
Paris! Paris!! Paris!!! The very name had always been one to conjure with, whether he thought of it as a mere sound on the lips and in the ear, or as a magical written or printed word for the eye. And here was the thing itself at last, and he, he himself, ipsissimus, in the very heart of it, to live there and learn there as long as he liked, and make himself the great artist he longed to be.
Thus exults Little Billee, the young hero of George du Maurier’s bestselling novel, Trilby, published in 1894 and based on Du Maurier’s memories of his own days as an art student in Paris in the 1850s. Little Billee is English, but many aspiring American painters arrived in Paris in the same ecstatic mood in the second half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, one of Du Maurier’s friends and fellow students at the atelier of Charles Gleyre was James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who would become the most celebrated American painter of the century. John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt are almost equally well known, but there were scores of others, less familiar perhaps to us in Britain, who studied, lived and worked in the French capital. The American art community in Paris at this period was by far the biggest foreign national presence, with significant cultural consequences for both America and Europe. The National Gallery’s first major exhibition of 2006, ‘Americans in Paris: 1860—1900’, is dedicated to exploring this phenomenon.
John White Alexander, Repose, 1895
In itself it was not a surprising one. By the second half of the nineteenth century, America was already conscious of its destiny as a world power. It had wealth, energy and vast natural resources. What it lacked, and what Europe possessed in spades, was culture, style, sophistication; and no city possessed those attributes in a more alluring form than Paris. ‘Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris,’ Thomas Appleton proverbially opined. Many chose not to wait that long. For all its political failings, the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852—70) had transformed the physical appearance of the capital and created a vibrant, hedonistic social climate, which artists of all kinds found particularly stimulating. The American novelist Henry James, who lived in Paris for several formative years before he settled in England, described its attractions eloquently in an essay of 1877:
Stand on the edge of the Place de la Concorde, at the bottom of the Champs-Elysées, on any fine-weathered Sunday in the late spring — on a day when there are races beyond the Bois de Boulogne — and you will feel the full force of all the traditions about Paris being the gayest, easiest, eagerest, most pleasure-seeking of capitals. The light has a silvery shimmer, the ladies’ dresses in the carriages a charming harmony, the soldiers’ red trousers a martial animation, the white caps of the bonnes a gleaming freshness. The carriages sweep in a dense line up the long vista of the Champs-Elysées, amid the cool fresh verdure, and lines of well dressed people sitting on neat little yellow chairs; the great mass of the Arc de Triomphe rises with majestic grace, transmuted by distance into a sort of violet shadow; the fountains sparkle and drizzle in the vast sunny place; the Seine sweeps by in an amber flood, through a channel that gleams like marble beneath the league-long frontage of the splendid Louvre, and beyond that, crowning the picturesque purple mass before which the river divides, the towers of Notre-Dame stand up and balance in the opposite distance with the softened majesty of the Arch.
This is a very painterly description of Paris, which by its emphasis on colour and light brings to the mind’s eye innumerable Impressionist pictures of the capital. James’s artistic taste was conservative, and his first response to Impressionism was unsympathetic, but in time he came to appreciate it and his own descriptive style in fiction became increasingly ‘impressionistic’. The period of 1860 to 1900 in France was dominated by the triumph, after initial resistance, of Impressionism over academic, Salon-approved art, and it was a movement which in due course conquered the whole Western world. The American ex-pats in Paris played their part in this story. The National Gallery exhibition shows them in different ways, and with varying degrees of boldness, modifying their native tradition of realism and breaking the rules of their academic teachers, in favour of the techniques of Impressionism.
Whistler was more of a leader than a follower in this respect, his landscapes and seascapes of the mid-1860s being, as a writer in the exhibition’s catalogue observes, more radical than the contemporaneous work of Boudin and Monet. The reception of his Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl, rejected by the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1862, and by the Paris Salon in 1863, shown to widespread derision at the Salon des Refusés in the same year, but recognised as a masterpiece well before the end of the century, was exemplary. Mary Cassatt was invited by Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists after her paintings were rejected by the Salon in 1877, and she figured in all their subsequent exhibitions. ‘Americans in Paris’ is particularly rich in examples of her work, and, with a free exhibition of her prints running there concurrently, she could be said to be the star. Her studies of women and children in domestic settings are indeed superb, but the atmosphere of untroubled innocence and respectability in which these subjects are wrapped provokes another thought.
In the late nineteenth century Paris was perceived as a sexy city in the literal, as well as the modern metaphorical sense of that word. Parisian literature, theatre and popular entertainment were by the standards of Britain and America, scandalously or thrillingly explicit. Ever since Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème was first published in 1848 (and considered too risqué to be translated into English until 1888), sexual licence had been especially associated with the city’s artists and writers, their models and mistresses. If this was one of Paris’s attractions for American artists, and if they availed themselves of its opportunities in this respect, there is little visible evidence of it in the exhibition. There are very few pictures that are erotically charged, and in those — like Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, or John White Alexander’s Repose — the female subjects are fully, if seductively, clothed. The only nude in the lavishly illustrated catalogue is the demurely posed model in Jefferson David Chalfont’s evocative picture of Bouguereau’s Atelier at the Académie Julian, with her back turned to the industriously engaged students in the life class. When you think of what contemporary French artists like Manet, Degas, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec were doing at this period in their depiction of the female nude, and of the seamier side of sexual life, the complete absence of anything comparable from the exhibition is striking. What can explain it? The contributors to the catalogue, wonderfully informative on every other aspect of the American artistic presence in Paris, are silent on this topic. Perhaps the artists, who hoped to sell their work in America and in most cases to make their careers there, refrained from attempting any subject or style that might shock the puritanical American public.
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