By Arthur Lubow
Smithsonian magazine, January 2007
Arthur Lubow lives in Manhattan and is a contributing writer on cultural subjects to the New York Times Magazine.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John G. John1. “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.son Collection
Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John G. Johnson Collection
Sargent wanted to exhibit the Gautreau work along with his more conservative portrait of Mrs. Henry (Daisy) White in the 1883 Paris Salon, but he didn’t finish them in time.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of John Campbell White
John Singer Sargent in his Paris studio, c. 1885, with his “scandalous” portrait of Madame Gautreau, aka Madame X.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
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.”
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.)
Boston artist Ellen Day Hale (in an 1885 self-portrait) spent three years studying in Paris.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Nancy Hale Bowers
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.