The Allure of the Garret

Mary Cassatt's Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878).Photo: Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

In the nineteenth century, American artists liked to depict the wilderness as an Eden, but many actually found Paris the more tempting paradise. The Old World, no less than the New, seemed to hold out an ineffable promise. Ambitious expatriates not only learned the craft of painting while polishing their résumés—collectors of the day wanted American art to have a French accent—they also dreamed of a life more subtle, mysterious, and romantic than the one at home. Hundreds of Americans took classes from Parisian masters, submitted their work to the Salons, and joined in the seductive life of the city. “If I must go home soon I hardly know what will take [the] place of my weekly visit to the Louvre,” complained one. “Perhaps patriotism.”

“Americans in Paris, 1860–1900,” which opens this week at the Met, is an evocation of this long-standing nineteenth-century passion. The show is an obvious crowd-pleaser—Paris hasn’t lost its allure—but will appeal to different people for different reasons. For many, the visual perfume of Paris will be enough. In the hands of even a minor painter (the show includes the work of 37 artists, some of them obscure), the picture of a Parisian garden will have a ready charm. In the hands of a John Singer Sargent, the elegance of Paris becomes intoxicating. Sargent spent most of his life in England, but his gorgeous froth—his brush is as fluent, and sometimes as superficial, as a bon mot—seems more French than English, let alone American. Sargent doesn’t just illustrate the stylish; he is stylishness itself. His In the Luxembourg Gardens is a picture in which elegance has a heightened, almost religious aura.

The exhibit will also charm those who still dream of being young and an artist in Paris. Most nineteenth-century American artists went to Paris when they were just setting out—Go east, young man!—and many preferred to work in more conservative styles. They therefore made pictures that illustrate nineteenth-century Parisian life in a fairly realistic way. The exhibit is divided into thematic rooms (such as “Picturing Paris,” “At Home in Paris,” “Summers in the Country”). As the organizers suggest, two versions of the artist’s life particularly interested the young painters of the day. On the one hand, they were drawn to the Baudelairean flâneur, the detached observer of the modern city who indolently cultivates his imagination. On the other, they admired the poor bohemian in his garret. There’s not much of the gritty garret here, but you can find any number of dandies. If an artist named William Walton had spent as much time refining his art as he obviously did perfecting his mustache (which makes an appearance in his portrait, by James Carroll Beckwith) he might today be remembered as a painter. I mean no disrespect, of course: Most people fail to perfect anything at all.

Women artists found Paris much more open-minded than nineteenth-century America was. The best-known among them, the Impressionist Mary Cassatt, lived there for many years. She’s celebrated for her intimate domestic scenes, but she also had a sharp eye for public performance. In the artless sprawl of the child in Little Girl in a Blue Armchair you can find foreshadowed the pose of a provocative adult. In another picture, she depicted a woman at the theater looking at the stage with her opera glasses, as she herself is examined by a man across the way. The exhibit contains works by six largely unknown female artists—unusual in a survey of nineteenth-century work—who paint just as well as the largely unknown male artists. Again and again, one wants to hear the stories behind the scenes on view (preferably in the form of a Henry James novella). A woman named Anna Elizabeth Klumpke not only made a handsome portrait of the French painter Rosa Bonheur, for example, but she went to live with Bonheur after painting the picture, becoming her companion and eventual heir. For the portrait, Bonheur requested that she be presented in a graceful feminine form—but with no fudging about her age.

In this show, the unfamiliar works offer a value apart from the occasional chance to discover an overlooked talent. They transcribe the fashionable obsessions of the day, from Impressionism to Symbolism, often providing a clearer record than that created by genius, which tends to be offbeat and idiosyncratic. More important, they provide a telling contrast to the better work on view. Apart from the Parisian charm, that’s what’s best about this show: the lively talk among the pictures. That conversation can be cruel. With the exception of Childe Hassam, the American Impressionists become, when compared with Sargent or Eakins, pretty cups of weak tea. Afraid of the radical implications of the style, the conservative Impressionists would typically give the human figures a realistic weight they refused the landscape, often creating a visually unresolved picture.

The curators relish making juxtapositions, large and small. Robert Vonnoh was not a great painter, but his little study of Poppies is, in fact, a work of radical Impressionism—and more interesting than its neighbor, a flower painting by the greater artist Childe Hassam. Comparing them disciplines the eye. The plum in the show’s pudding, where the mix comes together in the most surprising way, is a room whose walls are painted a kind of too-bright purple. (The actual color is called, I kid you not, “raisin torte.”) On one wall is the magisterial Whistler portrait Symphony in White. Hanging beside it are three of the best Sargents: first, a fairly conventional society portrait, Mrs. Henry White, then the legendary and more radical Madame X, and finally Sargent’s mysterious masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, one of the greatest paintings of children in the history of art. Facing this wall are two small but powerful works by Winslow Homer, including one of a woman dancing near the sea that has a Symbolist aura, and two brilliantly sober works by Thomas Eakins. The force field established on each wall—and between the two walls—has a power that goes well beyond style, charm, and nostalgia.

The American painters who set out to live the expat life in Paris may have wanted to escape American culture, but not all of them could actually speak French. Whistler, Sargent, and Cassatt were fluent. But the ugly Americans were there, too: Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow knew very little French when he first arrived in 1865, and Edmund Tarbell wrote home to his fiancée in 1884, “We have to point to things on the bill of fare, which is rather an amusing way of ordering one’s dinner, don’t you think?” History does not record his reaction to escargot.

Americans in Paris, 1860-1900
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through January 28.

The Allure of the Garret