Paris is part of the American Dream. American writers and artists, hoping to refine their raw New World, once flocked to the city to challenge, polish, and deepen their sensibilities. We still bask in the stories they brought back. And envy them their imaginative journeys. Whistler, of an evening, strolling along the Seine; F. Scott Fitzgerald, at a Left Bank café, talking into the night with friends. That side of paradise never seems to go out of fashion.
“Americans in Paris, 1860–1900,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will charm every New Yorker who still dreams of Paris. The opening rooms hold pictures intended to make lovers of the city swoon: the Luxembourg Gardens, a couple walking in the Parisian twilight, a fashionable audience at the Théâtre Français. All told, the exhibit includes 100 pictures by 37 artists, some famous, some forgotten, in different styles and genres. There will also be some sculpture on view, notably work by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. And of course the exhibit will feature important works by the great expatriates Whistler and Sargent, each of whom lived mainly in London but hoped to dazzle Paris.
In the nineteenth century, hundreds of Americans chose to study in Paris, and not just because the city was sublimely seductive or could offer them the best teachers. Paris was also how Americans could succeed in Chicago and New York. Since most hometown collectors preferred French to American art, many Americans tried to paint with a French accent. Paris also held out particular promise for women, offering them a psychological freedom that could not be found at home—scholars estimate that one-third of the Americans studying art there in those years were women. (The only American to show with the Impressionists, Mary Cassatt, was a deft chronicler of Parisian domestic life.) Americans brought widely varying outlooks to the city. Some were bohemians, others stylish dandies. The rigors of the Academy attracted many, as did the free-floating spirit of Impressionism. Rich enough to serve them all, Paris, said one American, became “one vast studio.”
—Americans in Paris, 1860–1900 , Metropolitan Museum of Art; October 24 through January 28 Next: Chelsea’s Season of Change