Apr 2006 Journal

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Art Notes

This is Paris. And I'm an American who lives here.' Thus Gene Kelly, as struggling artist Jerry Mulligan, opens the Gershwin musical An American in Paris. Though the 1950s film may have little to do with the Rothschild-sponsored National Gallery's new exhibition, Americans in Paris 1860-1900, it does evoke the passion and romance which Paris suggests to New World artists who had only a puritan, rural tradition derived from the Pilgrim Fathers.

So it is easy to see why leading American nineteenth-century artists like James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent {who briefly flirted with the Pre-Raphaelites) flocked to the French capital. Paris attracted not only painters: Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein held court there too. For though Paris was a place of new ideas, it also had a formalism which resonated with the Americans, happy to exchange the forks and shovels of New Settler zeal for the upholstered indulgence of old European society.

Few artists, though, brought America to France; the one exception is American Realist Winslow Homer's painting of the American Civil War, a subject of which he was the leading exponent. The subjects are very French: women at the salon, formal child poses in large drawing rooms, and luminous portraiture by Thomas Hovenden, Charles Pearce and Robert Vannah, whose penetrating study of John Severinus reflects French mannerism and the influence of Velasquez.

There are some intense mother-and-child paintings by Mary Cassatt, Mary Fairchild and Elizabeth Nourse. In Cecilia Beaux's Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance, a child is seated on her mother's lap and gazes out into the future while her mother, all in black, seems to mourn the past. Thomas Eakin's concentrated study of a cellist brings his Realism to the fore.

The tremulous beauty of Whistler's White Lady contrasts with the emphasis on male sartorial elegance favoured by several artists. Rejected by the Paris cognoscenti, it nonetheless became one of the most talked-about paintings in the salons of the day.

Crucifixion scenes became popular once more in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, but again Eakin's highly realistic version was sniffily rejected by the Paris salons. Many Americans shared Eakin's reluctance to embrace Impressionism. The only American Impressionist was Mary Cassatt, to whose prints an entire room has been devoted. Influenced by Degas, Cassatt's prints equally betray a Japanese line.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Singer Sargent's stunning full-length portrait of Mme X in a daring black dress. The porcelain effect of her white skin is achieved with lavender powder; with her insouciant profile she is the apogee of Paris society. Beside her, and looking the other way, is a portrait by the same artist of Mme Poitreau in white - the two rival grandes dames of their day. But what did the Americans take home from Paris? An appreciation of the sun-bathed New England landscape, whose lambent atmosphere in their later work far transcends the cold European light. The exhibition runs until 21 May before moving to Boston and New York.
Gloria Tessler

previous article:Making a New Life: Women's work
next article:Diligent study (book review)