Paris As It Never Was
“Americans in Paris” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

AMERICANS LOVE NOSTALGIA, Christopher Lasch wrote, because they experience it as entertainment. “Americans in Paris” is keyed to the sentiments of Americans who still cherish Adam Gopnick’s question: “Why am I happy in Paris in a way that I am not happy in Altoona?” Once, they backpacked to St. Germain-des-Pres for cafe philosophy and grand impressions; they raced to movable feasts in a deux chevaux, thrilled by Piaf and Charles Aznavour. Ah, yes, we remember it well.

Charles Pearce, The Arab Jeweler, 1882

Civilizations, too, divert themselves with backward glances to golden moments of seemingly infinite promise. From 1860 to 1900—the years of Napoleon III’s Second Empire and the Third Republic—Paris reigned as modernity’s first and most beautiful city. More than the world’s new art capital, it was, as Walter Benjamin dubbed it, “capital of the nineteenth century.”

American artists flocked there by the hundreds in the decades after the Civil War. Thomas Eakins, James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent were among the multitude of young artists who sought training and proving grounds in Paris. Familiar triumphs by these five front-runners anchor an exhibition of more than 100 oil paintings. Whistler’s “Symphony in White” (1862) and Eakins’ “The Crucifixion” (1880) are show-stoppers.

Many names here are unknown outside the United States. Some wonderful surprises surface among them. James Beckwith’s confrontational portrait of William Walton prefigures Max Beckmann’s 1939 depiction of himself in a tuxedo. Every portrait is impressive and instructive. (Note the cigarette in every male hand.) Ellen Day Hale’s assertive self-portrait and Charles Curran views of the Luxembourg and Cluny gardens leave you eager for later work. John Breck brough Monet to the Boston suburbs.

Julian Alden Weir, Henry Twachtman and Childe Hassam are beautifully represented. A series of seven diminutive plein air sketches of girls and women by Maurice Prendergast, which he never intended for exhibition, are particularly delightful.

Sargent is one of the show’s great pleasures. As he gained reputation, he took to painting in white tie and tails, encouraging his image as a society painter. But he was much more than that. “Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra” (c. 1879-80) is a spirited study in perspective. A gifted musician himself, Sargent captured the gestures of the orchestra members, foreshortened from a high view point and dynamic angle.

Sargent considered “Madame X” (1883-4), his portrait of Madame Gautreau, the best thing he had ever done. The woman’s body tilts slightly toward the table that supports her hand. A line of gravity runs from her shoulder, down her arm and through the table leg directly beneath. A turned forearm echoes the cable twist of the table leg. The vertical tension of a neck muscle, supporting her head in profile, rises from clavicle to rouged ear. Anatomical detail parallels the weight line of the composition. Magnificent.

Cassatt’s modernity, evident in her brushwork and graphic strength, overwhelms formidable contemporaries who were more acceptable to the Salon. A double portrait of her elder brother and his son fuses the two figures, each in a dark suit, into a solid black mass. The convergence suggests an emotional tie no less than the example of Japanese prints with their areas of uninflected color. Nine paintings give substantial recognition to the splendor of her hand.

The exhibition succeeds as spectacle but disappoints in its intention to examine what made Paris a magnet for Americans. It stays on the charming surface of history, where tourists are most comfortable. Paradise and power went together in Baron Haussmann’s Paris but innocents abroad, like day trippers at the Met, are shielded from the correspondence.

Bohemians and flâneurs, both depicted here, were as much luxuries of French prosperity as the grand boulevards. Yet neither imperial might nor the vast colonial expansion of the Third Republic make an appearance. In the Met’s telling, French cultural dominance existed independent of the economic ascendancy that followed empire. Between posted tutorials and the catalog, you might think the Parisian idyll came from God. Gushy wall quotes enhance the fantasy: “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1858)

During the decades celebrated here, French authority extended along the Italian peninsula to Switzerland, north to the southern edge of Denmark and across the Adriatic to the Eastern contour of the Ottoman Empire. French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa joined the colonial consensus; so did Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, French Indochina and parts of the South Pacific. Yet the only colonies acknowledged are artists’ ones: Giverny, Barbizon, Pont Avon. Only a single painting, Charles Pearce’s “The Arab Jeweler” (1882), hints at France’s reach. [One essay, though, does manage swipes at President McKinley’s “imperialist administration.”]

Except for Winslow Homer’s “Prisoners from the Front” (1866), the cataclysmic American event of the period under scrutiny is ignored. And the catalog disposes of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in two sentences. It prefers gossip to history, the kind of bistro chat neighbors share over a snifter of armagnac. Did Bouguereau ever marry that woman? Is it true, Henry White’s wife never read a book in her life? Can you get an American breakfast around here?

In the end, nostalgia is a form of forgetting. While individual paintings are engaging, some stunning, the exhibition illustrates the poverty of art history when it is used as a packaging device.

Paris was yesterday. For increasing numbers of young Frenchmen, the star and crescent burn brighter than the City of Lights. And the capitol of the 21st century could easily be Shanghai or Dubai. Unlike Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” we won’t always have Paris. We reminisce while we can.


“Americans in Paris: 1860-1900” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-570-3951).

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, October 19, 2006.

Copyright 2006, Maureen Mullarkey


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