Americans in Paris, 1860–1900
October 24, 2006–January 28, 2007
Paris was the art capital of the nineteenth century. The city's art schools, museums, and exhibition spaces, along with the popular attitude that the arts were an integral part of everyday life, attracted painters, sculptors, and architects from around the world. The American painter May Alcott observed that Paris "is apt to strike a new-comer as being but one vast studio." Her compatriot Cecilia Beaux exclaimed, "Everything is there."
In the decades following the Civil War, hundreds of Americans joined the throngs headed to Paris. Needing to compete with French artists, especially the academics whose works were being snatched up by wealthy American collectors, they enrolled in the prestigious government-sponsored École des Beaux-Arts and in thriving private academies and studios. They studied the masterpieces hanging in the Louvre and marveled at the modern works on display at the Paris Salons, world's fairs, and other exhibitions, including the Impressionists' eight shows. The Americans established their own professional credibility by presenting their paintings and sculpture in these forums.
The experience of Paris transformed American art. As Henry James remarked in 1887: "It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when to-day we look for 'American art' we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it." This exhibition examines why Paris was a magnet for Americans, what they found there and how they responded to it, and which lessons they ultimately brought back to the United States.