John White Alexander and the Construction of National Identity: Cosmopolitan American Art, 1880-1915

By Sarah J. Moore | Go to book overview
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L’invasion étrangère: Paris in the 1890s

In a review of the 1893 Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, distinguished French art critic, historian, and conservateur of paintings and drawings at the Louvre Museum, Georges Lafenestre, tallied the burgeoning number of foreign exhibitors—154 foreigners out of a total of 352 exhibitors—and concluded that “this foreign invasion” was the most characteristic, if somewhat troubling, feature of the exhibition.1 The critic for the French daily newspaper Le Siècle agreed that the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (hereafter SNBA) “had become terribly international. It amiably opened its doors and was quickly invaded.” However, he praised the foreign artists, in general, for their accomplished artistic expression, attributable to their development under the generous aegis of French masters.2

Allusions to l’invasion étrangère at the annual Salons of the SNBA (also referred to as the Champde-Mars Salons) were not gratuitous or isolated but were rather a response to the international profile of the SNBA and to the ever-increasing number of foreign exhibitors. In fact, the relative value and impact of such a foreign invasion preoccupied critical discussions of the SNBA Champ-de-Mars Salons throughout the decade of the 1890s. Elizabeth Robins Pennell, whose art criticism was a regular feature of the Fortnightly Review and The Nation (in the latter under the pseudonym N. N.), broadly praised the foreign work at the Champ-de-Mars Salons, in particular that of the Americans, as the most accomplished and noteworthy of the displays as a whole: “To exhaust the list of foreigners of note would be to complete a catalogue. Indeed, the one salient feature of the [SNBA] Salon is the prominence of foreign exhibitors.” She introduced her 1893 Salon review with the declaration, “This year’s Salons are a triumph for the foreigner in Paris, and more especially for the American.” In response to the critical debate about the internationalism of the SNBA, she argued that the international profile of the Parisian Salons was the source of their prominence and stature: “This is as it should be; art knows no artificial frontier, it recognizes no petty custom-house restrictions.”3

The annual Salons of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts provided the institutional complex within which Alexander’s work, and that of many of his cosmopolitan American colleagues, acquired international currency and critical acclaim. From 1890 to 1899, American artists’ participation in the annual Salons of the SNBA constituted a “foreign invasion,” according to the contemporary Parisian periodical press, and signaled the high watermark of American art’s internationalism and cosmopolitanism. The institutional structure of the SNBA resonated with the international topography of the Parisian art community in the 1890s: the SNBA was open to foreign membership; foreign artists sat on its juries and received coveted awards; and critics gave non-French exhibitors prominent mention in the periodical press. With respect to the particular relevance of the SNBA to the study of the discourse of American art’s national identity within an international context in the 1890s,4 American artists were the most numerous of foreign exhibitors and their works were widely discussed in the contemporary periodical press. That many of the works were largely indistinguishable from those by their French contemporaries was considered the ultimate vindication of American art’s legitimacy and currency within the international arena. Moreover, the Salons of the SNBA set the aesthetic and critical standards for a number of international exhibitions, both in Europe and in the United States, that emulated the SNBA’s artistic liberality and decidedly international, cosmopolitan orientation.5

The organization of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts forms an important chapter in the history of nineteenth-century French art institutions and is of particular relevance to the study of the internationalism of American art at the end of the

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