Magazine article The Spectator

Crossing Continents

Magazine article The Spectator

Crossing Continents

Article excerpt

Americans in Paris 1860-1900 National Gallery, until 21 May Sponsored by Rothschild Winslow Homer, Poet of the Sea Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 21 May

When a Bostonian wit remarked, 'Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris', he was merely expressing the secure place the French capital occupied in the nation's heart. Paris represented a dream (or reality for the increasing number who travelled there) of happiness, a spiritual or physical home, the premier destination for thousands of American artists and art students. Many who went, perhaps as many as a third, were women.

As one of their number, the little-known painter Cecilia Beaux, remarked, 'Everything is there.' Three of her paintings are included here, among a glittering list of 87 exhibits by more than 30 artists.

This is not just another exhibition tagging on the shirt-tails of the Impressionists. The range is extensive, the mixture of known and unknown is stimulating, the total effect deeply impressive. Such a relief after that half-baked exhibition at the Royal Academy last summer, Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting.

Paris is the key, of course. The first and the last rooms of this otherwise splendid exhibition demonstrate that conclusively.

The first room is devoted to portraits of the artists rather than the city, the last room is titled 'Back in the USA', and what an anticlimax it is. In fact, the portraits are quite a lively bunch. There's the bearded sage of Barbizon, William Morris Hunt, and the bold, confrontational, faintly androgynous Ellen Day Heale. Sargent's dashing portrayal of Carolus-Duran couldn't be more different from the unassertive Mr Hermann Murphy by Henry Ossawa Tanner, fading away in the paint. To cap them all, there's Thomas Hovenden's bizarre self-portrait, as he leans back smoking, assessing his painting with his feet up, having just broken off his fiddle playing.

As you move into Room 2, you are greeted by Whistler's Mother. To the right is the same master's 'Symphony in White, No. 1', while to the left and behind is a vision in blue, William Merritt Chase's 'Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler'. The subject remains people, agreed, but the stakes are suddenly much higher -- these are paintings which are formally inventive, challenging in terms of colour, and made to be shown (or rejected) by the Salon.

Thomas Eakins's vast 'Crucifixion' was rejected, Elizabeth Jane Gardner (whose ultra-conservative biblical subject 'The Shepherd David' is quite horrid) was one of the first American women to be successful at the Salon; she later married her teacher, the much-reviled Bouguereau. By contrast, in a corner is Cecilia Beaux's 'Sita and Sarita', a charming painting of a young girl with a cat, which is also a knowing take on Manet's 'Olympia'.

Room 3 is given over to a group of smaller paintings, and a couple of very fine things by Sargent -- flowers flaring passionately in the gathering dusk of the Luxembourg Gardens, and a whizzy orchestral rehearsal, all surge and plunge.

Room 4 is dominated by the most Europeanised of the American women painters, Mary Cassatt, who was friends with Degas and Pissarro and exhibited with the Impressionists. She is shown here to great effect, excelling in blue ('Little Girl in a Blue Armchair') and in flesh tones, the first time a sizeable group of her paintings has been shown in Britain. (There is a separate and additional display of Mary Cassatt's prints, admission free, in Room 1 of the Gallery, in which she shows her indebtedness to Japanese woodblock prints, and her interest in subtle colour and pattern over realism. …

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