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Americans In Paris 1860-1900 - National Gallery

Feature by James Haddrell

LAST year’s blockbuster Royal Academy exhibition Impressionism Abroad presented evidence of a very clear love affair between late 19th Century Bostonian painters and collectors and the French Impressionists.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the National Gallery’s Americans In Paris, whilst including its own elements of Impressionism, reveals what a small part Impressionism actually played in the aesthetic American experience in the French capital.

Whilst the first name that springs to mind when thinking about French art of the period is almost guaranteed to be one of the superstar Impressionists, it is far from the case that these artists, in either their lives or their work, characterised the Parisian art scene to which Americans were drawn.

In fact, the reason the Impressionists chose to mount the first of their group exhibitions in 1874 was precisely because the annual Salon, the place where the public most commonly came into contact with contemporary art, was regularly refusing to accept their works, because to the majority of exhibition goers their works appeared unsophisticated, schematic, unfinished.

Thus to those Americans travelling to Paris the classically influenced works regularly accepted and displayed by the Salon would have been just as strong an influence as the decidedly avant-garde works of Manet and his younger followers.

Many of the works in Kathleen Adler, Erica Hirshler and Barbara Weinberg’s exhibition reveal this dual influence, and the most striking must be John Singer Sargent’s large scale group portrait, The Daughters Of Edward Darley Boit.

In some ways the least American of the Americans on show, one near contemporary described Sargent as ‘an American born in Italy, educated in France, who looks like a German, speaks like an Englishman and paints like a Spaniard’ (the Spanish reference being a nod to Velazquez who Sargent, like Manet, revered – in this case, the Boit portrait clearly references the Spaniard’s legendary royal portrait, Las Meninas).

Until the first decade of the 20th Century, when he announced that he would paint ‘no more mugs’, Sargent was renowned as the leading society portraitist of his time, but the Boit commission is more than a simple portrait.

At the time, Sargent was looking for a work to submit to the 1883 Salon and his close relationship with the Boits may well have led to some collusion in the creation of the work, satisfying both the desire for a striking family portrait and the need for a significant new work. There is little documentation to either confirm or refute this shared conception – no record of the commission has been found – and the claim that the work was painted over three consecutive summers must therefore remain unproven.

In the painting itself, the only tenuous evidence for this elongated period is the apparent lack of interaction between the girls, as if they were each painted separately before being collated – the sense of dislocation to which Sargent’s father referred when he called the work ‘four portraits of children in one picture’.

Mary Louisa on the extreme left, Jane in the centre, and the four-year-old Julia in the foreground all appear to face directly out of the picture space at the viewer (originally, presumably, at the painter), but in fact their gazes are parallel, not crossing at any point.

Whichever girl’s eye you choose to meet, the other two look endlessly past you. Far from competing for our attention, the girls stand apart while we strain for theirs. With two of the three girls apparently oblivious to the viewer’s presence at any moment, the sisters have an otherworldly feel, somehow dislocated not only from each other and their surroundings, but from us as well. And then there’s Florence, leaning against one of the Boit’s giant Japanese vases, a vision of petulant youth unprecedented in society portraiture.

Worth the admission fee alone, The Daughters Of Edward Darley Boit is an endlessly confounding work, haunting in its representation of these quietly distant girls, and it is with individual stories and unique works like this that Americans In Paris operates.

It is not a retrospective of a movement or a single artist, not an overview of a common subject and, in many cases, it falls a long way short of being a collection of masterpieces. It is rather a collection of individual stories.

Mary Cassatt, the only American officially linked to the Impressionist movement, brought the feathered brushstrokes of her friend, Degas, into a domestic female environment; Henry Ossawa Tanner, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, showed an affection for the pre-Impressionist Barbizon school before moving towards the painterly style of the Symbolists; the work of Winslow Homer, currently enjoying his own retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery, reveals as much stylistic influence from his time spent in England as in France.

The one thing that links these artists, besides their nationality, is their shared pilgrimage to the European artistic capital, but it is their differences which serve to characterise Americans In Paris, an exhibition of disparate stories and some, if far from all, astonishing works.

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Picture Credit: John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882 © 2003 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts

Americans In Paris 1860-1900
Until May 21, 2006
Supported by Rothschild
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN
0870 906 3891;
Open daily 10am-6pm; Wed 10am-9pm

Admission: £9.00; various concessions from £4