In the late 1800s, American artists flocked to the French capital, eagerly immersing themselves in its cosmopolitan lifestyle and culture. The impact of these sojourns can be seen in a breathtaking collection of canvases now on view at Boston’s MFA.
No survey of early American painting can afford to overlook one fundamental city: Paris. The French capital played a key role in American art of the late-19th century, fashioning a generation of painters and influencing their early and later styles. “It sounds like a paradox,” Henry James said at the time, “but it is a simple truth, that when today 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.”
The “Americans in Paris” exhibition now at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts deftly illustrates James’s remark. On display are some 100 works by gifted Paris-based expatriates that both showcase their skill and serve as eloquent snapshots of the period they depict. The viewer comes away with a distinctive flavor of what it was like to be an American in Paris in the late 1800s: the hours of study in the stuffy ateliers of academicians, the afternoon strolls through parks and gardens, the evenings at the opera, the weekend jaunts to the country and coast. It is a fusion of these sights, smells, tastes and sensations that lingers in the artists’ emotional palettes; Paris is forever associated with what the modern-day American in Paris Adam Gopnik calls “the idea of happiness.”