A thoughtfully conceived, well-executed study of France’s influence on American art—and vice versa.
In 1867, writes French cultural-affairs journalist Cohen-Solal (Sartre, not reviewed), cultured Europeans flocked to the Exposition Universelle d’Art et d’Industrie to witness the end of history painting and the triumph of genre paintings such as Jean-Francois Millet’s The Harvesters. Among the artists exhibiting were ten Americans, including the landscape painter Albert Bierstadt and most members of the group later called the Hudson River School. The Americans didn’t make much of a splash, Cohen-Solal notes, though the French begrudgingly awarded Frederic E. Church a silver medal for his portrait of Niagara Falls. Despite their frosty reception, the Americans returned home convinced that France was the place to which all serious artists should repair, and for the next half-century their peers traveled there to soak up the ambience, drink good wine, and learn a few techniques using unclad models “willing to pose for only a few pennies,” as one young Alabaman wrote to his parents. The French, for their part, found these bumpkin visitors to be useful; America was a willing market for the Impressionists, who had trouble finding buyers at home. Thanks to entrepreneurs and artists such as Leo Stein, Paul Durand-Ruel, and other “ambassadors who carried the spirit of Modernism overseas,” American and French audiences alike had their horizons broadened, to the benefit of all concerned, even if the French still sniffed at the Americans among them. The outbreak of WWI in 1914 changed the equation, Cohen-Solal contends; with the war, New York emerged as the international artistic center Paris had once been, so that anyone with an interest in painting had to go there—and American artists could finally claim a home on their own shores.
Literate, accessible, and a pleasure to read: worthy to stand on a shelf next to Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years and Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New.