An ambitious, wide-ranging study of how being in Paris helped spark generations of American genius.
Not content to focus on a few of the 19th-century American artists, doctors and statesmen who benefited enormously from their Parisian education, award-winning historian McCullough (1776, 2005, etc.) embraces a cluster of aspiring young people such as portraitist George Healy and lawyer Charles Sumner, eager to expand their horizons in the 1830s by enduring the long sea passage, then spirals out to include numerous other visitors over an entire eventful century. In the early period of trans-Atlantic travel, American tourists were truly risking their lives over the weeks of rough sailing, but novelist James Fenimore Cooper, widowed schoolteacher Emma Hart Willard and young medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. all knew their education was not complete without a stint in the medieval capital. For many of these American rubes, exposure to the fine arts, old-world architecture, fashion, fine dining, museums and teaching hospitals proved transformative, and the knowledge they gained would define their professional lives back in America. The year in Paris artist Samuel Morse painted his extraordinary The Gallery of the Louvre would provide the climax of one career and segue into another—as inventor of the electric telegraph. The revolutionary upheaval of 1848, the advent of the Second Empire and the massive redesign wrought by “demolition artist” Georges-Eugène Haussmann changed Paris profoundly, some said for the better, while the Americans continued to arrive: sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Congressman Elihu B. Washburne and painter Mary Cassatt, among many others. For some, like John Singer Sargent, who had been brought up traversing European capitals, their time spent in Paris would reveal what made them quintessentially American.
A gorgeously rich, sparkling patchwork, eliciting stories from diaries and memoirs to create the human drama McCullough depicts so well.