Speakers: Iman Khakoo, Intern, Stephen J. Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, Rose Sheehan, Intern, Muyon Zhou, Intern
Iman Khakoo: A winged woman, crowned with laurels, holds a trumpet aloft. Her cheek hollow with the effort of sounding the instrument. Above her, rays of light emanate from a five-point star. On the plaque at her feet is the name Walter Gay. The woman is Victory and a trumpet blast from the surface of a medal, designed by Louis-Alexandre Bottée and minted by the Paris Mint, awarded to notable exhibitors at the 1889 French Exposition Universelle.
The silver medal just described went to Walter Gay, an American artist who, at the time of the 1889 exposition had already racked up over 10 years as a Paris resident. A decade later Gay, now a certified expatriate, won a second silver medal at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in France. Both medals, and 12 others, awarded to Gay between 1888 and 1932 were gifted to the Frick Art Reference Library by Peter Heydon, PhD, in December, 2017. The fruits of various international exhibitions and artistic societies, the medals compliment the library's Walter and Matilda Gay Collection, an archive that includes correspondence, photographs, Gay's Légion d'Honneur decorations, and the 3,000 odd page diary kept intermittently by Gay's wife, Matilda between 1904 and 1934.
Stephen Bury: The Gay medals are like the cumulation of putting together an archive. They're part of a whole pathway that really started off with some printed books that we had from the 1930s.
Iman Khakoo: That's Stephen Bury Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian of the Frick Art Reference Library. After acquiring Matilda Gay's diary, Bury was drawn to the medals because of their relationship with other works in the library's collection.
Stephen Bury: Then finally, these medals came along, primarily awards at art exhibitions. And for me, that connected our exhibition catalogs from the Salon, the universal exhibitions and our international European art exhibitions. And you could, sort of, put the medals in the context of that material.
Rose Sheehan: Walter Gay is best known, not for the early canvases that won him his two silver exposition medals, but instead for the unoccupied interiors and still lifes that he produced in oil paint, watercolor and pastel during the latter half of his career. In fact, commentators, from 20th century critics to Gay himself, pronounce his earlier works outmoded, insignificant or derivative, and then promptly forget the snatches of 18th century life and large-scale views of peasants and laborers that the artists painted between 1876 and 1895. Even Matilda, always her husband's most ardent and unequivocal supporter, seems to write off Le Bénédicité, arguably Gay's most successful early painting, as irrelevant.
Describing in her diary an 1930 visit to the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, where Le Bénédicité hangs. She writes, "It is interesting to visit provincial museums, those tombs of fashion and art." But if, only decades after their production, Walter Gay's early works were considered rightfully entombed, merely as one New York times reporter put it in 1938, "ancient canvases," then why the medals?
The awards Gay received at the two French expositions represent only a small portion of the acclaim that artist enjoyed in late 19th century Europe. A third class gold medal at the 1888 Paris Salon, the centuries old exhibition that could make or break a young artist, election to the French Legion of Honor, the purchase of multiple paintings by the French state, honors and international exhibitions across the continent. At the time of their production Gay's early canvases were lauded rather than dismissed throughout Europe and especially in the artist's adopted country of France.
The Frick Art Reference Library's two exposition medals and the general European success of Walter Gay's early works shed light on the complex and often contentious relationship between American and continental artistic communities at the turn of the century. Through the lens of the library's archival materials, we can see Gay as a painter poised between France and his birthplace, an American with, as he put it, "a sentiment for the past, drawn to a place that, unlike his Homeland, was steeped in artistic and aesthetic tradition." This is the Frick Art Reference Libraries A Peak Into the Past, episode two: An American Abroad.
"France has not fallen away from the great traditions," asserts a guide to the art at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, produced by the French newspaper Le Figaro at its 19th century expositions France unveiled the Eiffel Tower, hosted international competitions for such honors as the Grand Prix de Champagne, and to every visitor admitted, announced its past, present, and future excellence as a nation.
The two medals in the Frick Art Reference Libraries Collection were designed to communicate that excellence. While the figure of Victory and the reverse of the 1889 medal supports her trumpet with one hand. With the other, she hoists an oversized bust of France, personified as a female. The words La Republique Francaise, printed beneath Victory's upraised instrument make the medal's message abundantly clear. France is literally elevated above its fellow nations in victory. The 1900 medal designed by Jules-Clément Chaplain and minted by the Paris Mint also features both Winged Victory on its reverse and female France on its obverse.
Here France's enormous bust mimics the oak tree that curves around it, next sprouting up from the earth like the tree's trunk. Crowding the bust's head is a peaked cap with dangling ear flaps. During the French Revolution, this hat, known as the Phrygian cap, denoted radical antiroyalist sentiment. Its placement atop France’s head on the official exposition medal suggested the nation's fraught history, while not forgotten, is in the past and the present is a victorious and politically united Republic.
By the late 19th century, France possessed a rich artistic history commensurate with the complex political history evoked by the Phrygian cap. And the great traditions that the Le Figaro writers saw reflected in the French artworks on view at the 1889 exposition drew aspiring artists from across the globe to the French capital.
Americans were particularly susceptible to what the scholar, H. Barbara Weinberg terms, "the lure of Paris." Following the Civil War collectors in the United States began snapping up the fruits of French studios, while critics emphasized French painting as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Seized by the Francophilia rampant in the American art community, art students crossed the Atlantic to Paris, pursuing their education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts or at one of the ateliers supervised by established French artists. In 1888, 1,000 American artists and art students were reported in Paris, studying in French schools, traveling to Italy, Spain, and like continental destinations, and competing with their Parisian contemporaries in a market that favored European canvases.
These artists developed techniques and tendencies that were interchangeable with those of their French rivals. About half of these 1,000 Americans were permanent residents. The expatriates were particularly likely not only to sample European styles in their artworks, but also to eschew native subjects and themes for those found and favored on the continent. "It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth that when today we look for American art we find it mainly in Paris," the author Henry James remarked in 1887: "When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it."
Muyon Zhou: That Paris had become, incongruously, the center of American art was exclusively demonstrated at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, where Walter Gay received his first silver medal. Out of all the foreign exhibitors who tried their luck in Paris, the United States contributed the largest number of paintings to the exposition, sending 336 oils, a number almost triple that submitted to the previous French exposition in 1878.
Two juries were organized to determine which works should be featured. A New York jury, which evaluated the canvases submitted by Americans living in the States and a Paris jury, composed of 19 expatriates and responsible for judging the painting of American artists living abroad. While the New York jury allowed each painter a maximum of three weeks in the exposition, the Paris jury allowed a maximum of six. As a result, the paintings of Europe-based artists outnumbered those of their US-based compatriots. Because most expatriates worked in or near Paris, they were able to arrange the American exhibition, hanging their canvases in the starry spot and creating a clear physical distinction between them and the work of the artists living in the United States.
"The American showing thus felt," according to Antonin Proust, French special commissioner of fine art at the exposition, "like an excellent French gallery." Parisian and American commentators alike emphasize the semblance between the United States offerings in 1898 and contemporaneous European canvases. To the French critic Maurice [inaudible], "The American gallery was a resume of European paintings., The French director general of the exposition insisted that American artists drew their inspiration directly from French masters. "Much of it is American only because the painters of it were born in America, " Harold Frederick wrote in a review of the exhibition for the New York Times. "American artists abroad," he added, "had picked up accent, tone, manner, modulation, and the rest from their European tutors." The European accent, tone, manner and modulation evinced by the expatriates who dominated the American gallery was celebrated by press and exhibition jury alike.
American painters won 57 medals and 24 honorable mentions, the two grand prizes, four gold medals, and 14 silver medals all went to artists who regularly exhibited at the Paris Salons. Of the 38 bronze medals awarded, 28 were given to Salon participants. General media coverage emphasized the painting produced by American born as superior to those of their home bound compatriots, were indeed glossed over the work of artists living in the United States altogether. The French were happy to laud their American imitators, as long as it was understood that the gallery of the United States was but an inferior annex, as one commentator described it, to their own fine arts exhibit. American emulation signaled France's continued artistic dominance, canvases that underscored rather than revoked French excellence at the 1889 exposition were to be praised.
Iman Khakoo: Some of this praise went to Walter Gay, a member of the exposition hanging committee, through which he and other expatriates controlled the arrangement of paintings in the American gallery. Gay won his silver medal in 1889 for six canvases. These works featuring gentle folk in period costumes or peasants at work bear literal resemblance to the flower studies with which the artist began his career in Boston in the early 1870s.
When Walter Gay sailed for Paris in 1876, he sought a path in which to ground his painting, a country on a continent rife with deep rooted and often contradictory artistic traditions. Through immersion in these traditions, by 1889, he had remade his art. Gay's European education began at Atelier d’eleves or Independent Studio of Leon Bonnat distinguished in a New York Times' eulogy as head of the French school of art of our time. Each Atelier d’eleves had its origin and a group of students. They raised funds for rent and models before asking a master to become their patron and instructor. Bonnat served his Atelier in this capacity from 1865 to 1882, before closing it to become a professor of drawing at and eventually director of the Ecole de Beaux Arts. Though, by the time of Bonnat's ascension to the directorship, the Ecole was run by the French government. Until 1863, the school had been an instrument of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, established in 1648 during the reign of Louis the 14th.
For centuries, the Academy set the standard for French art. Its members' favored the practice of draftsmanship and linear modeling, and scrupulous imitation of detail. Academy-sanctioned works were distinguished by the almost impossibly smooth and highly finished surfaces, and by their classical and biblical subject matter. Bonnat was lured to the Academy and to Ecole, which even after the government takeover maintained a curriculum grounded in form, which Bonnat referred to as, "Life itself," and drawing “the artist's salvation.” He championed the modes of painting perfected over centuries of French art-making, defending them in a 1916 magazine article against Cubism and Futurism, as well as against the Art Nouveau and the Modern Style. From Bonnat, Walter Gay received schooling and academic ideals, especially in the solid draftmanship that the master espoused. However Bonnat was also known for encouraging the individual proclivities of his various pupils. In his own work, he attempted Academism with the Realism and loose, more visible brush work, a painterly quality typical of the 17th century productions of the Spanish Diego Velasquez and his ilk.
So at Bonnat's urging, in 1878, Walter Gay traveled to Spain where, like his master before him, he found Velasquez a revelation. The product of the artist's exposure to both the bygone greats of the Spanish school and to its more recent adherents, the influence of the contemporary Spaniard Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo is particularly evident. Gay's earliest European works reveal an affinity for the continent's rich history and centuries old traditions, not only in their style, but also in their subject matter.
In his Paris salon debut, the 1879 Fencing Lesson, the artist depicts figures in 18th century dress observing from the bowers of an overgrown garden, a master as he teaches his pupil the rudiments of sword work. The canvas is small, the colors bright, the brush work quick and confident. Such genre scenes are typical of Gay's painting in the early 1880s. In the 17th and 18th century figures they feature, garbed in elegant period attire and engaged in decorous pursuits, reflect the artists attunement to the European past.
Rose Sheehan: Two of these diminutive genre works, The Bookworm and A Dominican were included in Gay’s showing at the 1889 Exposition Universelle. However, his other four submissions, Charity, The Weaver, The Spinners, and Le Bénédicité suggests the artist's involvement in another strain of French painting, one that diverged from the strictly academic. Upon his arrival in Europe, Gay traveled South of Paris to the forest of Fontainebleau where, since the early 1800s, French artists have flocked to paint their native scenery from direct observation.
Known as the Barbizon School, after the village of Barbizon on the forest edge, the movement initially faced resistance from the French art establishment. In the Academy's artistic hierarchy, landscape occupied a lowly position. To paint nature for nature's sake and to do so with a looseness and freedom born of direct study was unheard of. However, by mid century, the fruits of the Barbizon School had been accepted, if not entirely by the Academy, then at least by the French government, which offered to Barbizon artists commissions and support.
At the time of Gay's first visit to Fontainebleau, the movement was, as he puts it, "in its prime." On this initial visit, Gay describes himself as conscious of the recent presence in the forest of two of the Barbizon greats, the newly deceased Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. Millet had perhaps the greater impact on the artist. Born into a family of farmers, he was one of the few, if not the only well-known Barbizon painter to incorporate figures into his landscapes. Picturing the lives and labors of French peasants, he endowed his subjects with a nobility that rendered them more ideals than realistic individuals. Throughout his study in Paris with Bonnat, Gay revisited, Fontainebleau on multiple occasions during the summer months, journeying as well to Brittany, another rural region popular with French painters.
Then in 1885, the artist abandoned his small-scale genre scenes for works of a radically different size and subject. The paintings that Gay produced for the next 10 years were large canvases. They featured, like Millet's oeuvre, inhabitants of the French countryside engaged in everyday tasks and activities. However, Gay's restrained, almost bleak, color palette and the apparent sincerity of his depiction (his peasants appeared to be of various ages and states of health), communicate not nobility, but rather sadness and bitterness born of the impending death of a way of life.
As they bend over looms and spinning wheels, the artist's subjects remind viewers that these labors and the mode of existence that they sustained are falling inexorably to mechanization and modernization. Peasant pictures were a mainstay for American painters abroad, perhaps because in recording continental pre-industrial traditions that the comparatively young United States lacked, they tapped into a certain anti-modern sentiment, prevalent in the late 1800s. Certainly like his genre scenes, the four peasant paintings that Gay exhibited in 1889, dwell on and try to keep alive the European past. While Gay's fixation on light in these depictions of rural life is often remarked upon, he did not so much as flirt with Impressionism, then relatively new and still slightly radical. Instead seeking out Bonnat in the age-old teachings at the French Academy, Spanish Realism with its roots in the 1600s, and the Barbizon school, well established and grounded in French history and in 17th century Dutch landscapes, the artist crafted for the 1889 Exposition Universelle canvases that evoked European tradition in every aspect.
Muyon Zhou: All the exposition and throughout the 1880s and the early 1890s, Gay's paintings were held as distinctly continental. An 1879 I review in the Beaux-Arts notes the artists close imitation of the technique of Fortuny. His years in Paris and his studies under Bonnat have well-served him," George William Sheldon writes in his 1888 text. Recent ideas of American art, French art, fashioned this young man after its image," an 1895 article in the Magazine of Art observes. And like the European [inaudible] canvases of his fellow American abroad, Gay's painting found success at the 1889 Exposition Universelle and beyond in the final two decades of the 19th century. Consideration of the Le Bénédicité, the work that Matilda, in 1930, described as worthy of entombment, emphasizes its maker's popularity in late 1800s France.
The canvas shows a peasant woman, [inaudible] and swathed in a scarf. She bends, eyes downcast and hands joined in a prayer over her meal. The colors are muted, brushstrokes just visible. At the windows, sheer white curtain hang, allowing a steady, understated light. Before Le Bénédicité appeared at the 1889 exposition, it has already won Gay his third class gold medal at the 1888 Paris Salon and been purchased by the French government for display in the Luxembourg museum, of which it was eventually moved to Amiens.
To have a painting bought by the French State, was for American artist at the end of the 19th century, not an everyday occurrence. Only 22 American artists, during this period were so honored. Notably, the state seemed only to purchase work in which French influence was visible, generally by Americans who had settled permanently in France. Gay's early canvases triumphed, not only in France, but also across the continent. At European exhibitions throughout the 1890s, he consistently medaled, in Vienna, Munich, Brussels, Antwerp, Budapest, and Berlin. Two of these awards, are known from Munich and Antwerp, joined the 1889 and 1900 exposition medals in the Frick Art Reference Library.
The artists' early works were also successful, albeit to a lesser degree, in the United States. Gay showed at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and the Carnegie Institute. He acted as a foreign correspondent and an advisor to the Museums of Fine Art in Boston and was elected a charter member of the National Institute of Art and Letters.
Iman Khakoo: However, as Gay's genre and peasant paintings enjoyed acclaim in the last years of the 19th century, change was afoot and global and most notably in American art communities.
The shift began almost immediately after the 1889 Paris exposition, as American painters, living in the States, chafed at the dominant role played and copious praise received by their expatriate counterparts. "I was in America last winter, and I found that among the painters there, the feeling was bitter, as to the way they had been treated in the exposition of 1889," the painter John White Alexander wrote, "The feeling of the American painters in America is undoubtedly that in the Exposition of 1889, the men in Paris got all the honors and privileges. And they ran things to suit themselves."
This bitterness extended to the Paris Society of American Painters, an exclusive association of about 18 members of whom Gay was one. Representing the old guard of American artists abroad, the PSAP, according to a 1901 article in the New York Tribune, practically controls the American exhibits at the continental picture shows and appoints committees to attend the various exhibitions and to see that the pictures of its members are properly hung.
These pictures were, of course, reflective of European artistic traditions. Indeed, not only United States-based artists, but also figures from all quarters of the American art community found their nation's gallery at the 1889 exposition, and by extension, the PSAP, disquieting. Rather than announcing itself as distinctly American, American art seemed to have become merely an echo or reiteration of the continental. As Weinberg puts it, "American art was not very American at all." And the United States was concerned.
In a 1900 article entitled Alien Element in American Art, Ellis T. Clark bemoans the drifting away from national standards and subjects that he observes in the work of his countrymen, arguing that only an artist who depicts native or home scenes and figures can be truly successful. He concludes a purely imitative art will never be a great art. As in America concern over Europeanization of native art mounted, a concurrent impulse against traditional and specifically French academic modes of painting appeared, not just in the United States, but also on the continent.
Impressionism, once on the fringes of accepted art, was increasingly moving toward the center. At the 1893, Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, the American response to the 1889 Exposition Universelle, so-called American Impressionism made its debut. Just as, internationally, the popularity of European Impressionism was reaching its apex.
The seeds of Modernism had been implanted. As the movement gained momentum, established modes of art-making began to seem outmoded and passe. Even the Barbizon school, once considered radical and unprecedented, was now old hat. Especially old hat were works that bore any traces of the French academic tendencies that have become to represent the antithesis of the artistic future. The derogatory term, L'art pompier was increasingly used to refer to the output of painters who, working in the academic vein, produced canvases that critics lambasted as unoriginal and in a play on the word “pompier”, pompous.
Rose Sheehan: European traditions were on the way out. So are the American artists who subscribe to them. At the United States gallery at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the shift in the climate of American and international artistic communities was made evident. And the official illustrated catalog of the 1900 US Fine Arts Exhibit, editor, H. Hobart Nichols begins his preface by citing the French description of the 1889 American Gallery as merely an annex to the French section.
He then states, "The resolve of all involved in the crafting of the 1900 gallery to design a truly representative American showing, since the exposition of 1889, American art has to a great degree emancipated itself from foreign trammels and entered upon a career of its own, expressing American thought and reflecting American nature," he announces. Certainly American art actually made in American nature was present at the 1900 exposition in a way that it had not been 11 years previously. Rather than separating the judgment of submissions between two juries, one based in New York and the other in Paris, the organizers of the American gallery arranged that all paintings by US artists, whether produced at home or abroad, should be judged by one jury in New York.
This jury ensured that the works of US-based painters outnumbered those of expatriates by a three to two ratio. In 1900, artists living in America, as opposed to those living abroad, dominated the United States exhibition. Moreover, the canvases of these two demographics, rather than being grouped into distinct areas as they had been in 1889, were integrated throughout the gallery.
Along with these organizational shifts came corresponding changes both in the allocation of medals and in the focus of media criticism. Of the 114 medals awarded to American painters in 1900, over two thirds went to artists resident in the United States, with these US-based painters receiving five of the seven golden medals issued. American and French exposition critics alike focused on these resident painters and on the Americanization of American art. Although some insisted that American oils were still indistinguishable from continental works, most at least acknowledged the beginnings of a mode of painting distinct the United States. "The Exposition of 1900 contained in American section, which revealed a great deal of motive and character that could not be lightly dismissed as a bit of reflux of Europe," the critic Charles Caffin writes in his 1902 texts, American Masters of Painting, while in the French journal, Le Gaulois [inaudible] Louis de Foucault argues that, "the divide between expatriate and resident Americans is still visible." He sees, "evidence in the 1900 gallery of a school already boldly constituted and which becomes conscious of itself."
Muyan Zhou: Walter Gay won his second silver exposition medal in 1900, this time for two, rather than six, works. Both canvases, Maternity and The Weaver were typical of his large-scale peasant pictures. The Weaver had been shown as well at the exposition in 1889. Gay's silver medal suggests a final hurrah of the paintings, traditionally continental, in both style and subject, for which he and his fellow expatriates had earned such claim in the previous decades.
At an exposition looking forward to the future, in a gallery that aimed to establish a national mode of art making, Gay's early canvases, redolent of a European past, had their last stand. But Walter Gay had already moved on. Though he didn't begin to exhibit his new works until 1901 in 1895, he renounced genre scenes and peasant paintings for different sort of image: interiors, mostly French and decorative in the style typical of the 18th century, completely devoid of figures. Between 1926 and 1928, Gay painted three such canvases for Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of Henry Clay Frick.
The artist depicted various rooms in the Frick collection, then the family's home. These empty interiors were arguably unprecedented in European and American art. Previous paintings of interiors had either included human subjects or function as documentary studies of architecture and furnishing. Not exactly continental, definitely not American, these later canvases were the artists alone, immune to fluctuating trends and rising nationalism.
However, like Gay's early work, his interiors evoke the European past, those centuries in which history was made and traditions established, that the United States lacked. During the 1890s Americans became enamored of the 18th century French decorative art and obsession already rampant among French taste-makers of the 19th century. The American taste in interior design has previously tended toward the eclectic, but under the leadership of several prominent figures in US society, the focus began to shift toward unified interiors in the style of 1700s France.
In 1897, the novelist Edith Wharton and architect Ogden Codman published their interior design manual, The Decoration of Houses, which was followed in 1913 by the actress Elsie de Wolfe's, The House in Good Taste. All three others did up their own homes or in Codman's case, the estate of his robber baron clients, as still living in 18th century France. In painting these spaces, as well as the similarity attired a room in his own residences, Gay both reflected the trend toward bygone French home decor and encouraged its spread, providing impetus and instructions for the aspiring American architect or decorator.
More than that, though, he painted love letters to a continental past, wielding his brush with, in the words of a catalog from a 1974 exhibition in New York's Graham gallery, "a strong indifferent determination to ward off the present."
Rose Sheehan: As Walter Gay's empty interiors triumphed, the genre and peasant pictures had occupied the first decades of his career descended into obscurity. By Matilda, by critics, and by the artist himself, they were entombed, brought up rarely and then only to be disparaged. The success and subsequent fall from grace of Gay's early works testifies to shifts in American and continental artistic tastes and relations in the final decades of the 19th century.
"Bearing the stamp of French approval, the two silver medals won by the artist at the 1889 and 1900 Expositions Universelle act as keys to comprehension of the politics and proclivities of international artists communities at the end of an era. However, the medals also give a glimpse into the mind of the artist, allowing us to connect Gay's first now forgotten canvases with his superficially dissimilar and widely known later works. Commentators have long balked at drawing parallels between the two sets of paintings, early and late. They would hardly be recognized now as his works," the Catalog of the Metropolitan Museums' Walter Gay Memorial Exhibition asserts, referring to the artist's initial canvases.
"This early work, however, is not at all representative of the work that later brought him well merited fame," a New York Times article echoes, "but as the paintings that Gay submitted to the two Parisian expositions and the acclaim that they enjoyed there, reveal an artist taken with tradition and possessed by the past, delighting in a place that has both in abundance." So the unpeopled interiors that came later communicate the same sentiment. With these latter works, Gay finally found a captive audience in his native country and American viewership with whom to share his keen appreciation for bygone centuries.
Through acquisition of three Walter Gay interiors, Helen Clay Frick revealed herself as part of this American viewership. A trip to the Frick Art Reference Library and consideration of the two silver medals found there, show us just how those images of the Frick collection's empty rooms came into being.