Americans in Paris: art born of a bohemian love affair

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There were Americans in Paris long before George Gershwin immortalised them in his 1928 symphonic poem. And next year, the National Gallery is to mount a blockbuster show of some of their work.

In the second half of the 19th century, a string of artistic Yanks were lured to the French capital by the promise of fine teaching and bohemian bad living. Some of them went on to become world-famous, such as James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. But there were many more who are scarcely known to British audiences although they are acclaimed in their native America.

The National Gallery show, details of which were announced yesterday, will examine why artists were drawn to the city, how they responded to it and what they retained of their experience. The lesser-known artists will include the African-American Henry Ossawa Tanner, who fell in love with Paris, where he encountered less racism than at home, and never left.

And the exhibition of around 90 paintings will feature many by women artists such as Cecilia Beaux, Ellen Day Hale and Elizabeth Jane Gardner. Mary Cassatt, who is represented by just two works in British public galleries, was the only American to show with the French Impressionists, and will feature strongly.

Around a third of the American art students in Paris between 1860 and 1900 were women, prompting a whole cottage industry of guidebooks warning of the more dangerous side of Parisian life.

Kathleen Adler, the National Gallery's curator, who has been working on the show for several years, said: "Paris was a magnet of irresistible allure for artists in the latter part of the 19th century.

"American artists flocked to Paris particularly after the end of the Civil War in 1865. They went there first of all to learn about art - in the Louvre and contemporary art in the Parisian salons. They went there to meet other artists and they went there for instruction. For most artists the idea of exhibiting in Paris was of huge importance. It was a place to establish your reputation."

The importance of teaching will be seen in the exhibition in works such as Sargent's portrait of Carolus-Duran, his tutor. And just how reputations could be established is shown by Whistler's famous Symphony in White No 1: The White Girl, which was turned down by the Royal Academy in London and its equivalent, the Salon in Paris, but was exhibited at the Salon des Refusés, which also included Manet's Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe.

The "great coup" for the exhibition is the loan of Whistler's painting of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1 from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. In a slight joke by the National Gallery, it will hang in the same room as Whistler's White Girl, a portrait of his mistress, Jo. Her relationship with his puritanical mother was "cold", Ms Adler said.

She added that the exhibition was unusual for the gallery as most of its exhibitions were based on paintings in its own collection, but it owns virtually no American art. It will instead feature work primarily from American public and private collections with a few additions from Europe. There are just two works from the UK - one from the Tate, and one, by Mary Fairchild Macmonnies, from Robinson College, Cambridge. Co-operation from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, both of which will take the show after it has been seen in London, has been crucial. They had been "incredibly generous partners", Ms Adler said.

The Boston museum is lending works including The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent, which has been never seen in the UK before. This portrait of the daughters of the American painter Edward Darley Boit in the foyer of their Paris apartment is regarded as one of the finest evocations of childhood in art.

Other highlights include Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), the portrait of Louisiana-born Virginie Gautreau which helped make John Singer Sargent a sensation in Paris. The work, which is owned by the Met, attracted much unfavourable comment when it was first exhibited, but Ms Adler speculated that the real reason the French disliked its American subject was because her stylishness suggested she was beating them at their own game. Sargent, however, was so distressed by the whole experience that he left Paris and settled in London.

Ms Adler said that even when American artists left Paris and returned to America, the influence of the city and its art never left them. "Paris was at the heart of their experience. Wherever they were subsequently, Paris determined how they painted," she said. The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London will present an exhibition on the great American sea painter, Winslow Homer, to coincide with the National Gallery show.

Americans in Paris 1860-1900, sponsored by Rothschild investment bank, is at the National Gallery from 22 February to 21 May 2006.