Cosmopolitanism, Expatriates, and American Impressionism
Girl at Window, 1885
Oil on canvas
Collection of Siri and Bob Marshall
From America's earliest days, the mandate to the American artist was that his or her work should have a distinctively American character. But in the nineteenth century, the development of art schools, competitions, and salons in America was in its infancy. Those artists able to do so sought training abroad in an effort to improve their technical skills and to study past masterpieces and contemporary trends.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Paris had emerged as the new capital of the art world, where a budding artist could choose among myriad teachers and trends. An artist could train under masters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Thomas Couture. The ultimate goal of all this expense and study was admittance to the yearly Salon and, subsequently, all the professional benefits that would accrue back home from such an accomplishment.
Alongside this incoming and outgoing tide of American artists to Paris were the expatriate American artists who had achieved acclaim within their own artistic specialties. Artists such as Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler, and John Singer Sargent were hailed by their countrymen as the forerunners of the rising vanguard of American art.
Meanwhile, European art colonies, such as those at Pont-Aven and Barbizon (near the Forest of Fontainebleau), offered Americans additional opportunities to experiment with new stylistic trends. Beginning in the 1880s, another art colony, Giverny, began to grow in popularity owing to its new resident, Claude Monet. The first wave of aspiring American Impressionists arrived in 1886 and 1887, with the last decamping at the advent of World War I.
In spite of all the newly acquired credentials from study in European academies and art colonies, and the validation of exhibiting at the Salons, American artists returning from "bohemia" to the United States found they had absorbed their lessons too well. Ironically, many conservative Americans (the public and critics alike) now considered the returning artists "too French" in their views and training.