Collection

Works by United States artists from the French National Collections, 1620-1940  

Survey of research

Institutional acceptance of the artistic validity of “écoles étrangères” was slow to come to France. The study of American art in France began with the works of the influential curator and scholar Léonce Bénédite. Bénédite, who served as the curator of the Musée du Luxembourg from 1892 to 1925, was one of the first authorities in the Parisian art world to publicly credit the existence of a uniquely American school. Bénédite used his curatorial position to become an influential patron, arranging the purchase of numerous American works from the Salons and other exhibitions during the years of his tenure. Ten years before he assumed this position, he had facilitated the first state purchase of an American artist’s work from the Salon of 1879, Henry Gustave Mosler’s Le Retour. After that purchase, it was ten years until the state acquired a second American painting, Walter Gay’s Le Bénédicité. The Universal Exposition held in Paris in 1889 introduced American art to a wider French public and created a more favourable climate for the appreciation of American artists.

But the precedent established by Bénédite was disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War and damaged by the economic and social instabilities that afflicted France afterwards. It was not until after 1945 that the state began to manifest a like interest in the purchase of foreign artworks. However, by that time the face of the art world had changed in radical ways. The locus of the avant-garde had shifted to New York. The French state responded to this geographic shift by acquiring Abstract Expressionist paintings and sculpture in large numbers. Pre-1940 American artworks were considered marginal by comparison.

A conceptual gap arose. In museums and university departments, American art was frequently imagined to exist in two distinct categories: primitive or derivative “American” art produced before 1940 and cosmopolitan, theoretically advanced “Modern” art produced after that date. This conceptual schema did much to shape collecting patterns, prices, and reputations. But it served to obscure the messier eclecticism that characterized the development of American art in real life. An examination of paintings and sculpture from this database reveals that pre-1940 American art was demonstrably modern, and that it was simultaneously many other things as well.

It was not until the later 20th century that significant numbers of scholars began to turn their attention to prewar American Art. The single most important antecedent for this database is a groundbreaking article published in 1992 by French art historian Véronique Wiesinger on American artworks in French museums between 1870 and 1940. Her research has served as a point of departure for subsequent studies.