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

The Third Republic, 1870-1914

During the Third Republic American involvement in French art increased substantially. American art students flocked to Paris, American collectors began to purchase the works of French and American artists in earnest, and American art began to be accorded more serious respect. In 1879 the French government purchased the first American painting intended specifically for the national collections, Henry Gustave Mosler’s Le Retour.

The influx of American art students in the 1870s coincided with the rise of Impressionism. Impressionist artists rejected academic fundamentals and the traditional hierarchy of genres that accorded preference to elevated, painstakingly composed historical themes. Instead, they chose to depict quotidian scenes of middle-class life and leisure using a brilliant, relatively unmodulated palette. Their innovations, considered radical during the 1870s, were largely ignored by American artists studying in Paris during that period, with several notable exceptions. Mary Cassatt, who moved to Paris in 1874, exhibited with the group on several occasions. John Singer Sargent, who was also living in Paris at that time, was influenced by Claude Monet to paint vibrant scenes of contemporary life. In the 1880s, the new style of painting became more assimilated to public taste. As it ceased to be perceived as radical, it appealed to more American collectors and artists. By the 1890s, second-generation Impressionism might be said to have become almost a default style in American artists’ colonies in France and in the United States.

While some American artists retreated to the French countryside during this period, others turned their attention to exotic Eastern themes. They were influenced by a generation of prominent teachers in French academies, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, who had made their name a generation earlier as painters of romantic Oriental subjects. The vivid palette and loose, brushy technique associated with Impressionism proved well suited to depicting the brilliant light and color of equatorial climates. Artists like Edwin Lord Weeks and Grace Ravlin painted subjects of life in North African countries in a style that combined loose Impressionist technique with calculatedly exotic subject matter.

American decorative arts also rose to new prominence during the 1880s and ‘90s. Tiffany & Co. was the most prominent of several American firms whose wares became popular throughout Europe. Tiffany design, influenced by the Art Nouveau style, rendered natural forms from the plant and animal world in elegant, highly stylized ways. Design was also an important part of the new architecture being created by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, which exerted a palpable influence on the decorative arts in France.