In this last year of the 20th century, New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum has mounted an exhibition that attempts to give us a glimpse of what established opinion in the United States regarded as the greatest achievements in American art at the first year of the century. Organized by Diane P. Fischer, associate curator of the Montclair Art Museum, the exhibition is called Paris 1900: The “American School” at the Universal Exposition . It consists of some 80 works of art, most of them paintings, which were selected to represent the United
States at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900.
This was in every respect an official exhibition, financed by the U.S. State Department and supported by the New York artists’ organizations-the Society of American Artists, the National Sculpture Society, the American Watercolor Society, the Society of Mural Painters, et al.-whose memberships were then presiding over the fortunes of American art. This guaranteed that the exhibition would be dominated by the kind of academic taste that still looked with suspicion and disfavor on the pictorial innovations of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionist painters in France.
It was, in any case, from the ranks of these highly conservative artists’ organizations that committees were chosen to vote on the appointment of a director for the Paris exhibition, who then appointed the juries that selected the work. To avoid any possibility that expatriate American artists might dominate the selection, it was decided in advance that priority would be given to artists residing in the United States. Even so, several important American artists of the period-John Twachtman and Thomas Dewing at home, and, most significantly, Mary Cassatt in France-did not participate.
The absence of Cassatt is of more than incidental interest in several respects. For one thing, she was certainly one of the five or six most accomplished American painters at the turn of the century-she died in 1926. Then, too, with the possible exception of James McNeill Whistler, who was represented in the show, no American expatriate painter of the time was as closely allied to the French modernists as was Cassatt. Which meant, among much else, that she was in a position to understand the reactionary biases of the French academic establishment that would dominate the art sections of the Universal Exposition. That she might not wish to participate in an exhibition that, from her fellow modernists’ perspective, was certain to be an artistic debacle, is entirely understandable.
Given the limiting conditions that determined the character of the American exhibition at the 1900 Universal Exposition, it is a considerable mercy that the exhibition that Ms. Fischer has organized at the Montclair Art Museum is as interesting as it is. The stars of the show are the artists we would naturally expect to shine as exceptions in this academic environment. They are, in addition to Whistler: Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Ralph Blakelock and George Inness. The only real surprise is Alfred Maurer, whose painting, At the Window (1899-1900), is a particularly fine example of the Tonal style that reflected Whistler’s influence. Maurer is better-known to us today for his later Fauvist and Cubist pictures, but at the turn of the century- he was born in 1868-he was highly regarded for his more traditional paintings in the Whistlerian mode. In 1901, he won first prize at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh with a Whistlerian painting called An Arrangement . Like Whistler, he belonged to the minority of American expatriate painters who were selected for the Paris show. He had been living abroad since 1897.
Elsewhere in the Paris 1900 exhibition, pictures of real artistic distinction are few and far between. One of them is Cecilia Beaux’s double portrait Mother and Daughter (1898), and another is Theodore Robinson’s landscape Port Ben, Delaware and Hudson Canal (1893). For the most part, however, the pictures here are mainly of interest as historical documents of a genteel tradition that was already moribund by the time the paintings were crated for shipment to Paris. The few examples of sculpture in the exhibition are simply not worth citing.
This is obviously not the fault of Ms. Fischer and her colleagues at the Montclair Art Museum, whose task in organizing the Paris 1900 exhibition was to replicate as closely as possible the show that official opinion had selected for this event a century ago. It is in this respect that they have done a splendid job in tracking down so many of the objects in the exhibition and in performing some remarkable feats of scholarship in providing the public-both in the exhibition itself and in the impressive catalogue that accompanies it-with an account of the historical circumstances in which the original show was conceived.
In the installation of the show in Montclair, the museum has also provided a nearly perfect period replication of the kind of exhibition spaces in which the show was originally seen at the Grand Palais in Paris. (You can easily consult photographs of the original installation in the catalogue of the current show.) If this mode of period installation isn’t always as friendly to the best paintings in the show as it might be-the Maurer painting I have already mentioned suffers a good deal from its ill-lighted placement, for example-you can be reasonably certain that the original installation in Paris wasn’t much better.
What I am inclined to find fault with, however, is the triumphal tone of the entire enterprise. With the exceptions already noted, American painting in the 1890′s did not, as the museum claims, mark a “milestone in American art and culture.” It represented a cultural backwater. That “critics on both sides of the Atlantic proclaimed that the’ École Américaine’ would become the school of the future,” as the museum also claims, I have no reason to doubt. But critics of that persuasion proved to be false prophets. They were mainly academic reactionaries concerned to praise their equally benighted counterparts in the United States.
I have no quarrel, of course, with the study of history even when it involves the study of failed ambitions. But it should not be the function of art historical study to attempt to turn the sows’ ears of yesteryear into the silk purses of their day. Nostalgia for a genteel past, especially for the kind of coercive gentility that stifled so many American talents and made life so miserable for the courageous talents that attempted to oppose its values, is not to be confused with genuine historical study, which requires critical judgment if it aspires to be anything but academic puffery.
I know very well that it is now the fashion on both sides of the Atlantic to exalt the kind of academic taste that dominated established opinion in the visual arts in the latter decades of the 19th century. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris, for example, has been a leader of the movement to establish a kind of aesthetic parity between the achievements of 19th-century French modernism and its academic opponents. It is one of the reasons why visiting the Orsay is such a trial for anyone with a serious interest in painting.
Consider, in regard to the Paris 1900 exhibition, the French painters who were still producing some of their greatest works at the time of the original show: Cézanne, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas and-well, a full roster would be very long indeed. That’s what I mean when I say that most of the American painters in the show represented a cultural backwater.
And it isn’t as if American painting in this period was entirely hopeless, either. Accompanying the Paris 1900 show at the Montclair Art Museum is another, smaller exhibition that has a far greater claim on our attention. It is called American Tonalism: Selections From the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Montclair Art Museum , and it has much more to tell us about what was really vital in American art at the turn of the last century than the bulk of what we see in Paris 1900 . I hope to write about this show on a future occasion. Meanwhile, for the nostalgia brigade, Paris 1900 remains on view in Montclair through Jan. 16.