19th Century American Artists and the Grand Tour

Nancy Stula
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Charles Harold Davis, Landscape in France (n/d), pencil on paper. American practitioner in Barbizon style. Collection of Lyman Allyn Museum


 Italy had long been the most popular destination for Americans prior to the Civil War, but by the 1870’s, France had become the country of choice. For it then seemed that every young American artist yearned to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe and study in Paris. In fact, approximately twenty-two hundred were documented there during the post-Civil War period. Many were drawn to the city of light by the prestigious government-sponsored Ecole des Beaux Arts, or by the more accessible private academies, including the acclaimed Academie Julian. American artists also discovered, Grez-sur-Loing, Barbizon, and the adjacent Forest of Fontainebleau, where they worked alongside French painters. Their interest in Barbizon was partially in response to the radically modern changes effected by the Second Empire’s urban planner and architect, Baron Hausmann. Many Parisian neighborhoods were razed to allow for the erection of the larger buildings and wider boulevards needed to accommodate the rapidly growing population. The rural life at Barbizon exemplified the antithesis of the industrialization of Paris.          

J. Alden Weir, The Tow Girl (1879-80), o/c, painted on Hudson River in the syle of Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts. Coll. Lyman Allyn Museum


 The French academies provided American artists with traditional training that emphasized figure drawing.  J. Alden Weir arrived in Paris in 1873 and attended Jean Leon Gerome’s atelier for four years.  There, according to Doreen Bolger Burke, Weir spent his mornings “drawing and painting from life and his afternoons drawing from casts after antique statues.  These studies were intended to prepare him for the concours des places … a series of examinations that all students had to pass before being officially matriculated into the Ecole.”  By 1875, Weir was awarded a second-class medal for his work in Gerome’s studio, a great accomplishment for an American student.  The very basic academic principles of his French education can be discerned in the artist’s portrait of The Tow Girl (1879-80), painted after his return to America.  His loose brushwork may depart from his earlier, carefully-delineated style of Gerome’s studio, but Weir’s work retains a primacy of figure and solidity of form that reflect his academic training.     

 Gerome’s Beaux Arts studio was very popular with American students owing in part, according to Barbara Weinberg, to his historical narratives with American collectors and the related practical consideration of patronage.  American students had to “learn how to emulate French painters whose works attracted post-bellum American collectors in order to secure commissions at home.  Like Weir, Abbot Handerson Thayer studied with Gerome at the Ecole.  He had sailed for Europe in 1875 to enroll, however, the waiting list prevented his entry until the following spring.  At the Market Place, Paris (1875) was painted soon after Thayer’s arrival, while he studied in the studio of Henri Lehmann.  Once at the Ecole, Thayer’s classes focused on life drawing and Classical statuary; an emphasis on the figural tradition encouraged the young artist, who began his career as an animalier, to include the human figure in his work.  As such, At the Market Place, Paris is a pivotal work in Thayer’s career.     

The Ecole’s popularity with Americans was rivaled by that of the Academie Julian, the largest private art school in Paris (pictured here, Blvd des Capucines, Paris, 1880s). Though the former was tuition-free, it required that foreign artists pass a difficult entrance exam. The Academie, however, charged tuition without an exam and therefore readily admitted foreigners. Americans studying at the Julian included Charles Ebert, Charles H. Davis, William S. Robinson, Louis Michael Eilshemius, and Martha Walter.         

Many of the professors at the Academie were conservative artists. Some of the Julian’s teachers later taught at the Ecole, suggesting that both institutions’ academic principles were similar. However, the Academie Julian’s main goal was to prepare students for entry to the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Salon. The government-sponsored Paris Salon was the city’s annual juried art exhibition and gaining acceptance was critical for artists to attain recognition and secure commissions. Equally as important, however, the Salon allowed an artist to measure his work against international competition, within the larger context of European art.          

Abbott Handerson Thayer, At the Market Place, Paris (1875). Collection Lyman Allyn Museum


 American artists occasionally left behind the pressures of Paris for the tranquility of Barbizon and the French countryside. While studying at the Paris Salon, Ecole student William Morris Hunt was so inspired by Jean-François Millet’s, The Sower (1850) that he moved out to Barbizon, remaining there from 1853-1855. Though he did not formally become a student of Millet, they worked together and discussed their approaches and attitudes toward landscape. Barbizon painting became widely popular with American audiences and collectors after the Civil War. Its landscapes were characteristically intimate and frequently featured unassuming bits of nature as inspirational subject matter.         

As Robert Herbert noted in his study Barbizon Revisited (1962), the French painters, “began to restrict their slice of nature to what the eye can see without moving back and forth in place of the traditional panorama.”  Composition was subordinated to the mood of the landscape and artists worked directly from nature in oil using the vigorous brushstrokes characteristic of the Barbizon School. The most basic precept of Barbizon painting was self-expression through direct confrontation with nature. In response to the Europeans’ influence, American landscape painters began to work en plein air, hiking through the forest with brushes, palettes, and canvases in tow. One American artist related: “Sometimes we would hide our painting things under a rock for the night, sure to find them untouched the next morning.”  J. Alden Weir visited Barbizon during his years in France (1873-1877), as did Edward Potthast, between 1889 and 1890.        

left: William Morris Hunt [attrib], Boy with a Violin (pre-1879). Coll. Lyman Allyn Museum         

In 1882, when Charles H. Davis moved to Fleury, just outside Barbizon, masters Rousseau and Millet were no longer living. Nevertheless, Barbizon and its surrounding villages retained their appeal, inspiring many American landscapists. Davis focused on landscape painting and earned his reputation as one of America’s leading practitioners of the Barbizon style, having returned to the U.S. in 1891.          

The very year that Davis had moved to the Barbizon area, Bruce Crane was making his third trip abroad, passing the summer in nearby Grez-sur-Loing. Grez was popular with European and American artists alike and it was there that Crane met French painter Jean Charles Cazin (1846-1901). Cazin’s method inspired Crane to forsake his own traditional painting style. Following Cazin’s lead, he began to experiment using limited tonal ranges. This muted color palette is clearly visible in his painting, The White Mantle (1919). Like Crane, Edward Potthast also spent time in Grez, where the countryside inspired him to forsake portraiture in the characteristic brown-based tonal range of the Munich School and switch to creating landscapes instead. Potthast credited his friend, the American Impressionist Robert Vonnoh, with introducing him to French Impressionism during his stay there.          

The French Impressionists characteristically worked en plein air, for outdoors, they were able to render objects in a natural light influenced by prevailing weather conditions, impossible to achieve in the studio. Their paintings are noted for their sketchy, rapidly-executed brushwork and high key palettes. In contrast to the French academic paintings, Impressionist works looked–to the nineteenth-century eye–unfinished, rough, and unschooled. They were a far cry from the carefully-rendered history and genre paintings for which the professors at the Ecole des Beaux Arts were known. Academic painters developed their finished pieces from drawings and completed their work in the studio. In general, their paintings were meticulously executed, with special care taken to hide their brushstrokes, and to achieve a solidity of form, both characteristic of the Tonalist style.       

below right: [Robert] Bruce Crane, The White Mantle, 1919, in the Tonalist style. Coll. Lyman Allyn Museum         

Ironically, the young Americans who became Impressionists late in the nineteenth century had studied alongside the French Academic painters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and at Academie Julian. Moreover, those American students were initially appalled by the Impressionist style seen in Paris during the 1870s and 1880s. Bruce Crane initially objected to their coarse handling and glaring colors, while J. Alden Weir declared the 1877 exhibition of the French Impressionists, “worse than the Chamber of Horrors. I was there about a quarter of an hour and left with a head ache.”  Nonetheless, within a decade of their return to the U.S., many of the American students had begun to adopt the Impressionist idiom, which ironically became their dominant aesthetic.          

With such an abundance of American artists working in France, pressure mounted on them to paint subjects native to the U.S. Henry James noted in 1887, “that when to-day we look for ‘American art’ we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it.”  And in 1900, American critics were still skeptical of the state of American art. Ellis T. Clarke, a writer for, Brush and Pencil, art magazine, complained that American art had become, “French art with American trimmings: American artists go to Europe, and especially Paris, to complete their education, and are apparently not strong enough to resist the dominating influence of their masters in after-work. … But if American artists go abroad for instruction, why need they renounce individuality and forswear national aims and aspirations? … Expatriation is a mistake, both as regards the future of the individual artist and as regards the future of American art.”          

Edward Henry Potthast, Ocean Breezes (c.1910), o/c, showing solidity of form or 'weightiness' of European-trained American Impressionist School of the period. Coll. Lyman Allyn Museum.


Yet Clarke needn’t have worried. Despite the vast number of Americans studying in France, the work they produced remained distinctly American. American Impressionist paintings stand apart from those of the French in spite of the academic training received there.  As a result, Barbara Weinberg noted that, “their allegiance [to Impressionism] was often cautious and intermittent. In general, the Americans created a variant of the French style that was indebted more to Impressionist surfaces than to Impressionist principles … In painting both figures and landscapes, the Americans often appeared to be [more] ‘impressionizers’ than Impressionists, by applying chromatic veneers of broken strokes to solid forms that depended on preliminary studies and some studio retouching.”          

The persistence of the underlying solidity in the American style can be traced back to eighteenth-century American portrait painting.  Barbara Novak has observed that Colonial American painting was distinct from European painting because the American union of object and idea resulted in a ‘weightiness.’  That American ‘weight’ can also be detected in late nineteenth-century American painting. Those artists preferred to keep the objects they painted intact and were not as able, or willing, to break up the integrity of an object as Europeans were. Novak writes: “In this [twentieth] century too, though nineteenth-century moral and religious considerations have been virtually obliterated, Americans are still uniquely aware of things. For the need to grasp reality, to ascertain the physical thereness of things seems to be a necessary component of the American experience.”  That these distinctively American qualities emerged regardless of how long an artist remained an expatriate–despite the level of inspiration drawn from European art and culture– may ultimately result from the fact that, “The American pilgrim, it seems, rarely left his American consciousness behind him.”          

by Nancy Stula, Ph.D., Contributing Editor    

Part I in the Series, 19th Century American Painters on the Grand Tour, can ba found in the ARTES January archive         



H. Babara Weinberg, The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers, New York: Abbeville Press, 1991.        

Doreen Bolger Burke, J. Alden Weir: An American Impressionist, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.          

H. Barbara Weinberg, “Americans in Paris, 1850-1910,” American Art Review XV, 2003.             

Robert Herbert, Barbizon Revisited, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1962.          

Christopher Cranch, “Reminiscences of Fontainebleau Forest, By a Landscape Painter,” Appleton‘s Journal 10, (26 July 1873).         

Ellis T. Clarke, “Alien Element in American Art,” Brush and Pencil  (October 1900).           



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