Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1678
Beginning in the 1830s, American artists, artisans, physicians, and writers seek inspiration and perfection of their craft in France. They become expatriates not out of dissatisfaction with their home country but for insight into what they want their lives to become. These mostly young adults travel to the...
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Beginning in the 1830s, American artists, artisans, physicians, and writers seek inspiration and perfection of their craft in France. They become expatriates not out of dissatisfaction with their home country but for insight into what they want their lives to become. These mostly young adults travel to the Old World, leaving their home shores for the first time. There are no trans-ocean steamships or passenger ships at this time, so the travelers take passage on cargo ships and face the danger of sinking, as is all too common. It takes three to six weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Americans spend their time (when not felled by seasickness) reading, chatting, and watching the waves pass. When they land on the French shore at Le Havre, they take a diligence (a large stage coach) for the twenty-four-hour trip to Paris. The Americans are awestruck by the cathedral in Rouen; they feel moved by its sense of holiness. The intense age of the Old World makes them look at America with new eyes. In Europe, everything is settled into an age-old pattern. In America, all things are new and constantly changing.
The American travelers are struck by the filth and poverty on the outskirts of Paris. It is only when they reach the center of the city that they see its glories. The primary occupation for Parisians and tourists both is to simply walk about the city. The Americans enjoy the “Frenchness” of the place about which they have heard so much, but they also appreciate the places where the Founding Fathers lived while working for a treaty with France during the Revolution. Foreigners are welcomed in Paris; the Louvre, for example, is open to native Parisians only on Sunday. University lectures, such as at the Sorbonne, are free of charge. The art, the opera, and the ballet provide new cultural encounters. At times, however, the lower elements of Parisian life are encountered. Prostitutes abound but are seldom mentioned in the diaries and letters back home. Over the course of the beginning weeks of their stay, the American travelers become accustomed to their new way of life.
Samuel Morse and James Fenimore Cooper met in Washington, D.C. In Paris, they become fast friends. Cooper has already established himself in the literary world and is the most famous American writer of his time. Morse, however, is just making a name for himself through his art. He spends his days in the Louvre working on a piece that will be one of his greatest, The Gallery of the Louvre, which includes Cooper and his family. In 1832, a cholera epidemic breaks out. The death toll is high, and most Americans leave Paris, though the disease has spread throughout France. Only the medical students remain to help deal with the massive number of people struck down. By 1833, both Morse and Cooper have concluded their time in Paris and return home.
The American medical students, among whom is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., come to Paris because the medical schools in America are inadequate. The French schools are the best in the Western Hemisphere and are making remarkable advances in the treatment of diseases and illnesses. Clean and well lit, the hospitals rarely seem crowded even with hundreds of patients. The treatment of the patients, however, is rough to the point of violence. Nevertheless, the students’ adoration for their professors is lifelong. The American students are exposed to battle wounds for the first time because of occasional public uprisings. What they learn they take back with them to America, to improve their homeland’s hospitals and medical schools.
From 1838 to 1845, Paris is the scene of a great many American “sensations.” George Healy, on being commissioned to paint a portrait of King Louis-Philippe, begins a career as an historical artist. He focuses his work on famous Americans such as former President Andrew Jackson. Samuel Morse is disappointed to not receive the opportunity to paint one of the murals in the Capitol Rotunda, and he leaves art for invention. Morse spends much time in Paris obtaining a French patent for his remarkable telegraph system. P. T. Barnum, the American showman, astounds Paris with his presentation of General Tom Thumb, the two-foot-high youth who performs on stages throughout the French capital. Moreau Gottschalk impresses the music world as a fifteen-year-old pianist; he represents his native Louisiana through his compositions. George Catlin showcases his paintings of Native American life; he is accompanied by a troop of Iowas who perform at his exhibitions.
Richard Rush, the new ambassador to France under James K. Polk, arrives in Paris at a time of heightened unrest. King Louis-Philippe has become increasingly unpopular and is forced to abdicate in February 1848. Although the political transition to a republic is relatively easy, the social and economic impact is devastating. Social unrest pervades the capital, leading to the deaths of many. Despite this, Americans continue to come to Paris, among them Margaret Fuller, a Transcendentalist leader, and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman doctor. George Healy returns to paint his masterpiece, Webster’s Reply to Hayne. William Wells Brown, a former slave turned abolitionist, author, and playwright, also visits Paris and is accepted as he could not be in America.
In the midst of the unstable political climate, Louis Napoleon seizes power and is proclaimed Emperor Napoleon III. He immediately sets out to rebuild Paris, widening the streets into the boulevards for which it is known today. The sidewalks also are expanded, allowing cafés to place tables and chairs outside for the first time. When Napoleon III becomes unpopular, he escapes to England.
Harriet Beecher Stowe arrives in Paris, seeking some respite from the popularity caused by her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Also seeking peace, Charles Sumner returns following his attack on the Senate floor by a disgruntled Southern Congressman, Preston Brooks. He returns to America in time for the outbreak of the Civil War. George Healy is also in the United States. He painted a portrait of a (beardless) President-elect Abraham Lincoln. He was in Charleston, South Carolina, to paint a portrait of Confederate General Beauregard just prior to the outbreak when Fort Sumter was attacked.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens arrives in Paris from New York, intent on becoming a sculptor. It is two years after the end of the Civil War, and the French support for the lost Confederacy is slowly ebbing. It is also the year of the Exposition Universelle, a display of the world’s great works. The American representations are deemed unimportant. Samuel Morse, whose telegraph has become indispensable, also returns to view the display. Napoleon III, whose self-selected dictator of Mexico, Maximilian, has been executed, is growing older and weaker. When the Franco-Prussian War breaks out in 1870, he rides into battle and is captured. The end of the Second Empire is proclaimed and the Third Republic begins. Because of the sure victory of the Prussians, most Americans leave France and return home.
As the Prussians lay siege around Paris, Elihu Washburne, Ulysses S. Grant’s minister to France, is one of the few foreign diplomats to remain. Despite his inexperience in foreign affairs, Washburne is adept in getting many Americans, and visitors of other nationalities, out of the city. When Bismarck closes the gates, the city eventually reaches starvation levels, which results in the consumption of dogs, cats, rats, and even the animals in the zoo. For a short time, the Communard party takes over the city, but the Republic is quickly restored. It is with some relief that Washburne learns of the surrender of the city in early 1871.
Following the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the government of France establishes itself at Versailles as the Communards establish themselves in Paris. Civil unrest commences, leading to a very bloody time for the French capital. The Republic eventually succeeds, but its vengeance against the Commune Party is equally as brutal.
Paris begins to return to normal, and Americans return to the capital. Henry James Jr. visited when he was a child and now comes to work on his writing. The city begins to be a part of his works. Mary Cassatt joins the Impressionists; she is the only American woman to do so. George Healy arrives to paint portraits of the new world leaders, such as Otto von Bismarck and Ulysses S. Grant. Augustus Saint-Gaudens is commissioned to do a sculpture of the Civil War naval hero Admiral Farragut to be placed in New York. Newly married, Saint-Gaudens and his wife, Gussie, travel to Paris, where Saint-Gaudens feels the need to be in the “art current” for inspiration. Whereas Saint-Gaudens enjoys the social life of Paris, Gussie does not, feeling self-conscious about her gradual hearing loss. When he returns to New York with the completed statue and his now pregnant wife, Saint-Gaudens enjoys acclaim and success and becomes the prime sculptor for the now burgeoning industry of Civil War memorials.
John Singer Sargent leads the group of American painters. However, his portrait of Madame Gautreau is deemed too erotic and is widely condemned, although he thinks it is his best work. The construction of Eiffel Tower for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 draws equal criticism but becomes more popular as the exposition opens. Mary Cassatt withdraws when her sister dies but eventually comes out of her grief to continue her Impressionistic masterpieces.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, now in his eighties, returns to Paris to view some of the sites of his youth. Because of what he and the other medical students took back home, there are few American medical students in Paris; they have improved the medical schools in America. After spending much time in America, Augustus Saint-Gaudens returns to Paris to complete his statue of General William T. Sherman. When he is diagnosed with cancer in 1900, he returns to the United States and sets up an artists’ colony in Cornish, New York, where he dies in 1907. John Singer Sargent also passes away, as does Mary Cassatt, who remained in Paris even through the First World War.