Americans Abroad

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Whistler, Sargent, and James—those are the names we think of when we contemplate that first thin line of expatriates. Other Americans came increasingly to live in Europe for various periods during the late decades of the nineteenth century, and still others—businessmen, socialites, writers—shuttled between the two continents, sometimes maintaining homes here and abroad. But the two painters and the novelist stood out by the definitiveness with which they made their choice and by the awareness that they brought to its implications.

When in the fall of 1875 James settled down in a “snug little troisième” near the Place Vendôme in Paris, he was repeating the first step in the pilgrimage made by Whistler. This eccentric man, half visionary and half drawing-room wit, had also spent much of his youth in Europe, mainly at St. Petersburg, where his father, a former United States Army engineer, had been invited by the czar to supervise the building of a railroad to Moscow. Later young Whistler had attended West Point—at the time when Robert E. Lee was superintendent—only to be expelled after committing a series of half-comic escapades and flunking chemistry (“Had silicon been a gas,” he recalled years later, “I would have been a major-general”). Then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis found him a job etching and mapping at the U.S. Coast Survey Office, but he had spent more time in Washington salons than at his job. Finally, in 1855, the memory of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème fresh in his mind, he had gone to Paris to test the talent for painting which he had long displayed.

In 1874, John Singer Sargent had come to Paris to study art. Unlike James and Whistler, Sargent had not been born in America, although his roots there went far back. His father was a surgeon, a moody man whom today we would call neurotic, who had taken his family to Europe after a troubled career in the States. John had been born in Florence, had traveled with his parents throughout the Continent, in an endless nomadic existence, (James was later to write a story, The Pupil, about this talented youth and his restless, socially ambitious parents), and finally, at eighteen, he had come to Paris to begin his career.

By 1875 Whistler had long since left Paris for London, after having failed to make much of a dent in the French scene. Sargent was to follow him because he made the wrong kind of dent. After several years of study with a leading French portrait painter, Carolus-Duran, he had just begun to make a reputation when he was brought up short by one of those artistic scandals which the nineteenth century contained in abundance. His daringly accurate portrait of Madame Gautreau, an unorthodox beauty who dressed provocatively, used lavender face-powder, and dyed her hair scarlet, was exhibited at the Salon of 1884, thereupon bringing down upon Sargent the anathemas of polite French society, on whose good will he depended for his commissions.

SIDEBAR: THE MANY WORLDS OF HENRY JAMES

A year of dwindling revenues persuaded him to try his luck in England, though not without some ironically tinged misgivings. “There is perhaps more chance for me there as a portrait painter,” he wrote to a friend, “although it might be a long struggle for my painting to be accepted. It is thought beastly French.”

James had preceded Sargent across the Channel. He spent only a year in Paris, in fact, during which time he served as correspondent for the New York Tribune and made the acquaintance of such men as Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, the Goncourts, and Daudet. But though we find him writing to William Dean Howells that “I am turning into an old and very contented Parisian,” James was never more than a fascinated visitor to that city. England was the place for him, as he had always known. The decision to go there was abrupt, and the transformation rapid. Two months after the letter to Howells he writes to William James: “I am turning English all over. I desire only to feed on English life and the contact of English minds—I wish greatly I knew some.”

He was not long in overcoming the deficiency. Within a year he was able to write to his sister Alice that he had dined 107 times in private homes the previous winter, his fellow guests ranging from Tennyson to Gladstone. He quickly struck up friendships with Fanny Kemble, the Irish writer George Moore, and later with George du Maurier, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edmund Gosse. Two years after his arrival his short novel Daisy Miller was published, making his name for the first time widely known to English readers. Yet even before that we find him writing that London was “the place in the world in which, on the whole, I feel most at home.”