Walter Gay

The Master of Painterly Poèmes d’Intérieurs

by Brook S. Mason

Although touted as the “Dean of American Artists in Paris” by The New York Times, the highly pivotal artist Walter Gay (1856–1937) has fallen into the shadow. But now with a major traveling exhibition, “Impressions of Interiors: Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay,” debuting this fall at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, and an accompanying comprehensive catalogue, Gay, who spent most of his life in Paris, is finally back in the limelight.  Highlighting his importance, the show will travel to the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, Palm Beach, Florida, in the coming year. Both the Frick and the Flagler, each with lavish Gilded Age interiors, could not be more fitting for the work of Gay, who chronicled the aristocracy of Paris and New York by painting their interiors in his own distinctive manner from the Belle Époque right through the 1930s.

Walter Gay, Les Tisseuses (The Weavers), c. 1885, Private CollectionThe accompanying exhibition catalogue, Impressions of Interiors: Gilded Age Paintings, further secures the artist’s rightful position in the canons of art history. Both the exhibition and catalogue provide an unrivalled opportunity for a new audience to witness the artistry of Gay and ultimately resurrect his reputation. This new exhibition contains sixty-nine paintings and ancillary historical material from forty fine arts institutions and private collectors.  Close to one third of the paintings depict Gay’s own homes in France. Many of the examples have not been exhibited since the artist’s death.

Acclaimed as a significant artist and collector during his day, Gay to a great extent pioneered a particular niche by rendering French and American interiors in new and novel ways. Far more than merely documenting interiors in meticulous detail, Gay painted his own impressions of remarkably stylish interiors.  Those painterly interiors are frequently filled with prized dix-huitièmesiecle furnishings, fine Chinese porcelains, superb gilt mirrors, sculpture and even paintings, like the renowned series of Fragonard and Boucher paintings amassed by the industrialist and collector Henry Clay Frick. For the most part, Gay depicts the antiques and the accompanying art and sculpture in boisierie-paneled rooms, some with silk wall hangings. The artist defined his rarefied approach aptly.  Of his light-filled interiors, Gay noted that he was capturing “the spirit of empty rooms.” He also spoke of his paintings, pastels and watercolors as reflecting the “sentiment of the past.” A prime example, his Salon of Comptesse Robert de Fitz-James, (c. 1913) in her collection is especially prominent. Front and center are her pair of dix-huitième chairs and a commode trimmed with ormolu and topped by her porcelain. Also on display are five pictures, including a Boucher as well as a Watteau, demonstrating Gay’s reverance for such interiors.

This artist gives us a rare look into the taste of Parisian and New York haute society of his time.  Gay focused on specific interiors in his own homes, along with those of his friends. His paintings were acquired by those in the highest echelons of society, from the French aristocracy to novelist Edith Wharton and friends of John Singer Sargent.

Gay long favored the City of Light. Once ensconced in Paris, he studied under Léon Bonnat (1833–1922), whose well-known students included Gustave Caillebotte, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Thomas Eakins and Sargent. After studying and copying the work of Velázquez at the Prado in Madrid, Gay turned his attention to portraying peasants and factory workers on a large scale in the mid-1880s. His early genre painting is represented by his 1885 Les Tisseuses (The Weavers), and even then Gay was interested in light effects.

Later he would take his painting in a new direction. In 1887, he married Matilda Travers, whose father, a millionaire attorney and investor co-founded the Saratoga race track. She would chronicle their lives in an extensive diary, which provides a richly detailed account of their own collecting, their friends, her husband’s paintings and his gallery exhibitions. By the 1890s, Gay turned away from his paintings of peasants, pastoral life and factory women, which he termed “pot-boilers,” and created a then-unusual painterly genre in his portrayals of sophisticated domestic interiors. His wife defined this later work as poèmes d’intérieurs. Gay’s new work was on a far smaller scale, more personal and intimate. The exhibition at the Frick and the catalogue essays amply demonstrate Gay’s development, his unique artistry and his place in history.

Exploring Gay’s art is guest curator Isabel L. Taube, a nineteenth-century American painting specialist and frequent contributor to Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.  A scholar in the documentation of interiors, Taube considers the work Gay accomplished in new ways. Besides Taube, Sarah J. Hall, the Frick Director of Curatorial Affairs, contributed to the catalogue. Other catalogue authors are Nina Gay, an expert on nineteenth-century decorative arts, and Patricia Vail Caldwell, who served as Vice President of the Manhattan Graham Gallery.  Caldwell has organized a number of exhibitions of Walter Gay’s work and authored the 2003 publication Walter Gay: Poèmes d’Intérieurs. Their catalogue essays explore the artist’s long career, his reputation within the art market, his place in the history of American collecting and the importance of interior decoration at that time, noting the influence of leading contemporaries such as Edith Wharton.

Interviews with Taube and Hall highlight Gay’s approach, appeal and contributions to painting. While Gay documented a certain lifestyle, in particular a refined taste for collecting and interest in interior design, he tackled his paintings in a different manner from that of his peers. “Gay never sought to replicate in oil and watercolor select interiors with exacting accuracy,” says Hall.  Rather, Gay deliberately veered away from precise reproduction of rooms and avoided countless meticulous details. In his own personal way, Gay painted his “impressions” of interiors.  Taube had initially sensed that Gay’s interior paintings were not totally of a documentary nature, somewhat like pictures from the earlier nineteenth century.  But her thorough analysis of his paintings, in contrast to period photographs of the actual rooms, reveals a surprisingly different “picture.”

“Frequently, Gay would change the dimensions of rooms for the sake of his own sense of composition,” says Taube, whose doctorate thesis was titled Rooms of Memory: The Artful Interior in American Painting.  Other times, Gay would alter the size of porcelain and other accoutrements. Sometimes, he would add a fireplace mantel.  Even with his alterations of the elements portrayed, from the gilt mirrors, tapestries and chandeliers to the boiserie paneling, all work together effectively.  At the same time, those paintings evidence the artist’s fascination with light and reflections.  To a great degree, light animates his interior renditions. In Gay’s 1902 The Music Room and Dining Room of Eben Howard Gay’s House, Boston, which focuses on the home of his brother, Taube writes:  "A comparison of the photograph and painting reveals Gay changed the furnishings, replacing the table with a Chippendale-style double chair or settee and altered the scale of the Chinese vase and bracket.”                                                                          

 Walter Gay, The Artist's Study, rue de l'Université, c. 1910, Private Collection, Courtesy Jill Newhouse GalleryTo a great degree, Gay “redecorates” those rooms, indicating his interest in interior design and antiques, paintings and sculpture. There is nothing disjointed about Gay’s paintings.  Nothing seems abrupt for this American artist, who spent a large portion of his life in France and therefore was acquainted with the homes of the wealthy on both sides of the Atlantic. “His paintings are his poetic interpretation of certain spaces,” says Taube. Gay transforms interiors, and in doing so he always breaks away from the formal rote documentation of interiors, frequently forsaking the utmost detail. While he leaves out painstaking detail, time and time again, Gay conveys the owners’ appreciation of eighteenth-century antiques for their own personal surroundings. 

Gay did not just portray interiors of his friends but also painted both the exteriors and rooms of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, further indicating his preference for eighteenth-century architecture and design. An indication of his own preference for transforming interiors is his depiction of the Grand Salon in the Venice Palazzo Barbaro.  In that particular painting, Gay avoided showing the more heavy and elaborate aspects of the Rococo interior.

“Gay painted with his signature brushstrokes and infused his pictures with light,” says Taube.  His paintings reflect a certain mood and, often, the light at a particular time of day.  In fact, Taube further says Gay’s work “recalls that of his French Impressionist friends.” Without question, Gay’s work is impressionistic in style as to light effects at different times of day and also in terms of his rapid fluid brushstrokes. He had an extraordinary touch in terms of his painterly qualities. Gay unifies his paintings with a soft palette, in some cases, dusty rose, lavender and light yellows.  In other cases, he turns to sage green, various shades of taupe and a golden yellow.  Overall, his choice of color never includes harsh tones.

Gay preferred not to include figures in his interiors but gives the sense that someone has just walked out of the room. Other painters working then, such as James Jacques Joseph Tissot, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, William Merritt Chase and Alfred Stevens, opted to feature figures in their room settings.  Often, there is an interaction between the figures. As Gay left his interiors devoid of figures, his personal impressions of interiors, the light and the mood are his subjects. Consider the interior of Palazzo Barbaro, owned by the Curtis family in Boston, who were friends of Sargent. Gay captures the sense of a piano nobile filled with grand chandeliers and Venetian gilt furniture, while Sargent included the Curtis family in his picture.

Exhibition viewers will note how, in the artist’s 1913 oil Blue and White, which depicts the Boston dining room of Mrs. Josiah Bradlee, the glowing embers of the fire in the fireplace give a sense of someone in that very room.  The rendering of the family’s fine collection of blue-and-white porcelain is effective but never highly detailed as to pattern.  He also appears to have altered somewhat the arrangement of the porcelain; some examples are off center in their positioning. As always, Gay focuses on the light and presents reflections on the porcelain.

In Europe, Gay was lauded for his unique artistry, and Louis Gillet, the curator of the Chateau de Chalis, contended that Gay pioneered “une école d’intimists.”  Sargent noted, “Lobre [referring to the French artist Maurice Lobre, 1862–1951] is the Canaletto, Gay the Guardi of interiors.” A case in point are his paintings commissioned by Helen Clay Frick (1888–1984), the daughter of Henry Frick.  She commissioned Gay to depict actual rooms in the grand Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City, including the Boucher Room, the Fragonard Room and the Living Hall, between 1926 and 1928. At the time, Gay was an astonishing 70 years old, and he was highly acquainted with the Fragonard paintings, which he had seen installed at the London home of the financier J.P. Morgan.

“That work is really a painting about painting celebrating Fragonard’s spectacular series,” notes Hall.  For his painting, Gay renders three of the panels along with eighteenth-century French furniture and gilded boiserie. Gay’s recreations of the Fragonard paintings are highly fluid, as if the viewer took in those French Rococo paintings very quickly but noted the subjects, the wonderful coloring and the lively movement of the figures.  Gay is amazingly dexterous in his application of paint. A later painting depicts the Boucher Room, and his rendering of the Boucher paintings is practically abstract. The marble fireplace, a gilt mirror, which reflects a chandelier, and an eighteenth-century desk with candlesticks complete the scene.

In Gay’s The Living Hall (1928), the viewer is drawn into the handsome interior by the warmth of the fire illuminating the room.  Decorative elements, like a Chinese porcelain lamp with a fringed shade, the Oriental rug and a vase of fresh flowers, complement Frick’s substantial old master collection in the paneled room, centered by two reeded pilasters. Frick’s Holbein portrait Sir Thomas More (1527) is extremely riveting. A pedimented doorway leads the viewer into yet another room.  This is a far more domestic setting than the Fragonard and Boucher rooms. Without question, the Frick paintings capture the spirit of the rooms, but also they are Gay’s own sublime recreations of those rooms. Even during their time, the Frick paintings were considered of importance. Helen Clay Frick loaned them to the Fogg Art Museum and later the Metropolitan Museum of Art before bringing them to Clayton, the Frick family home in Pittsburgh.

The Frick in Pittsburgh owns all three of those works. Today, prestigious museums holding his work in their permanent collections include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art and other fine art institutions. Gay also painted interiors for other Americans in Manhattan, including a commission for Eleanor Widener Rice, who lived right up Fifth Avenue from Frick. Among his clients were the novelist Edith Wharton. He painted a view of her bedroom, and there are several more of her Paris home and her chateau outside the city. Only one is in the Frick exhibition. Another American client was the noted interior designer Elsie de Wolfe.  Gay painted both her interiors in New York and Versailles.  Those pictures of her home in France are in the Frick show, along with Edith Wharton’s New York bedroom.

The paintings of his own homes demonstrate his longtime passion for fine and decorative arts.  With his wife, Matilda, Gay collected numerous pieces of dix-huitième-siècle furniture, tapestries and paintings.  Among their acquisitions were two paintings by Guardi, which would have an enormous influence on his own artistry, as well as a Gainsborough landscape and a Delacroix drawing. The Gay collection was celebrated then. Some of their examples, such as Rembrandt drawings, were shown in a Rembrandt exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale and other institutions. The Chinese Screen (11, Rue de l’Université), after 1909, shows part of his collection of old master drawings and Asian objects installed in his Paris apartment. The Artist’s Study, Rue de l’Université (c. 1910) focuses on a corner of the room, a table covered with books and a wall crowded with small artworks, incuding Watteau-like sketches.

Walter Gay, The Chinese Screen (11, Rue de l’Université), after 1909, Collection of Edward Lee Cave

In fact, Gay’s own reputation as a collector and connoisseur was so well respected that the artist acted as a consultant to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in acquiring both paintings and drawings.  After her husband’s death, Matilda gave some 200 French, English, Dutch and Italian drawings to the Louvre, underlining the importance of their collection. From the 1880s to his death, Gay painted an enormous number of pictures. “With a gallery show practically every year since in the 1920, Gay was in New York on regular basis,” says Hall.  Those in New York were keen to have paintings of their rooms with antiques, and Gay filled that gap.

Gay’s fluid watercolors, in which color is layered and never muddy, are also a window into his considerable talents. “For Gay, his watercolors are not studies for his oil paintings,” says Taube.  “That is where he differs from so many other artists,” she says.

During his day, Gay was rightfully honored in the art world. He was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1888, and he was one of the few artists chosen to represent the United States in the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. His work was exhibited in major European cities including Antwerp, Berlin, Budapest, Munich, Paris and Vienna. 

During his lifetime, Gay was highly regarded in France, and his painting Blue and White indicates his prominence there.  Gay sold that picture to the French state in 1904, and today the Musée d’Orsay holds the oil in its collection. Ten years later, the Art Institute of Chicago honored the artist with “Paintings and Water Colors by Walter Gay.”  In New York, Wildenstein showed his work on seven separate occasions. In 1934, Gay was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Also throwing light on the life and artistry of Gay in the exhibition are Walter Gay's Legion of Honor Medal, hisLegion of Honor Certificate and period photographs of Walter Gay and his wife.  Also on view is Matilda Gay’s diary. Lenders to this museum exhibition include not only the Frick Art & Historical Center, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Dumbarton Oaks and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C., but also the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  Among private collectors lending the artist’s paintings are Alexandra Hampton, New York interior designer Charlotte Moss, and artists Ellen Phelan and Joel Shapiro.

What is the appeal of Gay’s paintings today? Taube believes viewers feel a connection with his work and frequently conjure up images of themselves walking into his rooms.  “It’s that imaginative feature, an element of fantasy which draws a viewer in to his work. Of note, those in the field of fashion and interior designer are especially drawn to his paintings,” she says. Taube cites the late New York fashion designer Bill Blass, who collected paintings by Gay. Today, when interiors are categorized by a minimal approach and frequently devoid of antiques, Walter Gay’s evocative paintings reflect a studied reverence for the past. This exhibition and catalogue should cement his reputation for many years to come, and, with luck, more paintings will resurface. “They are still coming out of the woodwork,” says Hall.

The exhibition is on view October 6, 2012–January 6, 2013, at the Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15208. Telephone (412) 371-0600. TheFrickPittsburgh.org. It travels to the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, 1 Whitehall Way, Palm Beach, Florida 33480 from January 29–April23, 2013. Telephone (561) 655-2833. flaglermuseum.us

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2012, Volume 29, Number 4