Americans in Paris
They were there, Lafayette
Paris was their goal
Sargent’s love of Paris revealed in this painting of the Luxembourg Gardens
Jun 2nd 2011 | from the print edition
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.
By David McCullough. Simon & Schuster; 544 pages; $37.50. Buy from Amazon.com
“WHEN good Americans die, they go to Paris,” observed Thomas Gold Appleton, a Boston wit of the 19th century. Appleton is just one of the characters in David McCullough’s excellent reminder that Americans’ love of Paris began a good century before the arrival in the “City of Light” of men such as Ernest Hemingway or James Baldwin. From James Fenimore Cooper, author of “The Last of the Mohicans”, to Samuel Morse, a painter better known now as the inventor of the telegraph, American visitors were seduced by Paris: “Never in their lives had the Americans seen such parks and palaces, or such beautiful bridges or so many bridges.”
Paris was so much more advanced—in the arts, the sciences and medicine—than Boston, New York or Washington, DC. Morse, already a successful artist in America when he was commissioned at 28 to produce a portrait of President Monroe, declared that he had to go to Paris: “My education as a painter is incomplete without it.” This desire for improvement was “the greater journey” of Mr. McCullough’s title, following the often dangerous journey across the Atlantic, first by sailing ship and only later under steam.
Mr. McCullough, twice a winner of the Pulitzer prize, tells his story well. One chapter describes the medical schools and hospitals of Paris, well ahead of their counterparts in America. A particular boon for the visiting American students was the “ample opportunity to examine female patients as well as men. This was not the case in America, where most women would have preferred to die than have a physician—a man—examine their bodies.”
Another chapter describes the infinite care with which Augustus Saint-Gaudens (an American despite his name) created in his Paris studio the giant statue to Admiral David Farragut that now stands in New York. Mr. McCullough brings a similar, impressive understanding to the paintings of John Singer Sargent and other artists who came to Paris to perfect their craft.
But Mr. McCullough is more historian than art critic—which is just as well given that his book goes from 1820 to the end of the century, a period in France’s turbulent history that embraced both monarchy and revolution. His description of the 1870-71 siege of Paris and the subsequent nightmare of the Paris Commune is masterly.
Perhaps this is why the real hero of this account is neither artist nor writer but Elihu Washburne, a former Republican member of Congress who served as America’s minister (ambassador) to France from 1869 to 1877. Unencumbered by any training as a diplomat, Washburne proved to be an indefatigable protector of America’s interests, arranging passports for Americans to escape the siege and acting with bravery during the two months of the Paris Commune. Mr. McCullough was fortunate enough to discover Washburne’s own diary of the period, basing two of his best chapters on its vivid entries.
Mr. McCullough stops his story at the start of the 20th century, even though the American fascination for Paris continues. But do Americans living in Paris thereby become real Parisiens? It seems unlikely. As Saint-Gaudens wrote: “coming here has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.”