At the beginning of Henry James’s 1885 novel The Bostonians, Mississippi visitor Basil Ransom contemplates his arrival in a Back Bay townhouse, noting how its furnishings reflect the city’s personality: ‘He had always heard that Boston was a city of culture, and now there was culture in Miss Chancellor’s tables and sofas, in the books that were every-where, on little shelves like brackets (as if a book were a statuette), in the photographs and watercolours that covered the walls, in the curtains festooned rather stiffly in the doorways.’ James’s Miss Chancellor is a quintessential Bostonian, a determined individual devoted to improving the position of women in society, while her friend Miss Birdseye, an avid abolitionist somehow disconcerted by the end of the Civil War, gives all her money to refugees. ‘She was in love,’ James wrote, ‘only with causes.’
In his novel, James created distinctive characters that typified the city’s self-conscious pride. Boston’s upper-class residents identified themselves with (and were described by others as having) certain specific attributes. They were readers and reformers – books and ideas were the city’s currency and these were most likely to be spent on social improvements: abolition, suffrage, settlement houses for immigrants, children’s education, or other virtuous principles. As John Marquand put it in his satiric novel of manners The Late George Apley (1936): ‘Boston furnished the ideals for an ideally cultivated life.’ Among the convictions held by proper Bostonians were certain definite opinions about art – attitudes that eventually led the city’s collectors toward an early embrace of French Impressionism.
Denizens of ‘the Hub,’ as Bostonians liked to call their city, sought in particular to distinguish their taste from that of New York. Early in the nineteenth century, New York had superseded Boston as the country’s economic capital. Perhaps in direct consequence, Boston’s leading citizens dismissed the importance of material goods in favour of intellectual and cultural concerns. New York could have its crass commerce and gaudy treasures; Bostonians sought higher truths, calling their city the ‘Athens of America’. Collector and Bostonian James Jackson Jarves, author of one of the nation’s early art histories (The Art-Idea, 1864), commented that ‘New Yorkers make too much money to care whether their city is given over or not to scoundrelism.’ Boston, on the other hand, ‘has already an enviable historic reputation as a town of ideas and action… its population, and that of New England generally, is, in the aggregate, intelligent and liberal-minded…and it has a great need to entertain and discuss suggestions of an aesthetic character.’ Novelist Mark Twain put it another way: ‘Tomorrow night I appear for the first time before a Boston audience: 4,000 critics.’
Boston’s artistic taste was distinguished early in the nineteenth century by the local enthusiasm for Washington Allston (1779–1843), a Harvard-educated writer who penned sonnets praising his teacher Benjamin West (the second president of the Royal Academy), became a lifelong friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and was a popular painter of high-minded literary and historical themes. Allston’s torch passed to William Morris Hunt in the mid-nineteenth century, who steered the city’s aesthetic tastes firmly in the direction of France.
Hunt, a friend of Boston’s Thomas Gold Appleton (who coined the aphorism later used by Oscar Wilde that ‘Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris’) travelled to the French capital in 1846 to study with Thomas Couture. In 1850, Hunt visited the annual Salon exhibition and became captivated by the paintings by Jean-François Millet which he saw there. By 1853, Hunt had befriended Millet and moved to Barbizon, where he adapted the French painter’s style. When Hunt returned to Boston, he married Louisa Perkins, daughter of one of the city’s most important merchants and art patrons, and found himself in a position to influence local collectors.
Hunt’s efforts brought about a fashion in Boston for French paintings, causing the local devotees of British Pre-Raphaelitism to rise up in arms. Hunt was attacked in the press by Charles Herbert Moore, a professor of drawing at Harvard and a disciple of John Ruskin. A verbal Seven Years War broke out between Hunt in Boston and Moore in Cambridge, just across the river. Moore attacked Millet and Hunt in the Boston papers, calling Millet’s work ‘loose and meaningless dashes of paint’. Hunt dismissed Moore’s Francophobia with a letter to the Boston Advertiser stating that it was ‘not worthwhile to be alarmed about the influence of French art. It would hardly be mortifying if a Millet or a Delacroix should be developed in Boston. It is not our fault that we inherit ignorance in art, but we are not obliged to advertise it.’
Advertising ignorance was perhaps a Bostonian’s greatest fear. But with Hunt’s championship, Millet’s reputation in Boston was secure. His paintings were not only beautiful to look at, but they made everyday labour appear heroic, idealising the worker and making his travails a suitable subject for art. Nostalgia for the pre-industrial agrarian past also appealed, especially when such motifs could provide topics for discussion and debate. Largely because of Hunt, by 1889 Boston collections boasted 125 paintings and pastels by Millet, an admiration that exceeded the appreciation accorded him in France.
Bostonians had money to buy art, but they never showed it off. A streak of frugality and a fervent dislike of ostentation accompanied Boston’s preference for the ideal, a legacy perhaps of its Puritan origins. Critic William Howe Downes remarked in an 1888 survey of local art patrons that ‘Boston amateurs have never made such extensive, costly, and showy collections as those of the Vanderbilts, Belmonts, and Stewarts in New York, or of Mr Walters in Baltimore.’ The Vanderbilts and Belmonts had palatial homes with important collections; millionaire dry goods merchant A.T. Stewart had his own picture gallery and favoured artists like Bouguereau. William T. Walters, whose holdings now form the core of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, preferred Gérôme.
Carefully finished works by French academicians, hand-somely displayed in large private galleries, might have been popular in other cities, but not in Boston. Even Jack and Isabella Gardner (above) began their collection with Barbizon paintings and works by Hunt, including his luminous Gloucester Harbor (c.1877). When in the 1890s Isabella began to collect spectacular old master paintings and to plan her luxurious palace museum, Bostonians remembered her New York origins.
Boston collectors preferred a particular type of French art, rural subjects painted with attention to the nuances of light and atmosphere using loose and individualised brushwork. Their tastes were easily transferred from the Barbizon paintings Hunt championed to a new style, Impressionism.
One of the earliest exhibitions in the United States to include numerous Impressionist works was held in Boston in 1883, and by 1891 one Boston columnist reported, ‘at last the news is circulated that leading Boston buyers of paintings – the first buyers, in other days, of Millets, Corots, Diazes, and Daubignys – are now sending to Paris for this sort of thing, and Impressionism becomes the fashion.’ In 1892, Boston’s St Botolph Club, drawing together nineteen paintings by Monet from local collections, sponsored one of the earliest non-commercial shows of the French master’s work.
This enthusiasm for Impressionism, particularly for Monet, became characteristically Bostonian. Monet’s work was also relatively inexpensive, of course – collector Peter Chardon Brooks, for example, was able to buy three Monets for the same price he paid for one Cazin. Monet’s landscapes also resonated with local literary tastes. ‘Art should exhilarate,’ the local transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had written, ‘awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist.’ Monet’s paintings were like Emerson’s ‘transparent eyeball’, providing a direct experience of nature. In 1891, Brooks’s niece, diarist Marian Lawrence Peabody, recalled that ‘after dinner Uncle Peter showed us all his new pictures by a man named Monet which have just arrived…He had them in the front hall and all up and down the long staircase. I thought they were lovely, so light and sparkling and sunny. They were mostly of the Riviera and the Mediterranean Sea, a lovely shimmering blue…so bright, it made a great stir’. The commotion affected local artists as well as collectors, and Boston painters were among the first to work in Monet’s home town of Giverny. Soon an American version of Impressionism became the city’s signature style. Childe Hassam painted Beacon Hill as if it were Paris, while Frank Benson merged his academic training with his love for sunlight to produce scintillating images of his children out of doors that won him national acclaim.
All this enthusiasm for modern French painting seems odd for a city that many characterise as socially puritanical and conservative. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton describes Boston women as careful people who put away their Parisian dresses for two years before wearing them: on Mrs Baxter Pennilow’s death, ‘they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper.’ But the fictional Mrs Pennilow bought those Worth gowns, just as her real life colleagues bought their Monets. Modesty and propriety may not have rewarded public display, but they did not preclude adventurous taste.