American Impressionist painter
When Walter Gay died in 1937, the New York Times hailed him as the “dean of American artists in Paris,” and the following year the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized a memorial retrospective exhibition of his work. (1) These tributes recognized the fact that the expatriate American Gay had attained considerable renown as an artist and a connoisseur. His paintings had won prizes and medals and were exhibited in important museums as well as in the homes of a number of America’s, England’s, and France’s wealthy and influential families, many of whom were Gay’s personal friends. (2) Walter Gay occasionally advised the Metropolitan Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Art, as well as friends, on art acquisitions that were under consideration. (3) And he himself had amassed an important Old Master drawing collection that he bequeathed to the Musée du Louvre and which his widow, Matilda Travers Gay, transferred to the museum in 1938 as “La Donation Walter Gay.” (4) However, at the time of his death, Walter Gay was perhaps best known and most admired for his “empty interiors,” paintings of uninhabited rooms tastefully appointed with eighteenth-century furnishings and stylish objets d’art, a painting genre that Gay had initiated and worked at for over forty years.
Walter Gay was born in Hingham, Massachusetts, on January 22, 1856. He wanted to be an artist from an early age, possibly because of the influence of his uncle, the landscape painter Winkworth Allan Gay (1821-1910), who had studied with Robert W. Weir. After the Gay family moved in 1870 to the Boston area, Gay found a studio in 1873 where he could paint from live models, and he enrolled there along with his friend, John Bernard Johnston, who was then a pupil and studio assistant to William Morris Hunt. Although Gay received occasional critiques from Hunt, he seems to have had little interest in Hunt’s Barbizon School style. Instead, Gay supported himself by painting decorative wildflower still lifes, which he successfully exhibited and sold in Boston. However, within three years and with Hunt’s encouragement, Gay left for Paris to further his artistic studies and ambitions. (5)
Having arrived in Paris in April 1876, Gay became a student of Léon Bonnat, in whose atelier he met, among others, the American artist John Singer Sargent, with whom he became a lifelong friend. Bonnat admonished Gay to travel to Spain to study the works of Velázquez, which Gay did in 1878 by making copies at the Prado. However, he seems equally to have come under the influence of the art of the recently deceased Spanish decorative genre painter, Mariano Fortuny. When Gay returned to France, he made his professional début in the 1879 Paris Salon with The Fencing Lesson (Une leçon d’escrime), a costume piece set in the eighteenth century, much in the manner of Fortuny. A trip with his uncle to Brittany and Barbizon in 1882 introduced Gay to the fashionable painters of realistic scenes of French peasant life, and this theme, along with period genre subjects, would occupy Gay throughout the 1880s and early 1890s, winning him recognition and medals in many European and American cities. The Blessing (Le Bénédicité), Gay’s depiction of an old peasant woman seated at a humble table in the corner of a room filled with sunlight diffused through linen curtains, won a third-place medal at the 1888 Paris Salon, and the French government purchased the work for the Musée du Luxembourg in 1889 when it was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. (6)
It was also in 1889 that Walter Gay married Matilda E. Travers, the daughter of William R. Travers, a wealthy and prominent New York City investor who, on his death in 1887, had left Matilda a fortune of three million dollars. Gay considered his marriage to be one of the three great events of his life, the other two being his arrival in Paris and his acquisition of his country house, the Château du Bréau. As Gay’s artistic successes grew ever greater in the 1890s, his paintings received gold medals in Vienna, Antwerp, Berlin, and Munich. At the Paris Salon of 1894, the French government acquired a second canvas for the Musée du Luxembourg, this time a genre composition, Las Cigarreras, Seville (Cigarette Girls), (7) and the next year elected Gay chevalier of the Legion of Honor, in recognition of his artistic achievement. (In 1906 he would be elected an officer.) He became a member of a number of American and European artist societies with which he exhibited, including the Society of American Artists (1880), the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (1890), the Société Nouvelle (later the Société des Peintres et des Sculpteurs) (1897), the Munich-based Society of Secession (1897), and the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1898).
This success notwithstanding, Gay later admitted to becoming disenchanted with the medals and honors he was receiving since they engendered a public expectation as to subject matter and its treatment that was increasingly of less interest to Gay. (8) What caused this sea change in Walter Gay’s artistic interests is unclear, but beginning in 1895, when the Gays rented a small summer house at Magnanville, Gay began painting his first “empty interiors.” In 1897, he was concentrating on depicting similar interiors at the Château de Fortoiseau near the village of Dammarie-les-Lys, about three miles southwest of Melun. (9) The Gays had appointed this nineteenth-century château with their French eighteenth-century furnishings, and they continued to rent it for nine years until they discovered and fell in love with its nearest neighbor, the Château du Bréau. They would first rent Le Bréau in 1905 and then purchase it furnished in 1907 from the comtesse de Gramont d’Aster for 765,000 francs (about two and a half million dollars today). Gay would paint the interiors of the Château du Bréau for the remainder of his life.
When Walter Gay became interested in the genre of uninhabited interiors about 1895, such paintings were rare, although not unknown. In 1892, Edgar Degas had completed both an oil sketch and a finished oil painting of the uninhabited billiard room of his friend Paul Valpinçon’s estate at Ménil-Hubert in Normandy. (10) Earlier, Gay’s friend, John Singer Sargent, had painted the dining room of his studio at 33 Boulevard Berthier in Paris, which he occupied between 1883 and 1886. (11) Both paintings show the art-hung corner of a room with its furnishings and objects, a vignette that Gay would also greatly favor. Perhaps these and similar paintings directly influenced Gay in his move away from costume genre and peasant paintings. What is undisputable, however, is that Gay took passionately to the “empty interior” and made it his own. Gay’s sincere love of eighteenth-century decorative arts and room décor was his true starting point, and to his paintings of calm, elegant interiors he could bring the decorative surface quality and high-keyed tonal palette of his early flower paintings, the reverence for the eighteenth century of his costume genre paintings, and, especially, the light-infused interiors of his peasant paintings.
Beginning in 1901, Gay began to exhibit his interiors, although in that same year, perhaps for the last time, he exhibited a peasant painting, his 1892 French Breton Peasants at Prayer (Mass in Brittany) at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. In 1904 the French government purchased for the Musée du Luxembourg an interior, Blue and White, that Gay had painted on a trip to the United States in 1902. (12) By 1905 Gay had enough depictions of interiors to hold a one-person show at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris, which was both a critical and financial success. (13) From that date on, Walter Gay gained considerable renown for his “empty interiors,” which he continued to paint and steadily exhibit in Paris and New York City for the next thirty years.
Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, the patrons of Dumbarton Oaks, were introduced to the Gays by their mutual friend Edith Wharton in 1913, during the period that Robert Bliss served as secretary and later counselor at the American Embassy in Paris (1912-1919). The Blisses and the Gays became close friends, despite the difference in their ages, and in her diary, Matilda Gay characterized Robert Bliss as “very intelligent, pleasant and gentlemanly with a sense of humour” and Mildred Bliss as having “almost every quality—beauty, sweetness, grace, and a supple mind. To crown all they are happily married.” (14) During the war, the Blisses and the Gays served on many of the same committees and supported the same war charities and were, no doubt, frequently together. In order to protect their anonymity, Gay bid for them at the 1918 vente Degas, acquiring Degas’s Song Rehearsal. (15) The Blisses acquired five artworks by Walter Gay and were given two others by the artist. (16) When Walter Gay died in 1937, Robert Bliss wrote Matilda Gay: “I am so grateful for the friendship Walter gave me so generously. It made life for me richer and fuller, and added much of happiness and enjoyment to my existence…. What happy memories we have of the times we have gone the rounds of the dealers and still happier ones we have spent with him and you at Le Bréau or our delightful tête-à-tête meals at 11, rue de l’Université. It is a rich memory to which Mildred and I hold dearly.” (17)
(1) “Walter Gay, 81, American Painter; Dean of Group in Paris Passed Entire Career in France at Chateau du Breau,” The New York Times (July 15, 1937), 19. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Memorial Exhibition of Paintings by Walter Gay, April 9-May 30, 1938.
(2) For Walter Gay’s life and art, see especially Gary A. Reynolds, Walter Gay, A Retrospective, September 16-November 1, 1980, Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University (New York, 1980), and William Rieder, A Charmed Couple: The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay (New York, 2000).
(3) Walter Gay, A Retrospective, 13.
(4) Gay’s collection was strongest in Dutch drawings of the seventeenth-century (including twenty-three works by Rembrandt), and eighteenth-century French works. See René Huyghe, “La Donation Walter Gay au Musée du Louvre,” Bulletin des Musées de France, vol. 10, no. 1 (January-February 1938), 6-8, and M.E. Jaffrenou, Catalogue des dessins de la collection Walter Gay conserves au Cabinet des Dessins du Louvre (Écoles françaises et anglaises) (dissertation), École du Pouvre, Paris, 1984.
(5) In 1930, Walter Gay published a short autobiography: Memoirs of Walter Gay (New York, 1930).
(6) Property of the Musée du Louvre, now in the Musée Picardie, Amiens (RF 616; M.P. 2004.17.193).
(7) Now Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 892).
(8) Memoirs, 60.
(9) In his Memoirs, 60, Gay wrote: “…I had a sentiment for the past: it meant much to me. So I painted many studies at the Chateau de Fortoiseau, without exhibiting them, showing them only to sympathetic people who could understand what I was trying to do. I was searching for the spirit of empty rooms—interiors.”
(10) Salle de billard au Ménil-Hubert, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF 1989-3 and Billardzimmer (Salle de Billard), Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, no. 2792.
(11) My Dining Room, Smith College Museum of Art, SC 1968:10.
(12) Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF 1977-440.
(13) Charmed Couple, 26-28.
(14) William Rieder has chronicled the relationship of the Blisses and the Gays from Matilda Gay’s unpublished diary, in the collection of Arthur T. Garrity, Jr., Hingham, Massachusetts. See Charmed Couple, 212-214.
(15) James N. Carder, “The Song Rehearsal,” in Degas and America, The Early Collectors, Ann Dumas and David A. Brenneman, editors (New York, 2000), 139.
(16) One of the gifts, the oil painting Intérieur, Galérie, Le Bréau; they received in 1917, the second of their acquisitions of Gay’s work. In 1949, the Blisses gave the painting to Matilda Gay's nephew, James W. Wadsworth.
(17) Robert Bliss to Matilda Gay, July 28, 1937; collection of Arthur T. Garrity, Jr., Hingham, Massachusetts, as quoted in Charmed Couple, 214.