The oval paintings, or tableaux, from which this work takes its name dominate the walls of the Château du Bréau’s petit salon, which Walter Gay used as a studio. Along the upper row are oval portraits of the Gramont family, from whom the Gay’s purchased the château in 1907, and those of the lower row are Gay’s paintings of statuary in the gardens. (1) That Gay used this room as his studio is evident from the paintings placed on easels and propped up against the walls as well as the artist’s palette and brushes resting casually on the neoclassical writing desk between the two mismatched chairs flanking the fireplace. The painting depicted on the easel at the center is a view of the interior of Edith Wharton's house, Pavilion Colombe at St. Brice, (2) which she acquired in 1918. The cropped corner view of this room lies between the fireplace mantel at the left and a doorway on the right that provides a glimpse of an en filade arrangement of rooms. The furnishings and objects of this corner—including French antiques as well as more modern pieces, such as the tufted bergère to the left of the table—are grouped in a casual, if not crowded arrangement evocative of Matilda Gay's desire that interiors have a cozy confusion rather than the icy formality of many French houses. (3)
Gay painted at least two related views of the petit salon before the lower tier of oval paintings was installed and, seemingly, before Gay began to use the room as a studio. (4) While the earlier depictions capture the beauty of the room at a particular moment in time, the Dumbarton Oaks version portrays the room as a lived-in space. This version more clearly communicates Walter Gay’s personality: his artistic creativity, connoisseurship, and passion for the beauty of the ancien régime. Some have written that Gay’s interiors portray not only the rooms themselves but their owners as well. And in this painting Walter Gay’s presence in and ownership of this room is strongly felt. As Albert Eugene Gallatin wrote of Gay’s one-man 1913 exhibition at E. Gimpel and Wildenstein in New York City: “These portraits of rooms, and this is what they are, besides being a record of their owner’s personality, are an entirely new note in art and a most engaging one…. The personality of the people who live in these châteaux has also been suggested and indicated in an extraordinary manner; we can feel their presence.” (5) In 1938 Josephine Allen echoed this sentiment in a review of the memorial exhibition, in which this painting was included: “Without seeing the tenants we still feel confident that these rooms are warmed by the presence of the cultured, sophisticated society of the present, not the ghosts of bygone days.” (6)
This striped fabric of the chair seen in the lower center of the composition may be the same fabric that Walter Gay complained about when he wrote to his wife in May of 1914: “The Bréau looks charmingly, as it always does. The tapissiers haven't finished yet. The sofas and chairs in the parlor are a very great success, with their covering of silk with a green stripe. Those in the petit salon less so. They are covered with a strong yellow and a stronger green stripe—too strong for the room. In fact, I don't remember having chosen it. They are also too dark in color, but the little Directoire chairs in my downstairs bed chamber are the greatest success of all. They are perfectly killing in their yellow coverings with a design which is exactly right.” (7)
(1) These latter paintings were exhibited at the Galleries Georges Petit, Paris, Exposition Walter Gay, April, 1908, as “nos. 52-57. Série de decorations ovales, 6 panneaux.”
(2) William Rieder, A Charmed Couple: The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay (New York, 2000), 60.
(3) See Charmed Couple, 62.
(4) A watercolor, Interior, Bréau, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 52.110, and an oil, Intérieur: Château du Bréau (Les Médaillons), ca. 1908, belonging to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, RF 1977-441, and presently on loan to the Musée de la coopération franco-américaine, Blérancourt. The latter is likely the painting exhibited at the Galleries Georges Petit, Paris, Exposition Walter Gay, April, 1908, as “no. 48. Les Portraits, château du Bréau.” It was bequeathed to the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, in 1911.
(5) A.E. Gallatin, “Mr. Walter Gay’s Interiors,” Art and Progress, vol. 4, no. 9 (July 1913), 1024-1025.
(6) Josephine J. Allen, “A Memorial Exhibition of Paintings by Walter Gay,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 33, no. 4 (April 1938), 102.
(7) Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Archives of American Art, “Walter Gay Papers,” May 31, 1914, no. 123, as quoted by William Rieder in "Walter and Matilda Gay in Paris and the country." The Magazine Antiques, vol. 157, no. 6 (December 2000), 862.
Gallatin, Albert Eugene. Walter Gay: A Retrospective. New York: Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University, 1980, 110, no. 86.
Scott, Barbara. "Dancing Sunbeam." Country Life (April 20, 1995), 85, fig. 6.
Rieder, William. A Charmed Couple, The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000, 60, pl. 38.
Rieder, William. "Walter and Matilda Gay in Paris and the country." The Magazine Antiques, vol. CLVII, no. 6 (December 2000), 862, pl. V.
Sacred Art, Secular Context, Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Asen Kirin, editor. Athens, Georgia: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2005, 168-169, no. 78.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 82-85, no. 12.
Taube, Isabel L., Impressions of Interiors; Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay. Pittsburgh: Frick Art & Historical Center, in association with D Giles Limited, London, 2012, 12, 128, 142, pl. 34 and detail.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y., Memorial Exhibition of Paintings By Walter Gay (1856-1937), April 9-May 30, 938, no. 7.
Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York, N.Y., Walter Gay: A Retrospective, September 15-November 1, 1980, no. 86.
The Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Ga., Sacred Art, Secular Context, May 15-November 6, 2005, no. 78.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 12.
Frick Art & Historical Center, Pittsburgh, Penn., Impressions of Interiors; Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay, October 6, 2012-January 6, 2013, no. 34.
The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, Palm Beach, Fl., Impressions of Interiors; Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay, January 29-April 23, 2013, no. 34.
Purchased from the artist by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, 1936.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until November 29, 1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.