In 1876, Walter Gay left Boston to study in Paris and soon entered the atelier of the artist Léon Bonnat (1833-1922)—one of the most popular and respected painters of his day—where he remained for three years. A contemporary description of Bonnat’s studio in 1882 reveals Bonnat’s pedagogy “to leave each student absolutely free to follow his own inclinations in all matters pertaining to choice of subject, method of work, and materials…. His attention was always directed to the study as a whole…. He was very particular that the gesture of the figure should be true, and that the type and character of face and form should be emphasized, even if ugly in nature.” (1)
This painting is an académie (a full-length nude study done from a model) and depicts a young nude boy viewed from the back and standing on an antelope skin. His hair is pulled up at the nape of his neck, possibly by a fillet, and he stands in a sinuous, closed contrapposto pose made more striking and sensual by being relieved against the dark background. The smooth, pale texture and color of the boy's skin contrasts with the furry bearskin prop dimly seen at the back left in the composition.
When Walter Gay gave this painting to Mildred Bliss in 1936, he told her that he had painted it nearly fifty years before in Bonnat's Monmartre studio. (2) Interestingly, the same nude model standing on the same antelope skin was also painted by the American artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938), although Dewing depicts the boy from the side and shows him in a more active pose holding a bundle of herbs over a lighted brazier. (3) Despite these differences, the similarity of pose and props in both paintings assures that they were painted at the same time but from different viewing angles. Bonnat’s atelier was known to hire a different model each Monday to pose for a week, (4) and the coincidence between the two paintings dates Gay’s Nude Figure of a Boy to ca. 1877 and documents that Dewing, who had also arrived in Paris in 1876 but was otherwise enrolled in the atelier of Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911), took occasional lessons with Léon Bonnat. The artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) also took occasional classes with Bonnat where he met Gay and began a life-long friendship. (5)
(1) Barclay Day, “L’Atelier—Bonnat,” Magazine of Art, vol. 5 (1882), 139-140, as quoted in Gary A. Reynolds, Walter Gay, A Retrospective, Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University, September 16-November 1, 1980 (New York, 1980), 21.
(2) Mildred Bliss wrote the following notice regarding this painting: “This picture was found by me in Walter Gay’s studio at his Paris home, 11 rue de l’Université, on Wednesday, January 29th, 1936. It was covered with dirt and unframed, and lay behind some canvases and easels in a corner. Bringing it forth, I placed it on a chair, where Walter could see it, saying: ‘I like that – what is it?’ ‘I painted that nearly fifty years ago in Bonnat’s studio. It isn’t bad, is it?’ On leaving I told him I was going to steal it from him, and he asked me to accept it. Mildred Bliss.” Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection dossier file, HC.P.1936.37.(O).
(3) Young Sorcerer (The Sorcerer’s Slave), signed and dated 1877, National Academy of Design, New York. See Walter Gay, A Retrospective, 21 and fig. 5, and Susan Hobbs, “Thomas Wilmer Dewing: The Early Years, 1851-1885,” The American Art Journal, vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring 1981), 18 and fig. 12.
(4) Walter Gay, A Retrospective, 21.
(5) Ibid., 22.
Reynolds, Gary A. Walter Gay: A Retrospective. New York: Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University, 1980, 21, fig. 6.
Hobbs, Susan. “Thomas Wilmer Dewing: The Early Years, 1851-1885.” The American Art Journal vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring, 1981), 18, fig. 12.
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, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2005, 162-163, no. 75.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 62-65, no. 7.
The Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia, Sacred Art, Secular Context, May 15-November 6, 2005, no. 75.
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. 7.
Gift of the artist to Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, January 29, 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.