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The Blue Bed

Walter Gay (1856–1937)

American, Impressionist
ca. 1897 - 1908
53.98 x 43.2 cm (21 1/4 x 17 in.)
pastel on paper

Not on view


Typical of the uninhabited, restful interior vignettes that became Walter Gay’s specialty beginning about 1895, this pastel rendering may record a bedroom in the Gays’ Parisian apartment on the rue Ampère which was known to have had a collection of Empire furniture. (1) The Gays purchased this property about 1891 and sold it in 1910. However, the pastel may represent a bedroom at the Château de Fortoiseau, located near the village of Dammarie-les-Lys, about three miles southwest of Melun, which the Gays rented between 1897 and 1905 and inhabited in the summer months. It was at this château that Gay first turned in earnest to his signature paintings of interiors without people, and The Blue Bed compares favorably in style and paper size with a pastel of the corner of a salon at the Château de Fortoiseau. (2) The Gays are known to have installed furniture there brought from their Parisian apartment.

Prominent in the composition is a mahogany “sleigh” bed that was designed after ancient Roman banqueting couches, a concept popular in the classicizing Empire period (ca. 1800-1820) in France. The bed is located in the corner of the room, a secluded “housing” being achieved with tester hangings of a blue floral striped fabric that match the fabric of the window treatment and the wall covering behind the bed. The prominence of the bed in the composition and the soft, white bed linens with covered bolster and large square pillow, which are revealed by the tied-back tester hangings, seem to invite comfort and repose. A crucifix hangs on the wall above the bed, and shoes have been placed neatly beside the pedestal-form bedside table on which lie a candle and a book, possibly still open. The louvers of the shutters have been oriented to allow soft light to enter the room but to retard the heat of direct sunlight. All of this gives testament to the human use of the room, despite the fact that it is uninhabited. Indeed, Walter Gay’s paintings of interiors after 1900 are always uninhabited but never deserted, and they are often filled with reminders of the lives of those who tenant them. Gay seems to suggest that the rooms’ beauty and timeless elegance await those who are absent but who will return to enjoy them and find in them calm and respite.

The almost Impressionist-like use of bright colors and the rendering of the effects of light that is so important to Gay’s interiors and their antique furnishings was remarked on by Henri Lavedan in his preface to the 1908 Galerie Georges Petit exhibition catalogue. And in a letter to the Gays after the exhibition opening, Edith Wharton also mentioned Gay’s “wonderful sensitiveness to colour, and the happy and harmonious effects” he got from it and remarked that “Lavedan’s flitting light seemed everywhere in the gallery from the dim reflection of the embers on the andirons to the play of sunbeams on the black and white floor of your dining room at the Bréau.” (3)

Gay began to work in the pastel medium—which he would employ throughout his career— while still a student of Léon Bonnat and after seeing pastels by the artist Edgar Degas. He soon met the artist, who offered critiques of Gay’s work. (4) Gay used pastel in the Impressionist manner, building up his images with unblended strokes of pure color put down side by side to create both visual vibrancy and the sense of light playing on the surfaces of different materials. This pastel, The Blue Bed, was shown in the 1908 exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, and is seen in an installation photograph from this exhibition. (5)

(1) Dumbarton Oaks is grateful to William Rieder, curator of European sculpture and decorative arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for providing this information.

(2) Interior, Fortoiseau, private collection, New York. See Gary A. Reynolds, Walter Gay, A Retrospective, Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University, September 16-November 1, 1980 (New York, 1980), no. 31.

(3) Ibid., 52.

(4) Walter Gay, Memoirs of Walter Gay (New York, 1930), 44. “I went to [Degas’s] studio, and he was good enough to come to mine and gave me such good advice. I saw a good deal of him in those first few years.”

(5) Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Archives of American Art, “Walter Gay Papers,” microfilm 2138. See Walter Gay, A Retrospective, fig. 20: the pastel is immediately to the right of the oval painting in the corner of the room.

J. Carder

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, 164-165, no. 76.

Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 66-69, no. 8.

Exhibition History
Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, Exposition Walter Gay, April 1-15, 1908, as “no. 20 Le Lit (pastel).”

[Possibly] the house of Jean Charpentier, Paris, Exposition de Peintures, Aquarelles et Gouaches de Walter Gay, February 8-22, 1923, as “no. 22 Le Lit.”

The Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA, Sacred Art, Secular Context, May 15-November 6, 2005, no. 76.

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. 8.

Acquisition History
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.

House Collection