The Painter at the Fountain: Jane Emmet de Glehn


John Singer Sargent, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907. Art Institute of Chicago, oil on canvas 71.4 x 56.5 cm (28 1/8 x 22 1/4 in.) Signed, lower left: "John S. Sargent" Friends of American Art Collection, 1914.57

John Singer Sargent, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907. Art Institute of Chicago, oil on canvas

I’m a little obsessed with this painting of the woman at the fountain.

It is John Singer Sargent’s The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907) from the Art Institute of Chicago. It  has been a favorite painting of mine for decades. I love the idea that Sargent painted a turn-of-the-century woman artist in such a complimentary way.


I decided to do a deep dive into the story behind this painting.  It was 1907. The subject of the painting is a female artist in her smock, accompanied by a man who observes her in the act of painting. She is tall, confident, and is looking over the man’s head. She is concentrating on her subject, refusing to be distracted. He is relaxed, scrutinizing the painting in progress. Is he pleased? Is he critical? Is he offering advice? It’s hard to tell. And then there is Sargent, another artist, studying and painting them both. The woman is in the middle. How interesting.

Sargent’s subjects in this painting were his friends and fellow artists Jane and Wilfred de Glehn. Wilfred de Glehn (1870-1951) was a British landscape painter who had studied in London and at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He was 37 years old at the time of this painting.

Jane Erin Emmet de Glehn (1873-1961) was 34 years old, and had been married just 3 years, no children. (It turned out she never did have children.) She was a member of the prestigious Emmet family of New Rochelle, New York, the youngest of ten siblings. Jane’s great-grandfather Thomas Addis Emmet was the Attorney General of New York and one of the top lawyers admitted to appear in from of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jane came from a long line of successful women artists. Her mother, Julia Colt Pierson Emmet (1829-1908) was an artist and noted illustrator. Jane’s older sisters, Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1854-1948) and Lydia Field Emmet (1866-1952) were both successful painters and illustrators, as well as her cousin Ellen (“Bay”) Emmet Rand (1876-1941) from San Francisco. The Emmets were also distant cousins of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Success, talent and privilege ran freely through the Emmet blood.

Jane Emmet began studying art at a young age, following in the footsteps of her older sisters. Rosina and Lydia Emmet had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris for six months in 1884-85, after which they returned to New York to live and work as professional artists. Rosina married in 1887, had five children, and for two decades gave up most of her professional painting projects in favor of informal family portraits. Lydia continued her studies at the Art Students League, studying with such names as William Merritt Chase and Kenyon Cox. Both Rosina and Lydia were actively involved in Chase’s Shinnecock Summer School of Art from 1891-1893, and both of them were commissioned for major works in the Woman’s Building of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Jane’s older sisters helped Jane make incredible contacts in the New York art world. Jane got to meet John Singer Sargent in 1890, when she was just 17 years old. Sargent had arranged for the Spanish gypsy dancer La Carmencita to give a private performance and pose for a portrait at Chase’s 10th Street studio. The Emmet sisters were invited, along with a elite group in the New York art world, including William Merritt Chase, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Augustus Saint Gaudens and James Carroll Beckwith. Jane was lucky to be rubbing some pretty legendary elbows at such a young age.

In 1897, Jane followed in the path of her older sisters and went off to Paris to study art. Rosina and Lydia Emmet had been underwhelmed with the quality of instruction they’d received at the Académie Julian in the mid-1880s, so it could have been at their urging that Jane and Bay instead sought to study with the famous sculptor Frederick MacMonnies.

MacMonnies was a renowned American artist who had been living and sculpting in Paris since he arrived to study at L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts in the mid-1880s. (See my post “Musée Bourdelle and its American Connection” about MacMonnies’ studio at 16 Impasse du Maine in Paris.) By the mid-90s, fresh off the heels of his success with a giant commission for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893,  MacMonnies had began to offer drawing instruction to some of his sculpting protégés such as Janet Scudder. His classes soon became popular with American female painters as well. By 1897, the word was out and the Emmet women wanted in.

Jane and Bay Emmet arrived in Paris in February, 1897 and found “a fine apartment [in Montparnasse], a cut above the lifestyle of most art students, and access to the inner circle of artists and architects.” (An Interlude in Giverny at 67, see below.) Bay was the first of the Emmet women to be invited to join MacMonnies’ Paris class at Académie Vitti, apparently because she had recently met and impressed John Singer Sargent in London, and had arrived in Paris with his hearty recommendation.

Jane Emmet had to settle for painting classes under Raphael Collin at Académie Colarossi at 10 rue de la Grande-Chaumière in Montparnasse, but kept her eye on Bay’s progress with MacMonnies, hoping for the opportunity to join his class.

In May, 1897, Bay was invited to join MacMonnies at his summer studio in Giverny. MacMonnies and his wife, fellow artist Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low (an American from St. Louis) had began spending their summers is Giverny, well-known both then as now as the home of Claude Monet. The MacMonnies welcomed Jane and Bay Emmet, as well as other young American artists to Villa Bêche, their summer rental in Giverny. Bay returned to Paris in the fall of 1897 and went on to have a stunning career as an American portrait artist. Jane returned to New York, her talent failing to attract the same attention Bay’s or her older sisters.

In the meantime, Wilfred de Glehn left London in 1891 to study painting in Paris at L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts. While still a student, he was hired  to assist John Singer Sargent and Edwin Austin Abbey on their mural commission for the Boston Public Library. Sargent and de Glehn became lifelong friends. Mutual friends said that they both had the same kind of “cosmopolitan attitude.” De Glehn became a part of Sargent’s inner circle.

Sargent, Abbey and de Glehn did all of the work for the Boston murals in England but traveled to Boston frequently to meet with the architects or to supervise the installation of new panels. In 1903, they traveled to Boston to celebrate the installation of one of Sargent’s murals, Dogma of the Redemption.

It is widely believed that Jane Emmet met Wilfred at the Boston Library installation in January, 1903. Others believe it is possible that Jane and Wilfred met during Jane’s trip to London in 1902. In any event, Jane and Wilfred were engaged by the fall of 1903 and married in 1904.

Wilfrid and Jane’s engagement initially caused tension between Wilfred and Sargent. Sargent may have feared Wilfred would be moving to America. This letter from Sargent to Wilfred (whom he calls “Premp,”) is playful and witty, but also reveals a real sense of shock and apprehension at the news:

My Dear Premp,

I have just opened a packet of letters and find your, let us say, communication.


My God! what a trick to play to your sincere well wisher. I will up and marry in the attempt to be quits.


Well, troglodyte of the Cordilleras. I foresee that the time will come when, this first shock being over, I will spontaneously and sincerely congratulate you – especially when I see and like the lady which I feel I am sure to do – and the sooner the better – at this moment the cold sweat is on my brow. I feel as if a very boon companion has been carried off, probably for his good, but also probably to live in America which means to me personally a great loss. However and whereas and nevertheless.


These small and discreditable and ill-mannered whisperings must be stifled, and I will train for better sentiments by reading your letter which is very convincing that you are happy and likely to be permanently so.

All that your fussy and egotistical of friends will want to hang to, is the chance or the power of contributing a little to your happiness.


Be as happy as you like Dear Sir, on those conditions.

Don’t be a troglodyte and show this to her and spoil my chance of becoming her friend as well as yours. You may tell her that is my hope and ambition and that I shall be extremely annoyed if she doesn’t like me.


Yours ever,



Is it just me, or does anyone else get a Brokeback Mountain “I wish I knew how to quit you” vibe from this letter? The fact is, no one really knows for sure about Sargent’s sexual orientation, although there are many who insist that he was indeed a closeted gay man. After Sargent’s death, French artist Jacques-Émile Blanche claimed that Sargent’s homosexuality “was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.”

This is what a de Glehn relative named John Debruyne has to say about it (which I discovered in the comments on this website):

Sargent always called him Premp and (this is dangerous territory) I think he was possibly romantically keen on his young protégé. When Willie married Jane Emmet he sulked for some months and only finally gave him a wedding present (A secretaire antique desk with a Lowestoft china dining set which I still have) some six months after the wedding.

There are those who say “so what?” and others who say Sargent’s work deserves to be observed and appreciated with a new eye. For my purposes here, I’m just curious (if it is true), what it all might have meant to Jane de Glehn. Did she know? Did she understand? She had been living in an artsy, bohemian millieu for over a decade. She couldn’t have been entirely innocent about homosexuality. Did she turn a blind eye or did she accept that her husband may have had a past? It’s so hard to know.

No matter what history Wilfred had with Sargent, it appears clear that Sargent became a big fan of Jane, at least according to de Glehn family legend:

Eventually he came to value Jane who was a capable American matriarch of the type he appreciated. He liked tough women.

The three of them grew closer after the de Glehns moved to their new home at 34 Cheyne Walk in London, just around the corner from Sargent’s Tite Street studio. Jane became known for being an excellent hostess to the artsy set of London. As is evident from Wilfred’s painting below, their new home was charming.


Wilfred de Glehn, Jane on the Staircase, Cheyne Walk, c. 1905

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane on the Staircase, Cheyne Walk, c. 1905













As soon as they were married, Jane and Wilfred began traveling with Sargent, starting with their honeymoon in Venice in 1904. All three would paint on their travels, Jane less prolifically than the two men. Sargent loved painting Jane. It would have given them long, leisurely hours to get to know each other. Jane wrote home that she found Sargent’s paintings of her to be “delicious” and “clever.”

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Wilfred Sketching in a Gondola, 1904

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Wilfred Sketching in a Gondola, 1904. Can you imagine a better souvenir of your honeymoon than this? Jane is very talented, clearly not just a dilettante.

John Singer Sargent, In a Gondola (Jane de Glehn), watercolor on paper (1904)

John Singer Sargent, In a Gondola (Jane de Glehn), watercolor on paper (1904).  This painting is from Jane and Wilfred’s honeymoon in Venice in 1904. Jane wrote home to her mother: “We went out sketching with Sargent the other day and he made a water colour of at the end of the gondola. Awfully clever. There is really no face. It is all white veil and hat, but it is deliciously done.”



In the summer of 1907, the de Glehns ventured out on a grand tour of Europe, starting in the Swiss Alps with Sargent, then traveling south to Florence, Perugia and Assisi  before meeting up with Sargent in Rome in September. Jane posed and painted.

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane by the Stream, Purtud, Val d'Aosta, 1907

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane by the Stream, Purtud, Val d’Aosta, 1907. In 1907, the de Glehns traveled with Sargent to the Swiss Alps. Jane posed for Sargent in the morning and for her husband in the afternoon. Notice Jane’s hat and scarf. It’s the same one she will be wearing when Sargent paints her again that fall for The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati.













Jane, Wilfred and Sargent arrived at Villa Torlonia in the village of Frascati in the fall of 1907. Frascati, also known for its white wines, is about 15 miles from Rome. They stayed at the Grand Hotel in Frascati (possibly the Villa Tuscolana today?) and as Jane said in her letters home, “found endless things to paint in the gardens of the Villa Torlonia.”

Wilfred de Glehn, Fountain at the Villa Torlonia, Frascati, oil on canvas, 1907

Wilfred de Glehn, Fountain at the Villa Torlonia, Frascati, oil on canvas, 1907, private collection. This is what Wilfred was working on before he took a break to rest beside his wife’s easel. Clearly, de Glehn and Sargent had similar painter sensibilities.














But back to Jane and Wilfred in front of the fountain. Apparently, Sargent was already painting Jane at the easel, when Wilfred took a break beside his wife. That was when Sargent got the idea to put Wilfred in the painting too. According to

The odd pose of Willie lounging beside Jane was an afterthought. “Stay there Premp.You look like her gigalo, I’ll paint you in.” Uncle Willie said it was agony after a while because the stone balustrade cut into his back.

Jane wrote home about the painting and the pose. Her letter reveals that the friendship between the three of them had developed nicely. You can tell Jane is a good-natured woman who could be teased without being threatened:

He [Sargent] has struck Wilfred in looking at my sketch with rather a contemptuous expression as much as to say ‘Can you do plain sewing any better?’………Wilfred is in shirt sleeves, very idle and good for nothing and our heads come against the great panache of the fountain.

So according to Jane, the look on Wilfred’s face (the same face I have been struggling to replicate, argh) is a conscious pose designed by Sargent to tell a story.

And what a story. The possible tensions between a husband and wife with equal or similar talent; the joy in artistic friendships, the surprising camaraderie of the three of them. Jane and Wilfred’s heads are both up against the powerful “panache” of the fountain, united but yet separate in their desire and effort to create art out of life. United yet separate in their friendship with Sargent.

They continued to paint and travel together until World War I broke out. In September 1909 Wilfrid and Jane joined Sargent, his sister Emily and Eliza Wedgwood in Venice and Corfu. They discovered the dazzling gardens of the Villa Soteriotisa in Corfu, where Sargent would paint In the Garden, Corfu.

John Singer Sargent,

John Singer Sargent, In a Garden, Corfu, oil on canvas, 1909. This painting was included in the Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and features Jane de Glehn in a blue gown surrounded by Sargent’s sister Emily and their friend Eliza Wedgwood.

Although Jane enjoyed posing for Wilfred and Sargent, she never gave up her own painting. Here is a lovely painting from a trip to Florence in 1910:

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Loggia of the Villa Toree Galli, Florence, oil on canvas, 1910


The truth is that Jane painted for pleasure, but her husband painted to make a living. Wilfred became a celebrated British painter, exhibiting widely and receiving numerous awards. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1932. His exhibit history spans from 1894 to 2002. His paintings appear in dozens of museums today, from London to Australia to Washington, D.C. Jane would occasionally exhibit with him.

Jane would never have children and would never achieve the same success as her older sisters Rosina and Lydia or her cousin Bay. She would never be invited to paint the portrait of a sitting president, as Bay was. She would never experience the domestic pleasures of her sister Rosina, who after many years as a successful artist and illustrator, painted numerous portraits of her own five children.

And yet. She continued to paint nearly her entire life for the sheer joy of it. Here is a painting by Wilfred that shows her painting alongside the river Avon in 1943, at the age of 70. If you look closely under the tree on the right, you can see a woman in a white hat and white artist’s smock in front of an easel.

Wilfred de Glen, Jane de Glehn Painting by the River Avon, c. 1943

Wilfred de Glen, Jane de Glehn Painting by the River Avon, c. 1943









After Sargent’s passing in 1925, Jane and Wilfred’s marriage took them through two World Wars. Wilfred would pass away in 1951, Jane in 1961.

I would like to think she found great happiness. There is something very powerful and inspiring about her image as the painter at the fountain. An accomplished painter in her own right, a woman who painted for companionship and joy, not for fame and fortune, a true friend to John Singer Sargent, and not just a woman in the middle.

Jane and Wilfrid de Glehn in the mid-1940s

Jane and Wilfrid de Glehn in the mid-1940s

















Sources and Recommendations for Further Reading:

The Emmets- A Family of Women Painters by Martha J. Hoppin (1982)














An Interlude in Giverny by Joyce Henri Robinson and Derrick R. Cartwright (2000)



John Sargent by Evan Charteris (1927)

John Sargent by Evan Charteris

And for a wealth of biographical material on Wilfred de Glehn, see:  For John Singer Sargent, see

Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris


Where The Light Falls by Katherine Keenum is a lovely painterly novel set in late 19th century Paris. What a perfect book for a review and literary tour by The American Girls Art Club in Paris.

You can find various sites in the book on Where the Light Falls Literary Tour in Google Maps.

The story begins when a young artist named Jeannette Palmer gets expelled from Vassar College for helping her roommate elope.  Despite her public shaming, Jeannette talks her prominent Ohio family into supporting further art studies in Paris.

Jeannette and her chaperone, a “spinster” cousin, find lodging in a pension on rue Jacob on the Left Bank, while Jeannette enrolls in the women’s drawing class at the Académie Julian. Had Jeannette arrived in Paris a decade or so later, she could have easily been one of the lodgers at The American Girls Art Club in Paris, which opened its doors in 1893. Instead, Jeannette would be one of the first-wave  trailblazers of American women artists to journey to France.

Jeannette’s story is loosely based on the life of the author’s own great-grandmother, who was indeed expelled from Vassar College and who traveled to Paris to study art with Carolus-Duran. Because no journals, letters or memoirs survived, Katherine Keenum had to rely on her imagination to tell her great-grandmother’s story.

Keenum’s research is considerable, but it feels like a natural part of the story. When Jeannette is learning from such famous masters as William-Adolphe Bouguereau or Carolus-Duran, you feel like you’re there too. Keenum places Jeannette in Paris at a turning point in the history of art; it is remarkable how much Jeannette and her cousin Effie get to witness in just two years.

One of Keenum’s primary sources for the life and times of an American art student abroad  was Abigail May Alcott Nieriker’s guidebook for women artists called Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply (1879), which describes May’s studies at Académie Julian, her approach to life in Paris, and her travels throughout France. (In a previous blog post here called Little Women in Dinan, France, I wrote about May and her famous sister’s travels abroad.) 

Jeannette begins her studies at the Académie Julian, a private art school which welcomed women into segregated studios, unlike L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. The first women’s atelier at Académie Julian was located in the Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris. This Paris Passage still stands today – it it a lovely historic covered mall at 11 Boulevard Montmartre.

In Chapter 8, Jeannette has a hard time finding the stairs that led to the second floor studio of the Académie Julian. Keenum describes a set of service stairs along one of the transverse passages, but on my various visits to the Passage des Panoramas during my year in Paris, I was never able to find them. I could see a second floor under the peaked glass ceiling, I just couldn’t get there. I’d love to hear from any of my followers to see if they’ve ever managed to gain access to the second floor of the Passage des Panormas, or if it’s a place that belongs only to the past.

Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julian's atelier for women

An old sign inside the Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of Académie Julian’s first atelier for women in the 1870s. You can still walk through the Passage today for a sense of the 19th century.

An interior view of the Passage des Panoramas in which a second floor is visible. I just couldn't figure out how to get up there.

An interior view of the Passage des Panoramas. In Chapter 8, Keenum describes it like this: “Inside, restaurants and small specialty shops crowded both sides of an arcade. Painted signs hung out at right angles overhead like banners; a tiled mosaic floor ran for two blocks. Above a second story of shops, the whole length was roofed with a peaked ceiling of glass.”

Passage des Panoramas

Passage des Panoramas entrance at 11 Boulevard Montmartre

Marie Baskirtsheff, In The Studio (1881). A painting of the women of Académie Julian.

Marie Baskirtsheff, In The Studio (1881). A painting of the women of Académie Julian by one of its most famous students. Although the women were allowed to paint from live nude models, this painting avoids controversy and shows a draped figure of a young boy. Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Ukraine. In Chapter 8, one of Jeanette’s classmates points out their fellow student “The Countess,” [Countess Marie Bashkirtseff] “a star student in the class for the full nude.” The Countess is supposedly picture in the center of this painting with the palette in her lap.

Atelier Julian, undated, so it is possible it is from the other women's atelier on rue de Berri. Source:

A photo of one of the women’s classes a Académie Julian. It is undated, so it is possible it is from the other women’s atelier which opened in the 1880s on rue de Berri near the Champs Elysée. Source:

A photography of some of the female messiers (studio assistants) of the Académie Julian. Source:

A photograph of some of the female messiers (studio assistants) of the Académie Julian. Source:

William-Adolphe Bougeureau, Self-Portrait (1879)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Self-Portrait (1879). Bouguereau was a famous 19th century Salon artist who provided private instruction for both men and women at the Académie Julian. He would be engaged to one of his American students, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, for 17 years. They would finally marry in 1896 after the death of his mother, who strongly disapproved of the match.

The Académie Julian still stands today on the rue du Dragon.

The Académie Julian still stands today on the rue du Dragon in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. This was originally one of the men’s ateliers, but has long accepted both men and women.

Jeannette enjoys her studies at the Académie Julian under William-Adolphe Bouguereau, but really, Bouguereau only passes through the class a couple of times a week with a few comments like pas mal, pas mal. Although she’s making friends with her fellow art students from around the world and learning all about the Paris art world, Jeannette couldn’t help but aspire for better art instruction.

Jeannette gets her big break when she makes the acquaintance of Carolus-Duran through   a wealthy friend of the family who is having her portrait done. Duran invites Jeannette for a studio visit at 58 rue Notre Dame des Champs. When Jeannette and Effie arrive at his address, they quickly realize what a celebrity painter he is. There are three carriages at the curb and a servant to greet the guests. Effie gushes: “Why, it’s as elegant as a hotel lobby or a fashion house!”

A photo of Carolu-Duran playing the organ in his art studio (1885). From the image gallery at the American Archives of Art. Keenum gets it right when she describes the studio as being "strewn with thick Persian rugs and hung with tapestries and pictures."

A photo of Carolus-Duran playing the organ in his art studio (1885). From the digital image gallery at the American Archives of Art called “Photographs of Artists in their Paris Studios (1880-1890).” Keenum gets it right when she describes the studio as being “strewn with thick Persian rugs and hung with tapestries and pictures.”

rue Notre Dame des Champs, a narrow winding road through Montparnasse which earned its title as "the royal road of painting" because of all the famous French artists who lived there, including Bouguereau,  Courbet and Carolus-Duran.

Rue Notre Dame des Champs, a narrow winding road through Montparnasse which earned the title “the royal road of painting” because of all the famous French artists who lived there, including Bouguereau, Courbet and Carolus-Duran.

Carolus-Duran invites Jeannette to join his women’s painting classes at 11 Passage Stanislaus in Montparnasse. Passage Stanislaus is now known as rue Jules Chaplain, a small street just off of rue Notre Dame des Champs.

Rue Jules Chaplain, once Passage Stanislaus and the home of Carolus-Duran's atelier for women.

Rue Jules Chaplain, once Passage Stanislaus and the home of Carolus-Duran’s atelier for women.

Jeannete struggles to find the extra money to enroll in Carolus-Duran’s classes, but once she does, she gets to observe one of the true masters of the art. One of my favorite scenes in the book is in Chapter 30, when Carolus-Duran pulls Jeannette right up next to him to demonstrate the essence of portrait painting:

Study where the light falls and where the shadows lie. We commence by indicating the darkest masses. . . .

Either way, what is most important now is to find the demi-teinte generale. Half close your eyes, mademoiselle; regard the model.

It’s enough to make you want to find a model and set up and easel right nowisn’t it?

Jeannette is in the perfect place and time to witness art history. She meets a young John Singer Sargent, a fellow student in Carolus-Duran’s men’s atelier who would have been only 23 years old at the time. Jeannette and her classmates celebrate when Sargent’s portrait of Carolus-Duran wins an Honorable Mention at the Paris Salon of 1879.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of Carolus- Duran (1879), Clark Art Institute, Williamston, Massachusetts. When Jeanette meets JOhn Singer Sargent at a garden party, she says: "I hear your portrait of Carolus is wonderful."

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Carolus- Duran (1879), Clark Art Institute, Williamston, Massachusetts. When Jeanette meets John Singer Sargent at a garden party, she says: “I hear your portrait of Carolus is wonderful.”

There are plenty of other moments in art history that Jeannette gets to be a part of, including the Fourth Impressionist Exhibit of 1879, where she sees and critiques Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Arm Chair (1878):

That grumpy little girl sprawled on the aqua-blue chair – well, she’s vivid, but all that other aqua furniture climbing to the ceiling, . . . it’s hideous!

Don’t blame Jeannette. Most of the world wasn’t yet ready for the Impressionists either.

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Museum of Art.

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Museum of Art.

It is an incredible time in the history of art, and Jeannette is it the middle of it all. What a wonderful way for Katherine Keenum to honor the memory of her great-grandmother, who really did have a chance to be a part of history. In ways we can only imagine.

Where the Light Falls by Katherine Keenum: Highly recommended.

Where the Light Falls Literary Tour: As created by The American Girls Art Club in Paris.

Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing

Interested in a different day trip from Paris? Try visiting some scenic old art colonies in France. There is so much more to see besides Giverny. And these off-the-beaten-track places are much less crowded.

Venturing south of Paris you will find the old art colonies of the Fountainbleu Forest, including BarbizonGrez-sur-Loing, Moret-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing and Thomery. Here they are, mapped out on Google Maps. These villages make for a wonderful weekend or day trip from Paris. All you need is a good map, but for really easy travel, I prefer a rental car with GPS. (My own GPS travel tip: use the postal code of the city to which you’re traveling.) It is possible to visit all of these colonies in one day, but if you prefer not to rush and to perhaps leave some time to sketch or visit the nearby Chateau de Fountainbleu, I would set aside a whole weekend.

On a recent visit with Barbara Redmond, fellow artist and founder of A Woman’s Paris, I began in Grez-sur-Loing (postal code 77880) at the southern edge of Fountainbleu.

Grez became a popular summer travel destination for American artists in Paris after a train station and new hotel were built In 1860. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot‘s painting View of the Loing At Grez (1850-60) may have worked like a Grez travel poster, inducing many art students to come and try to paint it themselves. Word about Grez circulated through the Academie Julian in Paris as well as Carolus-Duran’s studio.

The Bridge at Grez-sur-Loing by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1850-60). currier Art Gallery, New Hamshire.

The Bridge at Grez by American Robert Vonnoh (1907-11). Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012. Just when we were thinking of getting out our sketchbooks, it started to rain.

Athough Grez was gray and quiet the day we visited, it was once hopping with artists and writers, both male and female. Its notable visitors included Robert Louis Stevenson, his cousin, painter Robert Allen Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister Abigail May Alcott (an artist like Amy in Little Women), American painters Kenyon Cox, John Singer Sargent, Theodore Robinson, Robert Vonnoh and Will Low, as well as a mother-daughter team of painters from California, Fanny and Nellie Osbourne. In fact, it was at Grez that Fanny Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson would meet and fall in love, although Fanny was ten years older and technically still married to her first husband at the time. (A hint of the bohemian pleasures of a nineteenth century art colony!)

These artists enjoyed the picturesque setting of the village as well as the open spaces nearby. The older French artists such as Corot, Millet and Rousseau had settled in nearby Barbizon a few decades earlier, but there was a new generation of artists looking for their own scenes and style. As Robert Allen Stevenson explained:

At Barbizon it was especially difficult to get away from the old men who had made it their own, and yet do anything like art. Forest interior composes with difficulty otherwise than as Rousseau, Diaz and Courbet imagined it. . . .  Shut in, full of forms, lit in one way, deprived of sky of space of air of the effect of large simple planes, it was no fitting nursery for the new school of painters (“Grez” The Magazine of Art, 1894).

It wasn’t just lofty artistic motives that brought this generation of artists to Grez. It was also a place for youthful exhuberance and bohemian camaraderie. The artists enjoyed the casual hospitality of two inns in Grez: Hotel Chevillon and Pension Laurent. Hotel Chevillon was the place of much bohemian merriment, including singing and dancing in the hotel dining room as well as a masquerade ball in sheets and togas. The hotel guests  often took canoe rides on the river together, playing such games as tip the canoe and shoot the chute. For a somewhat more reserved and respectable environment, the women would often stay at Pension Laurent just down the street.

A postcard image of the old Hotel Chevillon from the website of the Foundation Grez-sur-Loing.

Both hotels are still standing in downtown Grez. The Hotel Chevillon is now owned by Foundation Grez-sur-Loing, a Scandinanvian art organization that offers grants to visiting artists, authors, composers and scientists. According to their website, tours may be arranged with advance notice.

Hotel Chevillon in 2012, home of Foundation Grez-sur-Loing, a Scandinavian art organization. A popular hang-out for the artists who came to Grez. Robert Louis Stevenson met his future wife here.


Hotel Chevillon is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter who lived and met his wife in Grez.

The present day site of the former Pension Laurent in Grez, just a few doors down from Hotel Chevillon. Abigail May Alcott may have  stayed here during her visit the summer of 1877.


The plaque at the former Pension Laurent in Grez

The artists came to Grez in several different waves. In the 1870s, it was mostly Americans and British; in the 1880s it was mostly Scandinavians, and by the 1890s, there were many Japanese artists. The Scandinavians have had the most lasting influence – one of the streets is named after Swedish artist Carl Larsson.
Robert Vonnoh might be the American artist most closely associated with Grez. Boston-born Vonnoh first came to Grez on his honeymoon with his first wife Grace in 1887. He continued to visit throughout the years 1887-1891 and then again from 1907-1911, returning with his second wife Bessie Potter Vonnoh, a sculptor from Chicago. He returned for some part of each year until the outbreak of World War I. His last paintings set in Grez are dated after the war from 1922-1925.
Vonnoh has often been called one of America’s first-rate Impressionists. It would have been in Grez that he truly developed his plein air style. Here are some of Vonnoh’s paintings set in Grez:

Beside the River – Grez by Robert Vonnoh (1890)

Grez-sur-Loing by Robert Vonnoh

Poppies (also known as In a Flanders Field) by Robert Vonnoh (1890)

Grez remains an artistic community today. On the day we visited, we met a French painter near the ruins of the old Tour de Ganne. She was clipping dried hydrangeas from the churchyard to use at her own art exhibition later that afternoon. She handed us a flyer and invited us to stop by.

Follow along on my tour of other French art colonies in future posts. Coming soon: a visit to Rosa Bonheur’s Atelier in Thomery, France.

Sources and Recommended Reads:

Grez Days: Robert Vonnoh in France (Essay and Catalogue by May Brawley Hill for Berry-Hill Galleries 1987)

The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson by Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez (Gutenberg Project ebook, 2008)

May Alcott: A Memoir by Caroline Ticknor (1928), available at the Library of Congress Internet Archive

A Chronicle of Friendships 1873-1900 by Will H. Low (1908), available at Open Library

John Singer Sargent and Madame X in Paris

I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto

I first read Gioia Diliberto’s  I Am Madame X back in 2004. I might have even picked it as a book club read. It’s a fabulous Belle Epoque novel about the life and times of the celebrated 19th century American portrait artist John Singer Sargent and his most infamous model, American beauty Virginie Gautreau.

I read it again recently, because John Singer Sargent’s name keeps popping up on my travels through Paris art history. This book is even better the second time around, especially now that I know my way around Paris and I can really appreciate what it meant to be a Left Bank artist versus a Right Bank Artist.

John Singer Sargent had the best of both worlds.

He was the son of a wealthy, cosmopolitan American family that had lived abroad for decades by the time they arrived in Paris in 1874. They settled into a posh Right Bank apartment near the Champs-Élysées, which has since become a commercial building at 52 rue La Boétie. Sargent’s father took him to meet the young teaching master Carolus-Duran, who ran a popular Left Bank painting atelier in the heart of Montparnasse.

Sargent was only 18 years old, but he was already bursting with talent. He quickly earned the admiration of his fellow students and within a year was accepted at the rigorous L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1875, Sargent moved out of the family’s home and into a fifth-floor studio apartment at 73 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs with fellow art student James Carroll Beckwith.

The young American artists had found a promising location. The studios at 73 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs had also housed the famous French painter Jean-Paul Laurens, while 75 was the mansion-atelier of Adolphe William Bourguereau. By the 1860s, this small, winding road had already been nicknamed “the royal road of painting.” Even today, the address looks inspiring. It still has an impressive entrance and an inviting green courtyard.

Sargent, Beckwith and their pals led a young bohemian life in the Left Bank. They worked hard but still had time for wild evenings, moving the easels aside for dancing and drinking right in the studio. Sargent was known for entertaining his guests on a rented piano. On Sunday nights, they would clean themselves up for  a proper dinner party at Sargent’s family’s home with “educated and agreeable” conversation.

73 rue des Notre-Dame-des-Champs, once the art studio of John Singer Sargent

Courtyard of 73-75 rue Notre-Dame-des-Petit-Champs. Back in the 1870s, the gardens probably went all the way through to Luxembourg Gardens

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Carolus-Duran (1879)

In 1879, Sargent painted the portrait of his art teacher Carolus-Duran, and it absolutely launched his career. It was bold, theatrical, and presented a stunning likeness in both spirit and physicality. Sargent was only 23 years old and already one of the best portrait artists in France.

In Diliberto’s novel, Sargent meets the future Madame X at a Montparnasse restaurant. In reality, they may have met when Gautreau attended an informal party at Sargent’s studio on rue de Notre-Dame-des-Champs in 1881. Sargent was celebrating the completion of his portrait of Dr. Pozzi, one of Gautreau’s many reputed lovers. According to Diliberto, Gautreau was shocked by Sargent’s portrayal of Dr. Pozzi, a charismatic ladies man (and gynecologist) who had ungraciously tossed her aside before her marriage to Pierre Gautreau:

On an easel near the French doors stood Sargent’s painting of Dr. Pozzi. It looked like a portrait of the devil. Virtually the entire canvas was red – the sumptuous curtains in the background, the carpeted floor. The doctor himself was dressed in red slippers and the red wool dressing gown that I had seen him wear dozens of times. His pose was hypertheatrical; his face was caught in an intense observance of an object outside the canvas, and his elongated fingers tugged nervously at his collar and the drawstring of his robe. His fingers were as sharp as pincers and seemed spotted with blood. Had Pozzi just performed a gynecological operation? Deflowered a virgin?

I just love how Diliberto gave Gautreau such a blunt and penetrating voice. She is clearly no innocent about men, or for that matter, about Sargent’s ability to portray a model’s true character.

John Singer Sargent, Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881)

Sargent was determined to get the chance to paint Gautreau’s portrait. He obviously understood the PR value of painting the “professional beauty” who was the focus of such much attention and gossip in the affluent social circles of Paris. Gautreau thought about giving her business to other more traditional French portrait artists, but she may have felt a special connection to Sargent. They were both up-and-coming Americans with something to prove to the French.

In the meantime, steady commissions enabled Sargent to buy a large, new home and studio on the Right Bank, closer to all of his wealthy patrons. In the winter of 1883-84, Sargent moved to 41 boulevard Berthier, on the shaded side of a wide street whose light made it a popular location for art studios. It wasn’t far from the new mansions near Parc Monceau, and in fact just a few blocks from Madame Gautreau who lived at 80 rue Jouffroy d’Abbans.

In The Greater Journey, David McCullough describes Sargent’s new Right Bank studio:

. . .  a workplace elegantly furnished with comfortably upholstered chairs, Persian rugs, and drapery befitting his new professional standing, and with an upright piano against one wall, . . .

No longer would Sargent’s patrons have to track through the mud and past the questionable bohemians on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs.

41 boulevard Berthier has been replaced by a newer building, but this one next door is a good example of the types of buildings that once dominated the street, with large windows  and skylights on the top floors.  It was on this street that Virginie Gautreau would have gone to pose for her portrait.

Parc Monceau in the 17th, the center of the fashionable new Plaine Monceau area of the 1870s-80s. Monet painted this park several times.

80 rue Jouffroy, the home of Virginie and Pierre Gautreau in the 1880s.

By 1883, Gautreau finally agreed to pose for Sargent. He talked her into wearing a black dress that would highlight her unusual color, which included rouged ears, white pastey skin (thanks to lavender skin cream) and brightly hennaed hair. At the end of the day, Sargent may have painted her color a little too well. He captured her true character, just like he had with Dr. Pozzi. Her pose was so confident it seemed haughty.

But the strap was the last straw. The painting we know now, as it appears at the Metropolitan Museum in New Yorkwas retouched. The original painting looked like this – a little risqué, no doubt, but more balanced and much more interesting.

Nevertheless, it was a disaster at the 1884 salon. “Quelle horreur!” said polite Paris society. One critic said the flesh “more resembles the flesh of a dead than a living body.”

Sargent soon left for the summer in London while Gautreau disappeared to Brittany, far from the judgment of Paris. Sargent would keep his Paris studio on boulevard Berthier for two more years, where he proudly displayed Madame X. 

Although Sargent may have misjudged the limits of Right Bank tolerance and underestimated their hypocrisy (after all, many of the traditional paintings in the Salon were nudes, and they’re complaining about a little strap?), he would later say that Madame X was “the best thing I have done.”

John Singer Sargent in his boulevard Berthier studio with a retouched Madame X. The strap is repainted.

If your read I am Madame X you will find out much more about Virginie Gautreau: her New Oreans background, her family’s escape to Paris during the Civil War, her early years in a Paris convent school. It’s a well-told story in the voice of a fascinating woman.

 I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto: HIghly recommended.