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July 4, 2011

Paris in July: The Greater Journey

History is relatively new on the list of genres that I most like to read. But I’ve always loved reading biographies, so a book that brings together a little of both is perfect for me. And if you can add in Paris and the 19th century...

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris is the first book by David McCullough that I have read, though now I’m certain I'll read more. The focus is on the three or four earlier generations of Americans who came to Paris, from about 1830 to 1900, well before the people that we might normally think of as the {Gilded Age or Jazz Age} Americans in Paris.

They were the first wave of talented, aspiring Americans bound for Paris in what, by the 1830s, had become steadily increasing numbers. They were not embarking in any diplomatic or official capacity — not as had, say, Benjamin Franklin or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, in earlier days. Neither were they in the employ of a manufacturer or mercantile concern. Only one, a young writer, appears to have been in anybody’s pay, and in his case it was a stipend from a New York newspaper. They did not see themselves as refugees or self-imposed exiles from an unacceptable homeland. Nor should they be pictured as traveling for pleasure only, or in expectation of making some sort of social splash abroad.
      They had other purposes — quite specific, serious pursuits in nearly every case. Their hopes were high. They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream — though, to be sure, as James Fenimore Cooper observed when giving his reasons for needing time in Paris, there was always the possibility of ‘a little pleasure concealed in the bottom of the cup.’
This range of reasons is a big part of what makes this book so interesting; in addition to working as authors or journalists, or studying in the ateliers of French painters or sculptors, these Americans came to Paris to study at the Sorbonne or at Paris’s renowned medical schools (long before they existed in the U.S.) One of the great pleasures for me, in reading this book, is that there’s an almost endless stream of historical figures; on almost every page, we’d meet someone who was arriving in Paris, or leaving, or coming back. They arrive in Paris, and leave, and come back; their stories come together {through friendships, or because they live on the same street}, or surprisingly never intersect. Especially given all the information he presents, and all the people he introduces, David McCullough is an immensely readable writer. He mentions someone or something in passing, then lingers for several paragraphs, pages or chapters on one figure, and it’s a measure of his skill as a writer that this works so well.

The first generation, coming to Paris in the 1830s, included Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Emma Hart Willard (a women’s educator), Charles Sumner (finally now more than a tunnel), George P.A. Healy (a portrait painter who remains in Paris for most of the book), Samuel F.B. Morse (more on him in a minute), and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the U.S. In the 1850s, the book turns to James McNeil Whistler, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and early visits by the Cassatt family, the Jameses, Mark Twain, and John Singer Sargent, {and Edith Wharton and Theodore Roosevelt, though only in passing} and in the 1870s and later, to Mary Cassatt, Sargent, Henry James, Cecilia Beaux , Henry Adams and Isadora Duncan. And this is a very partial and selective list. {There’s also a good timeline of French history; I keep running into Napoleon and Josephine, and the Commune, and the Siege of Paris in other things that I have read, but I never really knew when they came about or in what order.}

The Greater Journey offered a perfect mixture of people I knew about and people I didn’t. Some of the less-known figures became very intriguing, and some of the better known had histories that I had never read about. Coincidentally, two of my favorite stories were about artists. One of them is Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who is discussed at length towards the end.

But early in the book, McCullough tells the story of Samuel F.B. Morse, who came to Paris with the ambition to become the world’s greatest history painter. He focuses on The Gallery of the Louvre {you can see it better here}, which Morse began painting in 1831.

From the time Morse took up his ambitious project at the Louvre, Cooper could not keep away. He came every day, climbing the long flight of marble stairs to the second floor to sit and watch.
      It was to be a giant interior view of the Louvre. The canvas Morse had prepared measured six by nine feet, making it greater in size than his House of Representatives of a decade earlier. And it was to be an infinitely greater test of his skill. Instead of a crowd of congressmen’s faces to contend with, he had set himself to render a generous sampling of the world’s greatest works of art, altogether thirty-eight paintings — landscapes, religious subjects, and portraits, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — and convey in miniature the singular beauty and power of each. …
      He had decided, in effect, to rehang the walls of the elegant Salon Carre, or Square Room, the heart of the Louvre’s picture galleries. He would select his own chefs d’oeuvre from the museum’s collection and arrange them on one canvas to his liking. This in itself was an enormously ambitious undertaking, in that it meant walking the length and breadth of the Louvre for days, taking time to look seriously at some 1,250 paintings, then, as his own jury of one, decide which to include and how to arrange them. …
      Cooper loved what he saw emerging and the ‘sensation’ it was causing. He had a regular routine — work at his desk in the morning, then proceed to the Louvre (a walk of a mile and a half or more from his home across the Seine) to spend the afternoon with Morse:
I get up at eight, read the papers, breakfast at ten, sit down to the quill at ½ past ten, work till one, throw off my morning gown, draw on my boots and gloves, take a cane … go to the Louvre, where I find Morse stuck up on a high working stand …
      Morse worked from a tall, movable scaffold of his own contrivance, which he shifted about from point to point in the galleries to copy his chosen subjects, some of which were hung quite high.
      His painting was of a wall full of pictures in the Salon Carre hung floor-to-ceiling and cheek-by-jowl — the standard mode for French exhibitions. Just left of the center in the composition, through a large open doorway, could be seen the long, high-vaulted Grande Galerie with its skylights stretching away as If forever, like a glowing vista in a landscape. … In fact, the net effect of the whole arrangement was very like that of a stage set, and it was Morse’s plan to place a half dozen or more figures on stage, as it were, for added interest and to give human scale to the room.
      He worked all day ‘uninterruptedly,’ Sundays included, from nine o’clock until just before four, when the guards came through to call out that the museum was closing. Visitors flowed through the galleries the whole time, and other artists and students worked at their easels doing copies. But Morse up on his scaffold remained the undisputed center of curiosity and topic of conversation. Sitting astride a chair close at hand, Cooper enjoyed the show more than anyone, occasionally, for comic relief, offering his friend a little unsolicited advice: ‘Lay it on here, Samuel — more yellow — the nose is too short —the eye too small — damn it, if I had been a painter what a picture I should have painted.’ …
      Most days, he could be found maneuvering his scaffold from one part of the museum to another, to work on copies of the different paintings in his composition. … The thirty-eight pictures in his painting-of-paintings included works by twenty-two masters. Five — Veronnese, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Rubens and Guido Reni — were represented twice; two, Murillo and Van Dyck, three times. Titian appeared four times. The single work by Leonardo da Vinci was the Mona Lisa.
      Each had to be rendered as to catch the very character of the original. Each had to have the look of that particular painter. It was as if a single actor were required to play twenty-two different parts in a performance, and all so well that there could be no mistaking who was who.

If you look closely at the painting {can you tell that I found the story fascinating?}, even just at the Mona Lisa, you can see what he means.

But why does that name sound so familiar? When the painting was finished, he sailed back to America, intending to go on tour with his painting.

But Morse was taking something of more importance home with him — an idea inspired by a system used outside of Paris to send overland messages, a semaphore apparatus that used mechanically operated arms or flaps from atop tall towers spaced six miles apart. Messages were read by telescope. This served well enough in clear weather, but not in fog, rain, or at night. For this French system the word ‘telegraph’ had first come into use.
Ah, oui! C'est lui.

{Although I read this last month, because I was one of the first of hundreds of people in line for it at the library, it was my first book for Paris in July, hosted by Karen of BookBath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea.}

{The painting at the top is The Fourth of July, 1916, by Childe Hassam, found hereHe is mentioned briefly in The Greater Journey as one of a large group of young American artists coming to Paris in the 1880s. Thank you to Joan of the lovely blog For the Love of a House for leading me to it.}  

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Bellezza said...

What a great review of a book I've been wanting to read! I've never read McCullough before, so I'm glad to hear that you (and so many others, like my cousins) think his writing is great. Plus, the history would be good for me to know in my background to pull out while teaching. And finally, Paris...what's not to love about reading of "La Ville-Lumière" (City of Light)?

JoAnn said...

What a wonderful review. I haven't read McCullough, but this sounds like a great place to start!

GirlsWannaRead said...

I thought about checking this out of the library just last week. After reading your wonderful review I will!

Marie Cloutier said...

I love the sound of this- I can't get enough about France :-) thanks for pointing it out!

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