Belatedness, Artlessness and American Culture in fin-de-siècle France

by Emily Burns

Research on American artists studying in France has tended to represent three modes of inquiry. Some scholars have recounted the details of art study in the École des Beaux-Arts and the private ateliers in the foreign capital, considering how the US artists drew from the stylistic and iconographic model of French artistic production.1 In this vein, the patronage of American art by the French government of objects that were produced and exhibited in Paris has been addressed.2 Second, research has attended to the US art practice based in the French countryside outside of Paris, where artists experimented with plein-air painting.3Third, tremendous research has explored the roles of three exceptional figures in American (and nineteenth-century) art history—Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler—in the foreign capital.4

But what is left out by these lines of inquiry? What happens if we look beyond questions of artistic influence in the city and the country and beyond the careers of the big three? If, in addition, we consider the influx of American artists studying and working in France as a cultural practice, with implications on the construction of national identities, what kind of picture emerges? The voices and artistic production of US artists who went to Paris for briefer periods of study, who intended to return to the United States, and who did not circulate as comfortably in international society are telling of larger narratives at work. Since Cassatt, Sargent, and Whistler were multi-lingual and integrated into cosmopolitan art networks, they do not typify US art practice in France in the period. Yet their histories do at times reinforce larger trends in constructions of American identity in France. Furthermore, if we broaden the picture still further to take into account the thousands of US tourists who visited Paris, students of subjects other than art, and numerous writers, we can begin to address questions of the larger cultural discourse incited by this practice of travel.5

The archives of American artistic production, letters, journals, and their contemporary circles in France can be brought into dialogue with published primary sources in magazines, books, newspapers and periodicals and with secondary research on American culture in an international context to arrive at a more comprehensive and inclusive analysis of the stereotypes around American art practice in France during the period.6This mode of inquiry encourages a greater dialogue between artistic circles and the popular cultures with which they were intertwined, such as in the example of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, which traveled to France in 1889 and 1905-06. Indeed, both American artists and Wild West performers made an impact on French perceptions about American culture. By drawing together from this range of sources, one can more fully understand the mechanisms of building cultural stereotypes.

Analyzing two image-text pairings discloses shifts in the cultural constructions of American identity during the second half of the nineteenth century. In Samuel Hollyer’s (1826-1919) frontispiece portrait of Walt Whitman (1819-1892), published in Leaves of Grass in 1855 (Fig. 1), the poet’s tilted hat and hand casually resting on his hips naturalize allusions to the rustic common American man.7 This image typified romantic constructions of the American individual at mid-century – confident and self-assured, but also unencumbered. Whitman’s poems represent the United States as a young nation with no history or tradition, a characterization echoed by his contemporaries. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) understood American identity as embedded in an appreciation for the landscape that resulted in Americans’ “perpetual youth.”8 In the post-Civil War period, these ideas continued, yet they seemed more tenuous.


Samuel Hollyer, 1855 engraving, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass
Fig. 1. Samuel Hollyer, Walt Whitman,1855, engraving, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass


In the period after the Civil War, US art study in Paris increased rapidly alongside tourism. Depictions of American shifted in this international context. In a cartoon from Mark Twain’s (1835-1910) satire on American travel, Innocents Abroad in 1869 (Fig. 2), the American, loosely based on the persona of Twain himself, is depicted as the opposite of Whitman.9The author played on the term “innocents” to refer to the gullibility of American tourists who make the “pilgrimage” to Europe.10 Twain’s tourists are not the intrepid and self-assured characters constructed by Whitman’s poetry, but rather are satirized as desperately seeking European culture, with their Grand Tour filling a gap in their cultural identity. Twain mocks his narrator in Paris whose breath is taken away most by the sight of an American flag hanging in front of a house.11 In the next episode, the narrator guilelessly shouts to his companion about the beauty of a woman standing nearby, assuming that she was French and could not understand him. When she turned to him and condemned his brashness in “good, pure English,” he “did not feel right comfortable for sometime afterward.”12 He mused, “Why will some people be so stupid as to suppose themselves the only foreigners among a crowd of ten thousand persons?”12 The illustration of this bumbling figure, produced by the illustration company Fay & Cox, is the antithesis of Whitman’s confident character. The main figure is displayed as uncouth with his arms and legs sprawled almost as though he is off-balance. His eyebrows are raised, enhancing his wide-eyed, open-mouthed facial expression.12 Even though he is dressed slightly less casually than Whitman, the narrator’s costume seems out of place surrounded by the more chic stovepipe hats abroad.13 The figure’s persona seems out of step with the social decorum of the international milieu. Twain’s character unwittingly highlighted the lack of confidence of the American character on the international stage.


Image from Innocents Abroad
Fig. 2. Fay & Cox, We Took a Walk, printed in Twain, Innocents Abroad, 135.


Indeed, what emerges when we look beyond the often self-assured cosmopolitan circulation of Cassatt, Sargent, and Whistler is a larger identity construction that frequently performed cultural innocence.14 European observers often characterized Americans as lacking a history and exhibiting cultural youth. In spite of economic, political, and military ascendancy, the United States continued to be imagined as a “new nation”; it maintained the characterization even after the formation of other nations, Italy and Germany to name two examples.15 This expectation structured a sense of cultural belatedness as Americans mirrored expectations of American character for European audiences. American artists, writers, and travelers sought to turn the liability of lacking a culture and tradition into an asset of allowing for unencumbered experience and being unaffected by the weight of history.

In the context of the thousands of American art students who sought study in France between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I alongside many other American travelers abroad, constructions of American cultural belatedness became a dominant discourse through performances of innocence.16 Protean definitions of innocence developed as artistic and social strategies for American artists in Paris. In 1895, The Century Dictionary defined “innocence” in terms that were often employed to characterize Americans abroad and their artistic practice, both positively and negatively: “upright; untainted; artless; simple-minded; ignorant; naïve; childish; and guileless.”17 Innocence carried a wide range of meanings, and artists and writers experimented with its elasticity in the late nineteenth century. The related term “naïve” was defined similarly as “ingenuous; artless; simple; unsophisticated; unreflective; uncritical; and unconventional.”18 Dictionary definitions and usages suggest a closer relationship between the terms “innocence,” “guilelessness,” and “naïveté” in the late nineteenth century than today, especially with the overlapping term “artless.”

When enacted by Americans in France, this kind of character construction led Gilbert Parker (1860-1932), a Canadian critic for the London Independent, to suggest in 1891 that the best place to understand American culture was not in the United States, but, rather, in Paris. In his analysis of American artists in the French capital, Parker argued that being naïve was a uniquely American quality. In this, Parker saw a correspondence with a new international move to abandon tradition in favor of modernity: “What command better suited to the American temperament? If it has any quality which is conspicuously eminent, it is naïveté, it is a habit of looking at things as if they were seen for the first time.” Parker claimed that American culture was more innocent than others because the American “is bade to be independent and free from his youth up; he is impelled to think things out for himself; he is told, in effect, from his cradle to be naïve.”19 Parker’s comment highlighted the cultural association between innocence and Americans in 1890s Paris, but also the paradoxical nature of being “told…to be naïve.”

Indeed, participation in such a mythology of cultural belatedness by playing naïve marked a contradiction. To claim innocence—as an individual, as a culture, or as a nation—is paradoxical. The philosopher Immanuel Kant notes the potential tension within the concept of innocence, claiming, “an art of being naïf is a contradiction,” since the definition of naïve was artlessness. Any performed appearance of “uncorrupted, innocent nature” is immediately undermined by artifice. Kant maintains that there “is certainly the possibility of presenting naïveté in a fictitious character, and then it is a fine, though also rare, art.”20 Here, however, Kant makes clear that a posture of naïveté could not possibly be authentic.

With its manifold contradictions, what compelled Americans abroad to feed into a cultural innocence? The enactment of innocence appeared in ways that seemed incongruous with the increasingly complex layers of American history. Mark Twain pointed out the irony of American youth in 1883: “The world and the books are so accustomed to use, and over-use the word ‘new’ in connection with our country, that we early get and permanently retain the impression that there is nothing old about it.”21 In 1893, Oscar Wilde similarly joked about the dichotomy of youth and age in the context of the United States: “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years.”22 These resounding, if mocking, international proclamations of American innocence in a period known for the nation’s political, economic, and cultural ascendency seem a contradiction.

My research suggests that after the Civil War, tropes of innocence were declared more vocally and in different ways than before it. As Henry James wrote, “the Civil War marks an era in the history of the American mind.” James concluded that the American “has eaten of the tree of knowledge,” intimating that the Civil War caused a paradigm shift in American culture and self-perception, triggering a fall from a position of innocence.23 James’s imaginary expulsion ignited a compulsive cultural need to “regain” a character that had in fact been troubled from the start. Postures of American innocence resounded even more loudly at the end of the century at precisely the moment when geopolitical events suggested innocence’s impossibility. In attempting to re-construct early nineteenth-century notions of their own culture, Americans parodied them. If Hollyer’s portrait of Whitman signified a romantic notion of American identity (Fig. 1), Fay & Cox’s image transformed it into a darker parody (Fig. 2). Knowing postures of innocence sought to remedy a culture shattered by war, divisive financial interests, and apprehensions about the place of the United States on the world stage. Many American writers, critics, and artists attempted to enact an impossible cultural return from these anxieties.

Discourses of American innocence in France were both defensive and offensive gestures of national insularity within an international setting. On the one hand, these performances seemed to protect American culture from Gallicization and the importation of European culture, as American art was increasingly judged to be too international for local tastes.24  As American critic Ellis T. Clarke complained in 1900, American art was “little more than French art with American trimmings.”25 On the other hand, these characterizations were interpreted as spreading American culture abroad through a form of cultural colonization. As Mrs. Tristam jokes to Christopher Newman in Henry James’s The American (1877), “You are the great Western Barbarian stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing awhile at this poor effete Old World, and then swooping down on it.”26 This discourse inverted traditional American-European relationships; as literary historian Jean Méral claimed, Newman signified “Christopher Columbus in reverse.”27 Many American travelers to France in this period perceived their characteristics of national newness as a way to rejuvenate and revise character they perceived as European decadence. In a humorous article from 1881, a Frenchman warned that the exportation of American culture marked “the new continent menacing us with their purely Yankee novelty.”28

Within Franco-American artistic exchange, characteristics of simplicity, newness, innocence, and an affiliation with nature oscillated between being treated as assets and as liabilities. In 1898, American painter Anna Klumpke (1856-1942) crowned her idol and partner French painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) and photographed her (Fig. 3) to commemorate not only their relationship, but also to declare the maintained “symbolic alliance of old Europe with young America.”29 Printed in Klumpke’s 1908 biography of Bonheur, this image registered in multiple directions.30 Klumpke deferred to Bonheur as a paragon of academic practice. In following the elder French artist, who had been actively submitting paintings to the Paris Salon des Beaux-Arts since the 1840s, Klumpke exhibited in the Salon every year between 1882 and 1900.31 Meanwhile, the painting behind the elder artist, which seems to depict female riders in a rocky landscape, mirrored back French understandings of a youthful America. With her nod to the role that the American West played in her late career, Bonheur participated in this transnational construction of American innocence. These knowing postures capitalized on earlier mythologies of America as a young nation and on French narratives about American culture. This photograph suggests the context-specific nature of performances of innocence. As Bonheur and Klumpke declared their alliance, they capitalized on ideas of the elder Old World and the younger New World. They exoticized the American West while safely ensconced in the academic Parisian art world.

Fig. 3. Anna Klumpke, “La vieille Europe couronnée par le jeune Amérique (Old Europe Crowned by Young America),” 1898, photograph, printed in Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur, son oeuvre, sa vie, 1908.

Discourses of cultural innocence allowed American artists and writers in late nineteenth-century France to construct their artistic projects as variously individual, modern, and national. Far from resisting them, American artists cultivated the tropes of national cultural insularity and provincialism that circulated internationally. Furthermore, the artists were savvy in this positioning, as they directly participated in and drew from international examples and discourses. In this way, a strategic idea of American cultural innocence contributed to a transnational art network. Research on this complex narrative of ambivalence, posture, parody, and paradox offers a new contribution to transnational art history, intellectual history, and to the study of late nineteenth century American art and culture in Paris.

The case studies I am researching mark points of rupture within several different performed aspects of American artistic innocence in Paris, in which the constructed nature of these tropes becomes apparent, and the mythologies of innocence are unraveled. These careful postures were at once unstable and irreconcilable, and represent conscious, controlled projections of innocence and forgetting. Each example taps into a distinct period-specific use of a concept of innocence and considers the mechanisms of its performance for its transnational audience in Paris. From austerity and Puritanism to the primitivism invited by performing to stereotypes of Native America, from playing the child to claiming the innocent eye, these case studies consider how art and social performance participated in a larger discourse that consistently declared and postured American cultural innocence, even as social realities challenged its very possibility.

Notions of cultural innocence and belatedness that appear in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Franco-American exchange have resonances into the twentieth century, and even into the contemporary moment. The fear of threats to a national innocence has, according to a Jungian psychologist, informed every major internal and external military engagement in which the United States has become entangled.32 Indeed, it is a mythology with tenacity. In 2009 in an “Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” US President Barack Obama stated, “As a country, we're not as young -- and perhaps not as innocent -- as we were when [Franklin D.] Roosevelt was President.” Here emerge the same mythologies of youth and innocence, as paradoxical in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt—or indeed, that of Theodore Roosevelt—as today. Yet the speech naturalizes that retrospective innocence, and it takes the work of cultural history to unpack the layers of mythology that were built mutually within the literary, visual, touristic, and popular cultures of travel.


Thanks to Natalia Cecire for her edits on this essay. 

  • 1. Kathleen Adler et al., Americans in Paris, 1860-1900, exh. cat. (London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2006); Lois Marie Fink, American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1990); H. Barbara Weinberg, The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1991); H. Barbara Weinberg et al., Americans in Paris: The Academy, the Salon, the Studio, and the Artists’ Colony (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 2003); and Véronique Wiesinger, Arthur Breton, Philippe Grunchec and Isabelle Gournay, Le Voyage de Paris: Les Américains dans les écoles d’art, 1868-1918 / Paris Bound: Americans in Art Schools, 1868-1918 (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 1990).
  • 2. Susan Grant, “Whistler’s Mother Was Not Alone: French Government Acquisitions of American Paintings, 1871-1900,” Archives of American Art Journal 32, no. 2 (1992): 2–15; Véronique Wiesinger, “La politique d’acquisition de l’état français sous la troisième république en matiere d’art étranger contemporain: l’exemple américain (1870-1940),” Bulletin de La Société de l’histoire de l’art français (1993): 264–98.
  • 3. Important examples include Katherine Bourguignon et al., Impressionist Giverny : A Colony of Artists, 1885-1915, exh. cat. (Giverny: Musée d’art américain, 2007); William Gerdts, Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993); David Sellin, Americans in Brittany and Normandy, 1860-1910, exh. cat. (Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum, 1982); and Katherine Bourguignon, ed., American Impressionism: A New Vision, 1880-1900, exh. cat. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014).
  • 4. The monographs on these three artists are too numerous to list in full. A few important sources include Judith A. Barter and Erica E. Hirshler, Mary Cassatt, Modern Woman, exh. cat. (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1998); Marc Simpson, Richard Ormond, and H. Barbara Weinberg, Uncanny Spectacle: The Public Career of the Young John Singer Sargent (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); and Richard Dorment and Margaret MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1994).
  • 5. Nancy L. Green, The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Whitney Walton, Internationalism, National Identities, and Study Abroad : France and the United States, 1890-1970 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010); David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011); and Brooke Blower, Becoming Americans in Paris : Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). See also William Stowe, Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Paul Fisher, Artful Itineraries: European Art and American Careers in High Culture, 1865-1920 (New York: Garland Publishers, 2000).
  • 6. Two helpful guides that list relevant archives for include Susan Grant, Paris: a Guide to Archival Sources for American Art History (Washington, D.C.: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1997); and A Guide to Archival Sources for French-American Art History in the Archives of American Art (Washington, D.C.: Archives of American Art, 1992). See also Brian N. Morton, Americans in Paris: An Anecdotal Street Guide (Ann Arbor, MI: Olivia & Hill Press, 1984).
  • 7. On this image, see Ruth Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850-1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 31-34; and Albert Boime, "Leaves of Grass and Real Allegory: A Case Study of International Rebellion," in Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts, ed. Geoffrey Sill and Roberta K. Tarbell (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 59.
  • 8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” (1836); repr., in George Stade, ed., Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 12.
  • 9. On the blurring between Twain and the main character in Innocents Abroad, see William Stowe, Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 148-149, 152, 156.
  • 10. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad: or, the New Pilgrim’s Progress: being some account of the steamship Quaker’s City’s pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land: with descriptions of countries, nations, incidents, and adventures as they appeared to the author (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1869). On Twain in Paris, see Patrice Higonnet, Paris: Capital of the World, trans. by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 329-331.
  • 11. Twain, Innocents Abroad, 134.
  • 12. a. b. c. Ibid.
  • 13. Thomas Eakins observed that hats distinguished Americans from other foreigners in a letter accompanied with a drawing of the various styles. See Eakins to Maggie Eakins, 12 April 1867, in William Ines Homer, ed., The Paris Letters of Thomas Eakins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 101-102. See also Katharine De Forest, “American Women in Paris,” Harper’s Bazaar 33, no. 30 (July 28, 1900): 817.
  • 14. On cultural performance through discursively scripted behavior, see Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York and London: New York University Press, 2011), 11-13; 22-24; and Robin Bernstein, “Dances With Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 101 27, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 69-76. I am grateful to Sally Promey for suggesting Bernstein’s work.
  • 15. Malcolm Bradbury, Dangerous Pilgrimages: Trans-Atlantic Mythologies & the Novel (London: Secker & Warburg, 1995), 8.
  • 16. Emily C. Burns, “Innocence Abroad: The Construction and Marketing of an American Artistic Identity in Paris, 1880-1910” (PhD diss., Washington University in St. Louis, 2012).
  • 17. William Dwight Whitney, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: A Work of Universal Reference in all departments of knowledge, with a new atlas of the world (New York: The Century Company, 1899), vol. 4, 3106.
  • 18. Ibid., vol. 5, 3928-30.
  • 19. Gilbert Parker, “American Art Students in Paris,” Independent (London) 43, no. 2248 (Dec 31, 1891): 6. Emphasis in the original.
  • 20. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. by Werner S. Pluhar (1790; repr., Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 206.
  • 21. Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1899), 4.
  • 22. Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance (1893; repr., New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928), 19.
  • 23. Henry James, Hawthorne (1879; repr., New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1899), 139-140.
  • 24. On tension between perceived European and American approaches to life, see T. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 27.
  • 25. Ellis T. Clarke, “Alien Element in American Art,” Brush and Pencil 7, no. 1 (October 1900): 37.
  • 26. James, The American (1877), cited in Fiedler, “Americans Abroad,” 89. See also Cheryl B. Torsney, “Translation and Transubstantiation in The American,” Henry James Review 17, no. 1 (1996): 40-41; and John Carlos Rowe, “The Politics of Innocence in Henry James’s The American,” in New Essays on The American, ed. by Martha Banta, 69-97 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  • 27. Jean Méral, Paris in American Literature, trans. by Laurette Long (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 33; and Roxana Oltean, “‘I Longed for a New World’: Colonial Hysteria, The American, and Henry James’s Paris,” Henry James Review 24, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 270-271.
  • 28. “Le Nouveau-Continent nous menace d’une nouveauté purement yankee.” Perdican, “Courrier de Paris,” L’Illustration, June 18, 1881, 412.
  • 29. Anna Klumpke, Memoirs of an Artist, ed. by Lilian Whiting (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1940), 43; Britta C. Dwyer, “Bridging the Gap of Difference: Anna Klumpke’s ‘Union’ with Rosa Bonheur,” in Out of Context: American Artists Abroad, eds. by Laura Felleman Fattal and Carol Salus (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004), 69; and Dwyer, Anna Klumpke: A Turn-of-the-Century Painter and her World (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999), 94-96.
  • 30. Anna Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur, Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre (Paris, 1908).
  • 31. Britta Dwyer, Anna Klumpke: A Turn-of-the-Century Painter and Her World (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999).
  • 32. Barry Spector, Madness at the Gates of the City: the Myth of American Innocence (Berkeley: Regent Press, 2010).