Frick exhibit highlights luxurious early 20th-century interiors

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 9:30 p.m.

If you're a fan of high Victorian style, and especially the opulent homes of the Gilded Age, then the latest exhibit at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze is for you.

Featuring nearly 70 paintings of sumptuous residential interiors of the late-19th and early-20th centuries in America and Europe, the exhibit “Impressions of Interiors,” which opens this weekend, offers a glimpse of a time gone by when high-style was a signature of the “wealthy class.”

All of the work is by Walter Gay (1856-1937), an American painter who spent most of his life in France, and who specialized in painting over-the-top interior views of the homes of some of America's and Europe's wealthiest families, not the least of which is the Frick family.

In fact, three of the works on display are part of the Frick's collection, each commissioned by Helen Clay Frick, in the 1920s of the interior of the Frick family residence at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. The first was “The Fragonard Room,” commissioned in 1926. It depicts a room lined in panels from “The Progress of Love,” which originally were painted by French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard for Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry between 1771 and 1772.

The other paintings, “The Living Hall” and “The Boucher Room,” were commissioned in 1928, when the Frick house, which is now a world-famous museum called the Frick Collection, still was a home.

If there's one thing about these rooms that stands out the most, it is that they reflect the domestic life of a distinctive upper class. And, perhaps, nobody reveled in that lifestyle more than the artist and his wife, says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum. “They lived a wonderful life,” she says.

As the nephew of the Boston painter Winckworth Allan Gay, Walter Gay was well-connected from the start. Through his uncle, the younger Gay met the painter William Morris Hunt, with whom he studied in Boston from 1873 to 1876. It was Hunt who suggested that the young painter pack his brushes and paints and head for Paris in 1876. But not before marrying heiress Matilda E. Travers, daughter of financier William R. Travers, who was best known as the co-founder of Saratoga Race Course, a thoroughbred horseracing track that still exists in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

With money no longer an issue, Gay and his wife headed for Paris, where he studied under painter Leon Bonnat. For three years, he concentrated on still-life paintings. It was in Bonnat's studio where he met another American painter studying in Paris, John Singer Sargent, with whom he would maintain a close friendship throughout his life. During these early years, Gay also developed an abiding interest in the Spanish master Velasquez, and the contemporary Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny.

Although, at first glance, his work might remind one of the Impressionist style, which was developing in Paris upon Gay's arrival, or the Parisian Modernism, which gradually replaced it, it was the style of these Spanish painters that remained a more pervasive influence throughout his career.

“When you look at his paintings, you get the feeling that he really loved painting,” Hall says. “People who don't respond to process or abstraction, respond to the physical beauty of the way he painted.”

In 1882, Gay traveled to Barbizon with his uncle Winckworth Gay, and clearly fell under the influence of the famous painters associated with the place, such as Jean-Francois Millet. From this time, scenes of peasants in fields or workmen in rustic settings replaced the still-life compositions in his oeuvre. In this exhibit, the earliest work on display, the 1885 painting “The Weavers” (Les Tisseuses), features large tables attended by young women doing handwork.

The artist exhibited paintings like this widely throughout Europe at the time, ultimately winning a gold medal at the Paris salon in 1888, and exhibiting at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

It wasn't until the 1890s that Gay began painting the opulent interiors for which he would become, and remains, best known. These compositions reflect the artist's interest in antiques and in old houses, such as the Chateau du Breau near Fontainebleau, which he and Matilda first leased in 1905, then purchased in 1907.

An ardent Francophile, Gay “was a 19th-century painter with 18th-century tastes,” Hall says.

In many of the paintings, visitors will recognize important antique pieces, such as the Chinese Ming Dynasty vases and 18th-century French bombe commode (chest) in “La Commode,” (c. 1906), and the blue-and-white porcelain featured in the painting “Blue and White,” (1904).

Hall says that 32 of the paintings are of the interiors of the Gays' home and apartments. Most were painted at Chateau du Breau, which they furnished with their collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelains and 18th- and 19th-century French furniture.

Built in 1705 on the foundations of an old chateau, Chateau du Breau was set in a 300-acre park surrounded by 200 acres of woods and fields. “He was a big hunter,” Hall says. “He loved going out to shoot rabbits and partridges.”

Not just for the Gays, but for their many visitors, the house was something of a “dream house,” Hall says. “Edith Wharton used it as a model for the Chateau Givre in her novel, ‘The Reef,' ” she says.

At his death in 1937, The New York Times described Gay as the “Dean of American Painters in France.” But Hall says it is the words of his wife, Matilda, that sum his life's work up best.

“She called his paintings ‘poemes d'interieurs,' because she said they were like poems of these interiors … interpretations rather than an accurate detailing of each room,” she says.

And, indeed, these sumptuous, yet carefully observed interpretations of domestic spaces, are all that and more.

Related programs: “Walter Gay and The Spirit of Empty Rooms,” a panel discussion moderated by Frick Director Bill Bodine, about the artist's work, patrons and collectors, featuring guest curator Isabel Taube and other Gay experts, 2 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Admission: $12, advance registration and prepayment required.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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