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Major exhibition of work by Walter Gay opens at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh
Walter Gay (American, 1856–1937), The Front Parlor, after 1909. Oil on canvas, 18 x 22 in. (45.72 x 55.88 cm). Collection of Dr. and Mrs. David A. Skier.
PITTSBURGH, PA.- The Frick Art & Historical Center presents a major exhibition of work by American artist Walter Gay (1856–1937) from October 6, 2012 through January 6, 2013. This exhibition, which has been in development for four years, examines the life and work of an artist who specialized in painting the sumptuous interiors of wealthy collectors and society figures in late-19th and early-20th-century America and Europe. Following its debut at The Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh, Impressions of Interiors: Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay will travel to the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida, where it will be on view from January 29–April 23, 2013. The exhibition is composed of 69 paintings and works on paper by Walter Gay, as well as a selection of ancillary historical material from 40 public and private collections, and is accompanied by a 222-page full-color catalogue, published by D. Giles Ltd. Admission to the exhibition in Pittsburgh is free.

Bill Bodine, director of the Frick Art & Historical Center, comments "The three paintings by Walter Gay in our permanent collection provided the inspiration for us to organize this exhibition, which examines the work and life of an important Gilded Age artist, as well as his place in the history of American collecting, design, and taste. This exhibition provides a rare opportunity for museum-goers to view nearly 70 superb paintings by Walter Gay—many of which are from private collections and have not been publicly exhibited since the artist's lifetime."

The exhibition provides an in-depth exploration of Walter Gay’s famous views of domestic spaces, and is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue, with topical essays exploring facets of Gay’s life and work, including: his life in Paris; the influence of his wife, Matilda Travers; the role of collecting and collectors in his “portraits of rooms;” the Rococo revival of the early twentieth century; and Gay’s place among other artists of the period.

Guest Curator Isabel Taube has been working on this exhibition in consultation with Frick Director of Curatorial Affairs Sarah Hall. The two traveled to Paris together to visit sites that Walter Gay had painted, and to see paintings in both private and public collections. Dr. Taube also canvassed the United States looking at paintings, as well as carefully studying prior research, publications, and exhibitions of Gay’s work to inform her selections. Many of the works in this exhibition are from private collections and have not been publicly exhibited since Gay’s lifetime.

Helen Clay Frick, like many of her contemporaries, sought out Walter Gay to record the “spirit” of the spaces in what was then her family home, The Frick Collection in New York. The three resulting paintings are part of the collection at the Frick Art & Historical Center, and provide the inspiration and foundation for this reexamination of Walter Gay’s work.

John Singer Sargent, Gay’s nearly exact contemporary, is well known for painting the sumptuous clothing and jewels of society in his fashionable portraits. Gay, in contrast, painted society’s rooms—with their silk wall coverings, 18th-century French furniture, tapestries, porcelains, and sculptures—arranged in the private spaces of what were often legendary residences.

The exhibition is grouped by European, American, and British interiors, with each section having subgroups of one or more works devoted to a particular house or chateau. The Gays themselves were avid collectors and their flair for presenting their collection within their home is beautifully documented in his many paintings of their own residences—from Paris apartments to sprawling chateaux—the paintings capture the stylish and comfortable way the Gays furnished their personal spaces. At a time when interior decorating was becoming professionalized by figures like Edith Wharton (a view of whose bedroom is included in the exhibition) and Elsie de Wolfe, Walter and Matilda Gay were part of an international Rococo revival. It was a movement that combined ideas of good taste, with comfort, and personal style. The display of collections and the furnishing of rooms with a cohesive style became important. The Gays and their social circle particularly loved 18th-century French furnishings and decorative arts, but often used these objects in a fresh, more 20th-century way, not slavishly imitative of the 18th-century that inspired them.

The exhibition includes a few examples of early work from the 1880s, exemplifying Gay’s shift from the typical genre painting of a French-trained academic artist to focusing exclusively on interiors. The 1885 painting The Weavers (Les Tisseuses) is from a series of paintings Gay made of young women in factories doing handwork. The Weavers shows Gay’s developing interest in light effects, which he pursued further in his later empty interiors. Here the women, focused intently upon their weaving, are depicted with a simple naturalism and the play of light across their faces and hands, and around the room becomes as much the subject of the painting as the women and their work.

In 1889 Walter Gay married wealthy American heiress Matilda Travers (1855–1943). The two shared an interest in collecting and entertaining, and enjoyed searching out unique objects and antiques for their home. Matilda’s social connections helped to introduce Walter’s work to a wider circle of Gilded Age personalities. In 1897, the couple rented the nineteenth-century Château de Fortoiseau about 30 miles southeast of Paris and furnished it with their collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelains and 18th- and 19th-century French furniture. The château’s grand spaces proved inspiring, and Gay painted many views of the interior. Matilda Gay Reclining on a Lit de Repos provides an intimate glimpse into the couple’s life at Fortoiseau. The painting depicts Matilda, reclined on a green striped sofa (also seen in paintings of the couple’s Paris apartment). In the mirror, Gay has shown himself at his easel. The painterly handling of surfaces and the complex treatment of light, and reflections in the mirrored wall panels all attest to Gay’s fascination with the use of transient effects to animate interior spaces.

An exhibition of paintings made at Fortoiseau marked Gay’s first public showing of interiors. By 1905 his interiors had transformed his career and made his reputation. That year, 17 paintings were sold from a solo exhibition in Paris and he was soon being commissioned to portray rooms, both public and private. The next year, the Gay’s purchased their own chateau, Bréau, which was to prove a subject he returned to again and again in spite of the increasing number of commissions he began to receive to paint both public and private interiors.

Sometime in 1926, Helen Clay Frick, daughter of industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919), commissioned Gay to paint a view of the famous Fragonard Room at her family’s New York residence. The Fragonard Room, named for the painted decorative cycle depicting The Progress of Love, by French Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), was originally painted for Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry between 1771 and 1772. In 1915, Frick purchased the Fragonards from art dealer Joseph Duveen at cost, for 1.25 million dollars, a shrewd move by Duveen who cemented what became a lucrative relationship with Frick, later selling him an additional five million dollars’ worth of French furniture and decorative art to fill the room. Three of the Fragonard’s panels are featured in Gay’s canvas—The Meeting, The Pursuit, and Love Letters, along with one of the smaller over-door panels, Love Pursuing a Dove. Gay’s painting not only references the glory of Fragonard’s masterpiece, but also, by capturing the arrangement of those panels in the Frick’s residence, it celebrates their installation within the Frick mansion. The ownership of Gay’s painting The Fragonard Room is a declaration of pride in ownership of the Fragonard panels themselves.

In 1928, Gay was commissioned Helen Clay Frick to paint two other canvases The Boucher Room and The Living Hall. The Frick interiors provide a visual record of the house when it was still a home; at the same time these rooms are not ordinary rooms in an ordinary house, they are already very much like rooms in a museum, with deliberate arrangements of fine and decorative art creating a rarefied and beautiful atmosphere.

Gay’s commissions painting rooms in private residences turned public museums—like his work at the Frick residence and the Musée Jacquemart-André— are unique in providing an opportunity to assess his work in comparison to photographs of (or even visits to) the original spaces. Nélie Jacquemart-André, a portraitist who turned society hostess after marrying one of her sitters, the banker Edouard André, left their mansion in Paris and its contents to the Institut de France upon her death in 1912. Before the opening of the house as a museum for the public, the curator, Monsieur Berteaux, invited Gay to paint the Grand Salon. Although upheld by some as the epitome of eighteenth-century decor, the Grand Salon did not seem to entirely satisfy Gay’s taste. Salon in the Musée Jacquemart-André, in the Corcoran Museum of Art’s collection, departs significantly from its source. As demonstrated by a comparison of this painting with a 1913 installation photograph, Gay altered and simplified the boiserie (wood paneling); introduced a marble fireplace similar to one in a nearby room and included a portrait of an unknown woman and a bust on the mantel that may not have been part of the collection. In the case of the Jaquemart-André paintings, it’s clear to see that Gay did not perfectly delineate the exact particulars of the rooms, but instead, was inspired by them, using them as points of departure for his interpretation of the space.



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