“Paris Has Always Attracted American Artists”

A recent book entitled Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France is shaking up preconceptions about the contribution of American artists in France following World War II. Co-edited by Lynn Gumpert, director of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, the work will be the subject of an exhibition in 2024. We asked her about this little-known period, when Paris was still as much a hub of artistic creativity as New York City.
In An American in Paris (1951), Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a veteran who settles in France after Word War II to become a painter. © MGM

France-Amérique: Many people assume that, after World War II, the heart of the art world shifted from Paris to New York City and remained there. Yet your research shows quite the opposite. After 1946, and until 1962, Paris and NYC were actually equals.

Lynn Gumpert: Our research, carried out collectively with my art historian colleagues, is not supposed to be provocative. It is the result of six years of investigations, during which we discovered this unknown facet of American art. U.S. artists, who held sway in painting, music, and literature, did return to Paris after the war. This was for two reasons. Paris, with its unique light and its history, has always attracted American artists. What’s more, when the war ended, the U.S. government gave out scholarships to all former soldiers – but only the men! – to study whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted. With a monthly allowance of 75 dollars and their studies financed, American artists lived like kings in Paris. A night in a hotel on the Left Bank cost one dollar; a meal set them back 75 cents; and classes at schools such as the Grande Chaumière, the Beaux-Arts, and the Académie Julian were free with no entrance exams. The American government also paid for any books and supplies.

This is the starting point for the movie An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly in the role of a U.S. veteran. How many artists were there, and did they all benefit from this generous program?

We have identified some 400 painters. This is not including women such as Joan Mitchell, who did not qualify for the G.I. Bill but who had sufficient personal resources to pursue their studies.

Among the women, there were also several female students in Paris who went on to become leading figures. Could you give us some examples?

Indeed. They included Jacqueline Bouvier, who later married John F. Kennedy, Angela Davis, the future Marxist leader of the civil rights movement, and Susan Sontag, who became a follower and the American representative of Simone de Beauvoir.

This American community gives the impression of living in an enclave with little contact with French artists. Was this really the case?

Yes. Most of them did not speak French and kept to themselves. They would spend their days at the Café du Dôme in Montparnasse, where they would see Sartre and Picasso, but they barely spoke to them. Picasso, on the other hand, visited the Galerie Huit, an iconic space on Rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in the fifth arrondissement, which exhibited work by young American painters.

American artist Joan Mitchell in her Paris studio, 1956. © Loomis Dean/The Life Picture Collection/Shutterstock
The Galerie Huit, in the Latin Quarter, was founded by a group of American veterans in 1950. Courtesy of Hirmer Publishers

Jazz clubs seem to have been the main places where the French and the Americans would meet…

That’s right. These clubs were where American and French artists got to know each other. Sidney Bechet also lived in Paris at the time, and regularly played at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

What place did African Americans have in this community?

Black American musicians, artists, and writers felt that they were free from discrimination in Paris. In the words of James Baldwin, France was “colorblind.” But these same Americans slowly discovered that this was an illusion, after spending time with Arab intellectuals and when the Algerian War of 1954-1962 broke out. This conflict of decolonialization drove almost all the American artists to return to the United States and immerse themselves in the New York aesthetic movements and the new galleries, particularly in SoHo. For many Americans in France, the Algerian War was a source of immense disenchantment.

You mentioned James Baldwin. Which other American writers lived in Paris at the time?

Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs moved into a small hotel at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter. This is where they wrote their most important works and founded the Beat Generation, a transformation of American poetry born in Paris. In memory of their time there, the hotel was nicknamed the Beat Hotel [before becoming a luxury establishment called Le Vieux Paris]. George Plimpton, Harold L. Humes, and Peter Matthiessen also founded a major literary magazine in the French capital in 1953, The Paris Review, which is now published in New York.

Did a certain Parisian style emerge from this period?

No. All schools coexisted in Paris, just as they did in New York City, whether Figurative, Abstract, Realist, or Expressionist. They were artificial categories invented by critics and gallerists, and failed to consider each artist’s individuality. These coexisting genres were and still are the reality in Paris, New York, and everywhere else today, as art no longer has a center.

Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France (1946-1962)
, edited by Lynn Gumpert and Debra Bricker Balken, Hirmer Publishers/University of Chicago Press, 2022.

Interview published in the June 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.