Walter Gay, born January 22, 1856, was an American painter noted both for his genre paintings of French peasants, paintings of opulent interior scenes and was a notable art collector.
Walter Gay was born in San Carlom into an established family. He was the son of Ebenezer and Ellen Blake (née Blood) Gay. His uncle was the Boston painter Winckworth Allan Gay, who introduced the young man to the art community.
Gay married Matilda E. Travers, the heiress daughter of William R. Travers, a prominent New York City investor and co-founder of Saratoga Race Course. His wife's fortune allowed the couple to live very comfortably. In 1876, Gay and his wife moved to Paris, where he became a pupil of Léon Bonnat.
A fellow student during this period was John Singer Sargent with whom Gay developed a friendship. Bonnat encouraged the young artist to travel to Spain, where he studied and copied the work of Velázquez. He also encountered the work of Spanish artist, Mariano Fortuny. These artists became an important influences on Gay's brushwork, use of colour and understanding of light.
The couple divided their time between their country homes and their Paris apartment. In Paris, Gay and his wife lived in an apartment on the Left Bank and in 1907, purchased Chateau du Bréau on a 300-acre (1.2 km2) walled park near the Forest of Fontainebleau. His wife maintained a diary of the couple's time in Europe.
Walter Gay received an honorable mention in the Paris Salon of 1885; a gold medal in 1888, and similar awards at Vienna (1894), Antwerp (1895), Berlin(1896) and Munich (1897). He was supposedly one of the few artists selected to represent the United States at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. He became an Officer of the Legion of Honour and a member of the Society of Secession, Munich.
His first compositions had been still lifes, followed by depictions of 18th-century French peasant life. Later he shifted to genre scenes of realistic depictions of peasants and factory workers. However, beginning around 1895, he abandoned such scenes, instead painting depictions of luxurious interiors. He is most noted for these paintings of opulent interiors show-casing French chateaux and private homes. These works display the exquisite details of the interiors which included fine porcelain, furnishings, gilt mirrors and paintings, focusing on the "spirit of an empty room" by avoiding the inclusion of figures.
During his lifetime, his work was exhibited in every major European city: Antwerp, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna and Paris. In 1904, he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician.
Many young American artists who arrived in Paris in the late 19th-century became Gay's pupils to the extent that the New York Times dubbed him the "Dean of American Artists in Paris." Many of his students went on to have illustrious careers including Henry Bacon.
Walter Gay died at Le Breu Dammarys les Lys, near Fontainebleau on 13 July 1937. Throughout his life Gay had been a notable art collector. Following his death in 1937, Matilda donated some 200 works of Dutch, Italian, English and French paintings, drawings and illustrations to the Louvre indicating something of the collection's importance. Gay had been created Chevalier Legion of Honor in 1894; Officer Legion of Honor in 1906 and a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1927. He was also awarded the honour of Life fellow Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Works by Gay are represented in many of the world's most prestigious art museums, including: the Luxembourg Museum, the Tate Gallery (London), and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan in New York, the Art Institute, the Frick in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum of Brussels, the Pinacotheca Museum in Munich, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Albright Art Gallery and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
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