In 1957, the Galerie Charpentier in Paris offered a portion of the incredible art collection of Margaret Thompson Biddle for sale. The catalogue’s introduction was written by the renowned French politician André Cornu, and he rightly describes Mrs. Thompson Biddle as an heiress, ambassadress, elegant hostess, and friend to all, a woman of great heart, charm, intelligence and beauty, American by birth, French in spirit. In one of many newspaper articles covering Mrs. Thompson Biddle’s vibrant life, The New York Times noted her “unusual social gifts and keen intelligence,” which she used to great effect entertaining a veritable who’s-who of post-war society in her elegant homes in Paris and on the French Rivera (June 9, 1956, p. 17). Such glittering locales were thousands of miles away from Helena, Montana where, in 1896, Mrs. Thompson Biddle was born the only child of William Boyce Thompson; his discovery of vast copper deposits in the American West brought a tremendous fortune later inherited by his wife and daughter, Margaret.  Mrs. Thompson Biddle was first married to the banker Theodore M. Schulze and later Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr., a banking heir whose ambassadorships brought the couple to Norway, Poland (where the couple escaped the 1939 bombing of Warsaw), and England, where Biddle served as Ambassador and Minister to Governments-in-Exile. In London, Mrs. Thompson Biddle devoted herself to war relief, and launched a writing career with The Woman of England, which recorded the efforts of British women in civil defense.

Mrs. Thompson Biddle (on left), London

Mrs. Thompson Biddle’s love of the diplomat’s life and France inspired her move to Paris and into an impressive eighteenth century hôtel particulier on the Left Bank’s rue las Cases, just off the fashionable Boulevard Saint-Germain.  In these elegant surroundings, The New York Times reported, Mrs. Thompson Biddle kept up an “old… tradition… that of the… charming woman who maintained a ‘salon’ as a center of political, literary, and intellectual discussion. She knew everyone of importance in the French capital and entertained brilliantly and frequently” (June 9, 1956, p. 17).  Mrs. Thompson Biddle hosted a diverse group of dinner guests from Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower to Pope John XXIII, to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and notable French politicians, artists, and writers. According to Time magazine, dinner was often served “off silver plates dipped in gold,” part of a large collection of English and French vermeil (donated to the White House in 1956 and on display in its Vermeil Room) (March 9, 1959).

In Mrs. Thompson Biddle’s home in Paris, an apartment in the former Joseph Pultizer mansion in New York, and Les Embruns, her Riviera villa, visitors were comfortably ensconced in elegant interiors designed by the legendary Stéphane Boudin of Maison Jansen, and the walls hung with paintings by the masters of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and the present group of works by Jean Béraud, Eugène Galien-Laloue, and Stanislas Lépine long since held in storage, unseen for more than a half-century. Forty-six paintings from the collection were offered at auction in Paris at Galerie Charpentier, and the outstanding results, including $297,000 paid for Gauguin’s Still Life of Apples (1901), are widely credited as a redefining moment within the market for Impressionist and Modern Art. Many of the collection’s paintings depict the urban bustle of the Parisian boulevards, shops, and cultural institutions that Mrs. Thompson Biddle enjoyed.

Lee Miller, Mrs. Margaret Thompson Biddle

Beyond her connoisseurship, Mrs. Thompson Biddle’s love of France was documented in her monthly column, “Companion in Paris,” for The Woman’s Home Companion among other publications, in which she wittily described the Paris scene for American readers. At the time of her sudden death at the age of sixty, Mrs. Thompson Biddle was an integral part of Paris’ political, artistic and social circles, and she is remembered as the epitome of the American in Paris, an important representative of both countries who built a bridge between cultures.

Eugene Arget Voiture, Fiacre, 1899

“I've never seen so many Americans in Paris before. The Champs Élysées looks just like Main Street.”

This memorable quote belongs to Milo Roberts, the lonely French heiress (Nina Foch) who meets  Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), the World War II veteran trying to make his way in Paris as an expatriate artist in Vincent Minnelli’s classic movie musical An American in Paris (1951). The romance of the film (and the present theatrical version on Broadway), as with so much of the popular culture of the post-war era, captures the allure of Paris: the city of elegant charm and bohemian energy beloved by Mrs. Thompson Biddle and many other Americans.

Jean Béraud in his studio, circa 1899 (left); Jean Béraud, Femme assise devant un tableau (detail) (right)

This interest in Paris was not unique to the twentieth century. Indeed, throughout the late nineteenth century, in part due to the increasing ease and relative affordability of travel, Americans visited the city in ever greater numbers and often on multiple occasions. In a single week of September 1872, Paris’ overbooked Grand Hôtel refused 200 guests, while in 1888 over 1,000 Americans were recorded as visiting the city— a significant majority of them women (David McCullough, The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris, New York, 2011, p. 333-4;  Kathleen Adler,“‘We’ll Always Have Paris’: Paris as Training Ground and Proving Ground,” Americans in Paris, 1860-1900, exh. cat, National Gallery, London, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006-2007, p. 11).  Following the destruction caused by the Siege of Paris of 1870-71, the economic power of tourists was critical to the rebuilding of the city. As a contemporary newspaper reported, “it is generally acknowledged that the trade of Paris is now mainly sustained by American visitors who spend more money among the shopkeepers than all the rest put together… we only wish there were more of them, for this is about the best and most effective way in which Uncle Sam can aid the new French Republic” (as quoted in McCullough, p. 334). Along with tourists came an influx of young writers, architects and notably artists such as Elizabeth Gardner (lot 1), Julius Stewart (lot 31), and Joseph Leyendecker (lot 73), who were  eager to enroll in local art schools, from the tuition-free École des Beaux-Arts to the Académie Julian, one of the earliest training studios to accept women.  An even larger number of artists found patrons in American connoisseurs many of whom, like New York’s Mary Morgan, built incredible collections of French contemporary art through savvy art agent Samuel P. Avery (see lots 4 and 8) or San Francisco’s Celia Tobin Clark who personally approved her portrait by Giovanni Bodini in his Paris studio in 1904 (see lot 27).  The symbiotic relationships between American and French, student, teacher, patron and artist was suggested by the author Henry James, who explained “it sounds like a paradox, but it is a simple truth, that when to-day we look for American art, we find it mainly in Paris.  When we find it out of Paris, we find a great deal of Paris in it” (Henry James, The Painter’s Eye: Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts by Henry James, ed., J. L. Sweeny, London, 1956, as quoted in Adler, p. 11).  The annual Salons and the decennial Expositions Universelles made Paris the center of the art world, and the quickly expanding makeup of the city was evidenced in the works on display for thousands of visitors.

As today, throughout the Belle Époque  the overwhelming potential of a Paris itinerary prompted the publications of innumerable guidebooks to the intrepid American sightseer, though one book wisely warned “if you have only one week in Paris you cannot hope to see everything” (Barnnett Eastman and Frédéric Mayer, Paris 1900: The American Guide to City and Exposition, Chicago, 1900, p.123).  Fittingly, then, the works of artists like Jean Béraud captured all that Americans and Parisians alike experienced in the vibrant city, if even as they rushed from an exhibition at the Grand Palais on the way for a cocktail at the Café Américain. Béraud’s compositions are lasting visions of fleeting moments of urban pleasures.  Indeed, throughout his career, the artist was one of the city’s most scrupulous and devoted observers, and he travelled through Paris in a mobile studio in order to capture the events and interactions of modern life. Journalist Paul Hourie described the great lengths to which Béraud would go to observe the activity of the city: “When you paint scenes from everyday life you have to place them in their context and give their authentic setting.  This means that, in order to be sincere, you have to photograph them on the spot and forget about the conventions of the studio.  As a result, Jean Béraud has the strangest life imaginable. He spends all his time in carriages…. in search of a scene, drawing a small fragment of Paris” (as quoted in Offendstadt, Jean Béraud 1849-1935, The Belle Époque: A Dream of Times Gone By, catalogue raisonné, Cologne, 1999, p. 9).  

Much more than fragments, the following works by Béraud formerly in the Collection of Margaret Thompson Biddle are windows into the past, connecting their collectors then and now with a timeless love of Paris.

Jean Béraud
La Conversation
Lot Sold: 490,000 USD
Jean Béraud
Bois de Boulogne
Lot Sold: 1,810,000 USD
Jean Béraud
Les Grandes Boulevards (Café Americain)
Lot Sold: 562,000 USD
Jean Béraud
Scène sur les Champs-Élysées
Lot Sold: 646,000 USD
Jean Béraud
La Loge
Lot Sold: 212,500 USD
Jean Béraud
Courses rue de la Paix
Lot Sold: 454,000 USD

19th Century European Art

18 May 2016 | New York