One last thing from that lunch two days ago with Henri Loyrette, the director of the Louvre. He mentioned that his museum has recently purchased a canvas by Benjamin West, Phaeton asking Apollo permission to drive the Chariot of the Sun, from about 1804. This will bring to a grand total of four the number of American pictures in the museum’s vast collection. “One by Thomas Cole,” Loyrette told me. “The other two by unknowns.”
I’m not even sure that West, who was born in Pennsylvania but spent most of his career in Britain, entirely counts as an American. And as a mythological scene, his painting isn’t exactly typical of what Americans brought to painting in the 19th century. Across the river at the Musee d’Orsay, where Loyrette was once director, they do have an Eakins, a Homer and a half dozen Sargents — to say nothing of this girl. But even at the d’Orsay there’s no Bierstadt, Peto, Bingham, Church or Remington, or at least none that I could find in the directory of the d’Orsay collections.
You have to wonder what difference it might have made to French painting in the 19th century, which was on a quest in so many directions, if the French had known more about the high rhetoric of American nature painting in Church and Bierstadt, or the blunt light in Homer. As for 18th century Americans, Copley, Stuart and the various Peales, same problem — nowhere to be found at the Louvre. And now, says Loyrette — who would like to do more to correct the balance — it’s rare when good examples come on the market. And when they do, no surprise, it’s for phenomenal prices.