American, 1856-1937

Walter Gay

This prominent and successful American expatriate artist was born in Hingham, Masschusetts. When he was nine, his family moved to Dorchester, now a part of Boston, where he attended a local school. His uncle, Winckworth Allan Gay (1821–1910), a Boston landscape painter who had studied in France, first interested him in art. After spending a year on a relative’s cattle ranch in Nebraska, young Gay returned to Boston in 1873 to take up painting. He shared a studio there with the landscape painter John Bernard Johnston (1847–1886) and drew from the living model, receiving occasional criticisms from William Morris Hunt (1824–1879) and attending a night class at the Lowell Institute. He supported himself during this period by painting still lifes such as Wild Flowers, 1876 (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven).

Financial assistance from a group of friends enabled him to study in Europe beginning in the spring of 1876. After a brief stop in London, Gay went to Paris, where Johnston joined him on his travels. Upon visiting Auvers-sur-Oise, they met the French painter Charles Daubigny (1817–1878), and in Barbizon, they visited the American expatriate William P. Babcock (1826–1899). Through these two older painters they became well acquainted with the Barbizon style. The following year Gay entered the studio of Léon Bonnat (1834–1922), where he worked for the next three years. It was due to Bonnat’s encouragement that he made a trip to Madrid with his fellow student Alfred Q. Collins (1855–1903) to study the work of Velásquez.

Gay’s early work reflects his French academic training. Concentrating on figure painting, he produced small genre pieces depicting eighteenth-century subjects, their themes, and precise yet rich treatment reminiscent of Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891) and Mariano José Bernardo Fortuny (1838–1874). Around 1884, the artist painted larger works and chose for his subject matter contemporary people engaged in such activities as spinning, weaving, and cigarette-making. He also painted scenes of peasant life in Brittany.

Gay occasionally exhibited in New York, where he was elected to the Society of American Artists in 1880. He kept a residence in Boston, maintaining his ties there by serving as a correspondent and advisor to the Museum of Fine Arts. The style and subject matter of his art, however, remained thoroughly European, and his energies were increasingly occupied abroad. Exhibiting at the Paris Salon for the first time in 1879, Gay contributed regularly to the annual exhibition from then on. His success brought him commissions from English, French, Belgian, and German art dealers, and by the early 1890s, his work was also being shown in Vienna, Antwerp, Munich, and Berlin. He became a member of the Société des Peintres et des Sculpteurs, the Société de la Peinture à l’Eau, and the Brussels Royal Society of Water Colorists, as well as a committee member of the Luxembourg, then the French museum of contemporary art.

Beginning in 1895, Gay rented a country house not far from Paris, and there he turned to depicting the subject that would be his specialty for the remainder of his career—interiors like those painted by the Frenchman Gaston La Touche (1854–1913) or the German Adolf von Menzel (1815–1905). In a sense he returned to the historic character of his early paintings but no longer included figures. Instead he featured eighteenth-century woodwork, furnishings, and decorative objects, a reflection not only of his taste as a collector but also of the contemporary interest in the Rococo style. Usually depictions of rooms in public buildings or distinguished private residences, these paintings are both an accurate record of the rooms they portray and a statement about the people who inhabited them. As his friend the painter Albert Gallatin (1882–1952) wrote in 1920, “Mr. Gay always suggests in a subtle manner the personality of the former, as well as the present, inhabitants of the charming old apartments which he has so delightfully delineated. The rooms are full of human interest. It is not necessary for our enjoyment to get even a glimpse of the occupants of these rooms, because we can feel their presence. Far are theses apartments from being deserted” (p. 4).

In 1907, Gay purchased the Château du Bréau, a charming eighteenth-century residence in Dammarie-les-Lys, near Fontainebleau, where he lived and worked until his death at the age of eighty-one. Part of his collection of decorative arts was given to the Louvre.

(Burke, Doreen Bolger, American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. III, A Catalogue of Works by Art and Artists Born between 1846 and 1864, 1980).

Museum Collections:
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburgh, PA
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Musée Nationale de la Coopération Franco-américaine, Blérancourt
Museé Goya, Musées Midi-Pyrénées, Millau
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT

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Please contact us if you are interested in selling your Walter Gay paintings or other artwork from the 19th century and early 20th century. 

Additional Walter Gay Paintings for Sale


Walter Gay Paintings Previously Sold

WALTER GAY A Salon at the Château de Réveillon Oil on canvas 18 x 21 3/4 inches (46 x 55 cm) SOLD  

A Salon at the Château de Réveillon

Oil on canvas
18 x 21 3/4 inches (46 x 55 cm)

WALTER GAY Interior with Fireplace Brown wash heightened with white on paper 8 3/4 x 13 1/2 inches (22.5 x 34.2 cm) SOLD

Interior with Fireplace
Brown wash heightened with white on paper
8 3/4 x 13 1/2 inches (22.5 x 34.2 cm)