The turn-of-the-century exodus of American artists and writers to Paris and other European cities is mythic. Many, finding American art and culture to be both unsophisticated and outmoded, sought the radical and revolutionary experimentation of European artistic and literary movements such as Dadaism, Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, and Futurism. They were drawn to Europe by a commitment to an evolving aesthetic sensibility that was evident in the innovation of young artists and painters in European cities. Often Americans who intended to visit Europe for just weeks remained for months or years; some made permanent homes there. Though the arts communities were vital in many cities, Paris held a particular appeal for expatriate Americans. “Paris,” Gertrude Stein said, “was the twentieth century. It was the place to be.”
In the years following the turn of the century, American writers living in Paris and London, including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein, forged new and distinctly modern identities that were evident in their work. Not two decades later, in the wake of World War I, a new group of expatriates joined the Modernists who had already made their homes in Europe for years. This group, which Gertrude Stein dubbed the “Lost Generation,” was defined by its disillusionment and psychic displacement. In Paris in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others participated in what has often been described as a kind of reckless, drunken, decade-long carnival. In spite of their often extended stays in Europe, these writers and artists never abandoned their examination of American history, culture, and societal structures. During this period, some believed that looking at America from the distance of a foreign city was the only way for an American to see and understand his or her native country.
Many American women who traveled abroad during this period chose an expatriate lifestyle for reasons that differed from those of their male counterparts, and their lives in exile did not always share the quality of abandon so often described in the experiences of the American men of the same era. Women left the United States to escape the social conventions that restricted their careers or limited them to lives as wives and mothers, without access to other creative outlets. Though the European communities in which they lived were not always more accepting of the alternative lifestyles they chose as artists or businesswomen, lesbians or single mothers, Europeans were not inclined to interfere in the lives of Americans living in their cities; “it was not that Paris was culturally more ‘liberated’ than . . . America in its attitudes toward women,” Andrea Weiss wrote in Paris was a Woman, “but simply that it left its foreigners alone.” Thus, American women in Paris and other European cities found a freedom there that was unavailable to them in their own country. “We were the Americans who for one reason or another chose to dwell in Paris,” Janet Flanner wrote, “for writing, for work, for career, for the amenities of French living, which was cheaper and more agreeable than life in the United States.”
Women were at the center of the American expatriate community, playing profound roles in its artistic and intellectual life. Legendary even in her own time, writer, art collector, and salon hostess Gertrude Stein and her partner, editor, and publisher Alice B. Toklas, hosted the most important salon of the period. They welcomed American and European writers and artists, from Picasso to Hemingway, into their rue de Fleurus home, the walls of which were lined with one of the most impressive collections of modern art anywhere in the world. Writer Natalie Barney hosted another well-known Paris salon; she dedicated her meetings to showcasing the work of new and emerging women artists and writers. Unlike those hosted by Stein and Toklas, Barney’s events often included readings of lesbian love poetry and pagan celebrations. Love affairs with Barney, a notorious seductress, were considered “a rite of passage not uncommon among attractive female arrivals in Paris at that time.” Barney’s gatherings were sometimes co-hosted by her partner of some fifty years, artist Romaine Brooks. Brooks, who painted portraits of several women in her circle, was well known for her ability to capture the spiritual essence of her subjects. Her portraits were so haunting, in fact, that she was sometimes referred to as the Thief of Souls.
Women writers and their work, including Gertrude Stein and her experimental writings, were essential to the literary movements of the period. Hilda Doolittle, better known as the poet H.D., was the most celebrated of the Imagist poets, a group that included William Carlos Williams, D.H. Lawrence, and Amy Lowell; H.D.’s were, in fact, the first poems to be described as “Imagist.” Artist, designer, and poet Mina Loy wrote free verse poems that were considered shocking in their frank treatment of female sexuality and their feminist stance. Kathryn Hulme, a writer of prizewinning and bestselling novels based on real-life stories, and of celebrated books of nonfiction, recorded the lives of exceptional women.
American women were also influential on the literary scene as editors and publishers. Maria Jolas, a translator and James Joyce scholar, and her husband Eugene, published the groundbreaking international art and literature journal, transition, which published work by every major voice of the period. Barbara Harrison Wescott collaborated with Monroe Wheeler to found a fine press, Harrison of Paris, which produced beautifully made books of new and classic texts. With her small press, Plain Edition, Alice B. Toklas published more than half a dozen books written by Gertrude Stein.
Some performing artists found greater creative opportunities in Europe. Because of her interest in working with modern composers, violinist Olga Rudge forged a successful career in Europe, where experimental composers found audiences they were unable to develop in the United States. After performing in choruses in New York clubs, dancer and singer Josephine Baker achieved phenomenal fame in Paris and across Europe. Like many African Americans of the period, Baker sought escape from the intense racism she suffered in the United States. In Paris, African Americans found a society without the rigid color barrier that existed in their home country.
(Download PDF of the full chapter from the catalog Intimate Circles: American Women in the Arts.)