‘Could it be true? And in a museum? And an American one at that. Truly a revelation... I stood in the center of the room and felt a great hope'

(Alfred Stieglitz, 1921)

In 1921 the pioneering American artist and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz crossed the East River from Manhattan to visit the Brooklyn Museum. His specific destination was a controversial contemporary art exhibition, Paintings by Modern French Masters: The Post Impressionists and Their Predecessors. There, Stieglitz found—for the first time in a U.S. institution—paintings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Théodore Géricault installed alongside those of Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse as one groundbreaking narrative of modernism: French painting in the so-called long nineteenth century, from the French Revolution to World War I.

Beginning in a period of liberal political and social reforms that germinated with the Revolutions of 1848, French modernism would last fitfully until the aftermath of World War II. During these years, new definitions of the individual and the nation, fueled in part by capitalism and industrial growth, would radically transform all aspects of culture from music and literature to the visual and performing arts.

The Brooklyn Museum had paved the way for American institutions in the collecting and exhibiting of French modernism decades before its landmark exhibition Paintings by Modern French Masters. In 1900, inspired by New York City’s visionary private collectors who had been buying modern pictures, the Museum acquired through public subscription James Tissot’s watercolor series The Life of Christ (1885). The American painter John Singer Sargent recommended Tissot’s cycle of 350 watercolors (and more than a hundred preparatory pen-and-ink drawings) to his friend and then president of the Museum’s board of directors, A. Augustus Healy. Healy and his fellow civic-minded trustees had hoped to attract large crowds to the Museum’s new building, a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture designed by the leading firm McKim, Mead & White. Fortuitously, the Museum’s first Curator of Fine Arts, William Goodyear, was already in Paris, creating a photographic record of that year’s Exposition Universelle. There, he negotiated the purchase of the Tissots.

Fin-de-siècle Paris was indeed the principal destination for America’s emerging collectors of avant-garde contemporary art at the time. For all things modern, Paris was the hub. Home to the Louvre and the grand boulevards and parks created by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the French capital prided itself on its annual Salons and spectacular world’s fairs, all spurred by the new wealth of the industrial era. By 1851 this city of 1.2 million inhabitants boasted not only splendid Beaux-Arts architecture and haute couture but the most advanced sewers and gas lighting in the world.

In the French capital, Healy and Goodyear were among an ambitious set that included the Brooklyn sugar magnate Henry Havemeyer and the Philadelphia chemist Albert Barnes. There, along with his fellow trustee George Hearn, Healy purchased Henri Fantin-Latour’s Madame Léon Maître in 1906, just two years after the artist’s death. He later acquired Claude Monet’s The Doge’s Palace from the French dealer Bernheim–Jeune in 1912, and gifted it to the Museum eight years later.

As artworks by Old Masters became increasingly rare and expensive, the competition among America’s leading cultural institutions became more fierce. Brooklyn Museum trustees soon looked to French modernist works, which were more affordable. Their interest was piqued by two major developments in New York: the opening of Stieglitz’s experimental gallery 291 on Fifth Avenue in 1908 and the wildly popular International Exhibition of Modern Art, commonly known as the Armory Show, in 1913. This exhibition of international modernist art organized by three American artists and Stieglitz protégés—Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, and Walter Pach—attracted approximately 120,000 visitors a month.

The country’s enthusiasm for French modernist work was temporarily quelled by World War I, only to be revived with great fervor in the 1920s. Nevertheless, most U.S. institutions still refrained from exhibiting or purchasing this unconventional art. When Brooklyn’s director, William Henry Fox, took the daring step of mounting Paintings by Modern French Masters in 1921, he declared proudly, “If there be offense in placing these paintings on view, the responsibility must be shared by the Brooklyn Museum, which in fact led the way.” The majority of the paintings (some 122 works) were on loan from the dealer and collector Dikran G. Kelekian, who later sold them at auction. There the Museum bought a breakthrough Impressionist landscape by Camille Pissarro and two portraits by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Museum continued acquiring modernist masterpieces by Cézanne, Alfred Sisley, and Paul Gauguin. In 1926 Brooklyn presented an exhibition of European modernism organized by the director of the Société Anonyme, Katherine S. Dreier, along with Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, and Piet Mondrian.

In the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, modernist acquisitions came mostly in the form of estate gifts, such as Kees van Dongen’s W. S. Davenport, donated by the sitter and his wife in 1932. One exception was in the area of works on paper. Carl Schniewind, the Museum’s librarian and Curator of Prints and Drawings from 1935 to 1940, insisted that modernism had exerted a “great influence on American artists of the last century.” Among his transformative acquisitions for the Museum were superlative drawings by Vincent van Gogh and Picasso.

Joining Schniewind in the department in 1936, the visionary curator Una Johnson continued as head of the department through 1969. During her tenure she acquired and promoted fine French modernist works on paper. In 1941 she organized Ambroise Vollard, Editeur, the country’s first exhibition of modernist books and prints published by the late Paris art dealer, and the following year she organized an exhibition of lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec. Johnson also acquired Picasso’s drawing Nude Standing in Profile and Suzanne Valadon’s charcoal female nude. Demonstrating his strong ties to Brooklyn, where his family’s sugar refinery had long been located, Horace Havemeyer and his wife, Doris, also made gifts to the Museum during World War II. Among their major donations of many outstanding French modernist paintings and drawings were works by Odilon Redon, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, and Monet, all of which Horace Havemeyer had inherited from his mother, Louisine.

In the postwar era, the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibitions focused primarily on American abstract art and Brooklyn-based artists, although the institution did organize French modernist shows on Georges Rouault (1951), French Impressionism (1954), and Matisse and stained glass (1956). In 1951 the institution acquired its fifth painting by Corot, a romantic landscape of the artist’s family estate outside Paris. In the 1960s the Museum presented selections from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Pearlman (1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1974, and 1986). Another enthusiast of modernism, William K. Jacobs, Jr., donated a Fauvist landscape by Raoul Dufy in 1964 and forty years later would also bequeath his collection of French modernist paintings, including works by Gustave Caillebotte, Gabriele Münter, and Marc Chagall. In 1967, long after her late husband had formed the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, Brooklyn-born Laura Barnes gifted paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Chaim Soutine, and Matisse from her own collection to the Brooklyn Museum, where she had first learned to appreciate art. Her gifts helped to inspire the exhibition Triumph of Realism (1967), which examined the impact of early French modernism on American realism.

The 1970s and early 1980s marked a revival of enthusiasm for French modernism at the Brooklyn Museum, which hosted such popular exhibitions as Four Centuries of French Prints, Vincent Van Gogh Paintings and Drawings (both 1971), and Pablo Picasso, 1881–1973 (1983–84). These exhibitions were in line with trends at other major U.S. institutions, but the Museum distinguished itself by also highlighting then lesser-known artists such as Caillebotte, the subject of a landmark exhibition curated by Kirk Varnedoe in 1976–77.

By 1984, with the extraordinary Iris and B. Gerald Cantor gift of nearly sixty Rodin sculptures, the Brooklyn Museum gained wider recognition as a preeminent repository of French modernism. Iris Cantor’s frequent trips to the Museum as a young girl in the company of her sisters inspired the donation. Major exhibitions of works by Rodin (1986, 1987–88, 1997, 2012), Courbet (1988–89, 2008–9), Édouard Vuillard (1990), Jean-Frédéric Bazille (1992–93), Corot (1996–97), Monet (1997–98), and Caillebotte (2009) followed. More recently, the borough’s artistic and economic resurgence has helped attract gifts of drawings by Honoré Daumier, paintings by Vuillard, the Museum’s first painting by Picasso from the Alex Hillman Family Foundation, twentieth-century avant-garde art from the Beatrice and Samuel A. Seaver Foundation, and works from a new generation of collectors.

Through touring exhibitions such as Impressionists in Winter (1999), Monet’s London (2005), and joint shows such as Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism (2007–12), among others, the Brooklyn Museum continues to focus on the importance of French modernism and examine it through new lenses. Its pioneering 2015 exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World expanded the boundaries of the singular movement that first burgeoned in Paris, demonstrating how French modernism transformed artistic expression across the Atlantic and beyond.

Text by Richard Aste and Jai Imbrey