Eugene Vail (Saint-Servan, France September 29, 1857 – Paris, December 28, 1934), the son of a French mother and an American father, Lawrence Eugene Vail, studied at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey (where Alfred Stieglitz was born in 1864) and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1877. Then he became a student of William Merritt Chase and J. Carroll Beckwith at the Art Students League before returning to France. He entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1882 where he was instructed by Alexandre Cabanel, Raphaël Collin, and Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929), known as an extreme naturalist. When Bastien-Lepage died in 1884, Dagnan-Bouveret became the leader of the Naturalist School. He definitely made an indelible impression on Vail.
According to Louise Cann, Vail soon became an independent painter working at Pont-Aven and Concarneau. It is difficult to determine when he separated from his teachers since he is listed as a student whenever he exhibited at the Paris Salon — that is, until 1899 when he dropped the mention of élève. A picture of a peasant girl, Seulette was his Salon debut painting in 1883, the same year that he sent two scenes of Brittany to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ exhibition, which documents his stay in that region. The next year he exhibited in the Salon: Fishing Port, Concarneau, which went to the Luxembourg Museum (it is now in the Musée Municipal of Brest). It has the Naturalist brown and gray palette and tonalist atmosphere but already shows that Vail had direct experience with scenes of life in coastal villages: “So convincing was his familiarity with the French coast that the critic Thiébault-Sisson claimed him as a Frenchman and declared that no American marine painter could touch his skill.” (Maureen C. O’Brien, in Blaugrund, 1989, p. 218).
In 1885, Vail exhibited Inner Port at Dieppe and in the following year On the Thames (Private collection), which later won him the Grand Diploma of Honor from an international jury in Berlin in 1891. Widow, the title of Vail’s entry in the Salon of 1887 (unlocated), is a striking image of a woman standing on a beach, looking out to the expanse of the ocean where her husband obviously met his end. The innocent child who looks at us may have the same fate in store for him. Then in 1888, Vail completed his masterpiece, Ready, About! a “wall-size” 94 x 125½ inch canvas. The painting won a first-class gold medal in the Salon of 1888, then at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, Vail won another gold medal. The first precedent that comes to mind is Théodore Géricault’s colossal Raft of the Medusa of 1819 (Louvre), the celebrated romantic image of castaways about to be rescued after being lost at sea. But while Géricault presents a massive, sculpturesque group of figures struggling on a raft just beyond our designated viewing space, Vail pulls the viewer into the picture, or more exactly, extends the diagonally rocking boat into the spectator’s area, vividly anticipating the effects of cinematography. There is no more effective way to engage the spectator’s attention and sympathies, and the illusionism is especially effective in this life-size picture. Vail’s vigorous brushwork — a uniform use of rectangular strokes — adds to the motion-filled, dynamic actuality of this image, and the overall green-gray tonalities evoke the constantly menacing, cold and wet travails in the life of the fishermen in the Atlantic’s rough waters. Theodore Child (1889, p. 518) wrote about this painting: “very beautiful in color, and amongst the very strongest and best pictures of this kind in the Exhibition.”
Dordrecht (unlocated) was Vail’s painting exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1892, and in the following year he showed Fisherman — The North Sea at the Paris Salon, the same year in which he re-exhibited Dordrecht and On the Thames at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Vail won the coveted Légion d’Honneur in 1894. Some of his paintings found their way to European museums, for example, Soir de novembre (Odessa Museum) and Soir de Bretagne (Museo d’Arte Moderna, Venice). The latter was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris. Also there was Voix de la mer (Voices of the Sea), which we identify as the painting that appears in an interior view of the American section, just to the right of a doorway (fig. 20 in Fischer, 1999), a simple marine painting. Some time after 1900, Vail turned to both impressionism and post-impressionism but no one seems to have charted this course. His Autumn near Beauvais, illustrated in International Studio (1902, p. 211), The Flags, St. Mark’s Venice (1903; National Gallery of Art), and Grand Canal, Venice, ca. 1904 (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design) demonstrate an impressionist technique with broken color. Mandel (1977, p. 202) wrote on the latter: “applied in short strokes juxtaposing brilliant hues of orange, blue, white, black and red, with a strong interplay between the warm pink tones of the walls and the green shadows of the black boats which are silhouetted against them.” Cann (1937) believed that in Venice, Vail “found his true self.” The Flags forecasts the Armistice Day pictures by Hassam and others, painted fifteen years later.
Vail became involved in the Society of American Artists in Paris and the Société Internationale de Peinture et de Sculpture, whose membership included Frank Brangwyn, Charles Cottet (1863-1924), the famous Naturalist sculptor Constantin Meunier (1831-1905), Frits Thaulow (1847-1906), the painter of northern snowscapes, Walter Gay, and the post-impressionists Henri Martin (1860-1943) and Henri Le Sidanier (1862-1939). The group was represented by the Galerie Georges Petit. Naturally, such an association encouraged the seeking out of more modernist directions. In his Swiss mountain landscapes, Vail became more dynamic than ever, employing almost Fauvist brushwork. It seems unfortunate how a few American expatriate artists — Sargent and Whistler, for instance — have eclipsed great talents such as Eugene Vail. But when Vail passed away, the naturalist movement he was associated with was as dead as a doornail. Max Ernst published his surrealistic collage-novel, Une semaine de bonté and the exhibition called “Machine Art” opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where critic Alfred Barr attempted to raise household appliances to the level of Neoplatonic beauty.
Child, Theodore. “American Artists at the Paris Exposition.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 79 (September 1889): 518; Hartmann, Sadakichi. A History of American Art, 2 vols. Boston: L. C. Page and Co., 1902, vol. 2, p. 191; Earle, Helen L. Biographical sketches of American Artists . Charleston, SC: Garnier and Co., 1972, pp. 316-317; Cann, Louise Gebhard. Eugene Lawrence Vail 1857-1934. Retrospective Exhibition. Paris: Galerie Jean Charpentier, 1937; Mandel, Patricia C. Selection VII: American Paintings from the Museum’s Collection, c. 1800-1930. Providence, RI: Rhode Island School of Design, 1977, pp. 201-202; Sellin, David. Americans in Brittany and Normandy 1860-1910. Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Museum of Art, 1982, p. 159; Preato, Robert, Sandra L. Langer, and James D. Cox. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Transformations in the Modern American Mode, 1885-1945. New York: Grand Central Art Gallery, 1988, pp. 14, 32, 65; Blaugrund, Annette. Paris 1889: American Artists at the Universal Exposition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1989, pp. 44-45, 59-60, 216-218, 294; Gerdts, William H. Lasting Impressions: American Painters in France 1865-1915. Chicago, IL: Terra Foundation for the Arts, 1992, pp. 228-229; Revisiting the White City: American Art at the 1893 World’s Fair. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1993, pp. 181, 334; Fischer, Diane. Paris 1900: The “American School” at the Universal Exposition. Exh. cat. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999, p. 204.
Submitted by Richard H. Love and Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.