Gilded Age

A charmed couple: the art and life of Walter and Matilda Gay

A celebration of the Gilded Age couple famed for their taste and refinement


The artist Walter Gay and his wife Matilda were part of the happy band of cultivated American expatriates living in Paris in the early years of the last century. Their circle included Henry James, Edith Wharton, Henry Adams, Elsie de Wolfe, J.S. Sargent and Bernard Berenson among their compatriots and a number of French and English aristocratic patrons and collectors who were admirers of Walter’s work.

Walter Gay embarked on his artistic career in Boston, where he enjoyed a modest success before setting out for France in 1876 to continue his studies in Paris. He made a respectable success as an academic artist on conventional French salon lines, and there his career might have proceeded were it not for the entry into his life of Matilda Travers. She was also studying art and had contrived a position as Walter’s pupil in order to attract his notice, which she achieved, becoming his wife in 1889.

It was after his marriage that Walter gave up painting the large figure subjects required for the academic route and discovered the niche that he was to occupy so happily for the rest of his career as a painter.

He made a speciality of charming light-filled interiors furnished with exquisite, usually eighteenth-century, furniture and antiques. These proved highly popular with the circles in which he and his wife moved in Paris and London. The couple entertained lavishly and travelled around France in the summer. They were also collectors of 18th-century French furniture, tapestries, paintings and drawings, and the spectacularly generous “Donation Walter Gay” eventually found a home in the Louvre. They lived first in a Paris townhouse and then in the French countryside, at Fortoiseau near Fontainebleau and latterly in the charming Château Bréau, the interiors of which were the subject of Walter’s most sought-after paintings.

The account of the Gays’ life together is largely taken from Matilda’s far from charitable diaries. One of her less attractive traits was to sneer at people with money, which ill became someone whose father was a wealthy financier. Reading between the lines of her carefully discreet reflections, it is plain that she did not think highly of her husband’s early works. Her loyalty to him was total, and she spared no pains to direct the unsold interiors into American museums after Walter’s death. Her acerbity must have been reserved for her diary alone, because both Gays were much loved by their wide circles of friends, and they managed a feat not open to every expatriate, of being totally accepted into French society.

The second half of the book gives short accounts of the Gays’ more noteworthy friends, and Walter’s dealings with them in his capacity either as a painter or as a respected collector and advisor. In the event, those who placed their faith in his skills as an advisor were badly let down, since there is hardly one of his museum recommendations that has stood the test of time.

The author is careful to point out that this is not a book about Walter Gay’s art, but the numerous colour plates make this a celebration of his speciality, the intimate interior.

William Rieder, A charmed couple: the art and life of Walter and Matilda Gay (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2000), 240 pp, 73 b/w ills, 55 col. ills, £28, $45 (hb) ISBN 0810945614

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Gay lifestyle'