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Corpses, Ambition, Art Drew Americans to Paris, Says McCullough

The cover jacket of "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" by David McCullough. Source: Simon and Schuster via Bloomberg

“The Greater Journey” is a boring title for a riveting, sometimes thrilling book. Subtitled “Americans in Paris,” it begins with stories of aspiring artists and physicians who traveled to the French capital in the 1830s to advance their careers.

But after several chapters the author, the celebrated historian David McCullough, turns it into something else: a history of 19th-century Paris seen through American eyes. The narrowing of focus sharpens this diffuse material.

The cast is big, and many of the once-famous names aren’t so famous anymore, such as George P.A. Healy, the sea captain’s son who became one of the leading portrait painters of the 19th century, and George Catlin, the painter and showman who charmed King Louis-Philippe with his company of Iowa Indians.

“I have been in many of the wigwams of Indians of America when I was a young man,” the king said, “and they treated me everywhere kindly, and I love them for it.”

Among their better-remembered contemporaries was Samuel F.B. Morse, though Morse is no longer all that renowned as the ambitious painter who in a single canvas, “Gallery of the Louvre,” surveyed 38 of the museum’s masterpieces. The finished work didn’t bring Morse the glory -- or the money -- he dreamed of. He renounced painting and put all his energy into promoting the invention he’d been working on: the telegraph.

Medical Students

The most fascinating of McCullough’s early chapters describes the young Americans who went to France to pursue a medical education, which was still primitive in the U.S. Study in Paris had two great advantages. First, you could examine female patients; in America, “most women would have preferred to die than have a physician -- a man -- examine their bodies.”

Second, there were plenty of cheap cadavers to dissect, a practice frowned on in the States. McCullough provides a spectacularly disgusting description of the Amphitheatre d’Anatomie, where -- amid the stench of death and the fumes of cigar smoke -- 600 students could simultaneously carve up corpses.

The hero of the middle part of the book is Elihu Washburne, the American ambassador during the disastrous (for France) Franco-Prussian War and its culmination, the 1870-71 siege of Paris.

For months Parisian resolve held firm as the city starved: “The price of a cat on the market was four times that of a dog ... It was also generally agreed that the flavor of a brewery rat surpassed that of the sewer rat, due to its diet.”

Paris Commune

Washburne was one of the few ambassadors who refused to quit the city during the siege and the horrific insurrection that followed it, the Paris Commune, a period of madness and carnage that outdid even the Terror of the French Revolution -- “the Seine literally ran red with blood.”

In the last part McCullough returns to a new generation of the artists he clearly loves writing about. He finishes his narrative with the century’s end. But while a book of this grandeur calls for a grand summation, instead he supplies a curiously brief epilogue sketching the later years of three American artists (Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt) who practiced in Paris.

The journey McCullough refers to in his title meant something, and I would have liked to hear him articulate it. His reticence is no doubt a facet of his tact. Though this is a long book, McCullough apparently considers it a matter of honor not to rattle on. Like all great entertainers, he leaves his audience wanting more.

“The Greater Journey” is published by Simon & Schuster (558 pages, $37.50). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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