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History's headlines: Allentown Art Museum's "Toulouse-Lautrec & His World" takes visitors back to the Paris of the 19th Century

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 28 2013 08:04:32 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 29 2013 05:23:10 AM CDT

“Americans, if they are good, when they die go to Paris.”
-Thomas Gold Appleton (1812-1884}

Most people in his Boston social set thought Thomas Appleton- merchant prince, philanthropist and noted raconteur- the greatest wit of his day. In fact this quote of his was so popular that it has been attributed to both Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., father of the famous Supreme Court Justice, and put by Oscar Wilde into the month of one of his characters in the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Of course not all Americans- good, bad, and otherwise- wanted to wait around until death to see Paris. At least since Benjamin Franklin’s dallying with what an outraged John Adams called “the misses and courtesans of the French Court,” the naughty aspects of the French capital had been a draw for Americans.

A visit to the Allentown Art Museum’s new exhibit “Toulouse-Lautrec & His World” unintentionally helps bring back the barb hidden in Appleton’s words. It is largely about French culture and the artistic genius of Toulouse-Lautrec, whose lithographs and posters of can-can girls kicking up their petticoats and skirts to the music of Offenbach and jaded roués leering though their monocles at the scandalous goings-on, are brought to vivid life by his work.

And many Victorian Americans, some from the Lehigh Valley, found the lure of that Paris fascinating. Among them were young Harry and Robert Packer, the sons of railroad magnate and founder of Lehigh University, Asa Packer, who paid Paris a visit in 1869-70.

On hand to keep an eye on the boys was John Fritz, a Bethlehem Iron Company executive who was primarily concerned with studying European steelmaking techniques. But at least once during that trip, as Fritz’s diary notes, he had to drag the boys away from the ribald, Bohemian antics of the Art Student’s Ball in Paris.

It would of course be wrong to judge all of French life at the time by the world depicted in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. And Paris nightclubs were not the only thing drawing Americans to France.

A wealth of art and culture that spanned centuries was what drew Lehigh Valley artist Peter Gross to France at the same period when Toulouse-Lautrec was active. A large work by Gross dominates a wall on the Allentown Art Museum’s first floor.

It is a traditional, realistic piece of the day showing the tranquility of the rural French countryside. This kind of academic styled painting was by far more popular in France than anything avant-garde.

In fact, it and a number of works like it that he produced while living in France, made the artist a prize winner year after year in the established art world of France. If Gross ever said anything on the public record about Toulouse-Lautrec it has not survived. But in 1914, shortly before his death, he did express himself as strongly opposed to Cezanne and all his works.

In this he was not alone. In an early 20th century trip to France to buy up antiques for wealthy American clients, architect Stanford White wrote home to an artist friend that contemporary French artists had totally turned their back on tradition.

Even within France’s avant-garde there were differences. On at least some of those mornings when Toulouse-Lautrec was headed to bed after a night at the Moulin Rouge, Claude Monet had risen before dawn to begin painting the rural landscape at his home in the country at Giverny.

Thanks to a visit to America by his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, and to the interest of Chicago millionaire Berthe Potter Palmer, Monet’s paintings were at last finding buyers. Even the previously reluctant French were among them. While Monet disliked that his paintings were fleeing to what he called “the land of the Yankees,” he didn’t turn down the money.

But the best known American from the Lehigh Valley who lived in Paris in those years had no interest in either can-can girls or avant-garde art. His name was Charles Rudy, a native of Schnecksville whose father Durs Rudy was a well known Pennsylvania German artist.

In 1858 Rudy left America for a walking tour of Europe. But while traveling in Spain his traveling companion became ill and later died on the island of Madeira off the coast of Morocco. Rudy decided to head for Paris. It was a long journey. At the border between Spain and France he was attacked and lost everything but his train ticket.

Unlike the Packer boys, Rudy arrived in Paris penniless. But a lucky series of circumstances came to his rescue. An educated Frenchmen who met him in a café recognized Rudy’s intelligence, despite the American’s inability to speak French. He suggested that Rudy, who could speak English, German and Latin, visit a local German instructor named Anna Notzel. She in turn got him in touch with some German clients of hers who wanted to learn English.

Rudy quickly took to his new occupation with a will and soon became one of the leading teachers of English to Germans in Paris. By the mid-1860s Rudy was speaking fluent French and had taken up the study of Chinese. By 1866 he was comfortable enough to travel to Central Asia and pursue a study of a variety of Asian languages.

Shortly after his return to Paris, Rudy opened his own language school, recruiting many of the educated young men of the city as its teachers. He called it the "International Association of Professors" and named himself its president. Despite the Franco Prussian War of 1870-73 and the German occupation of Paris, Rudy’s school survived and thrived. Soon he and Notzel were married.

By the time of his death at the age of 55 in 1893, Rudy’s school was recognized by the French government as an important academic institution. He didn’t have to go to Paris when he died for he had already been.