As an intern at the Frick Art Reference Library, one of my projects was to read Matilda Gay’s diaries which form part of the Walter and Matilda Gay Collection in The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives. While the diaries have been previously excerpted in publications (e.g. William Rieder’s A Charmed Couple: The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay), it was a pleasure/great opportunity to peruse them in full. The diaries consist of many volumes describing her daily life beginning in 1904. Matilda was the wife of the artist Walter Gay. The couple lived most of their lives in France, where they had an apartment in Paris and a château, Le Bréau, in the countryside. Matilda is reminiscent of a character out of an Edith Wharton novel, a middle aged, cultured, and strong-minded woman living in the center of the aristocratic circles in Paris and New York City—Wharton and Matilda happened to be close friends.
Walter Gay, La Bénédicité, 1888
Trips to private collections, museums and exhibitions; goûter with her socialite friends; evenings at the ballet and opera; and lectures at the Sorbonne on everything from Rousseau to Dante’s Inferno filled the day-to-day lives of the Gays. They seem highly focused on living in and appreciating the beauty surrounding them. I think that this can be seen from Walter’s paintings, which are calm, dreamy, and delicate. Matilda commented often that the Parisians adore his art for these reasons and for his ability to recreate beauty. Taught by Léon Bonnat, Walter was one of the last of his kind, lingering in the wistful style of the Barbizon school. Matilda had a discerning eye for art beyond the work of her husband. She embraced academic nineteenth-century painting, and disliked Matisse and the “violent” modern works at the salons.
Walter Gay, The “White Salon” at St. Brice
Matilda freely judged the art she saw, the good, the bad, and the ugly (and those of “doubtful” origin). It is high praise to The Frick Collection that she said of Henry Clay Frick’s collection in 1910, “gems, all of them, well preserved, not numerous, but very precious.” She showed her keen sensibilities when commenting on Rembrandt’s Polish Rider that it was “like an inspiration from an Italian Master, not at all in the Master’s style, and very curious.” (Vol. 4, 1910-1911, p. 98)
Volume 4, 1910-1911, Matilda Gay Diary Transcriptions, Walter and Matilda Gay Collection. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.
Although much of the diaries focus on the exclusive world of artists and elite society, the later volumes that I read were overshadowed by the events of World War I. Matilda spent this period in France. Although she did not witness trench warfare, and her apartment in Paris and château remained intact, the effect of the war on her beautiful and romantic world is pointed. Many of her French friends, who had lived a leisurely life devoted to appreciating nature, art, literature and gossip, had either died (due to sickness and stress), or were depressed and financially ruined as a result of the war. After visiting Château de la Grange-Bléneau, the destroyed and abandoned home of dear friends, the Lasteyries, Matilda commented “in our search for war-impressions we found them and the realization made us hate war for more than ever.” (Vol. 6, 1914-1915, p. 63)
Interior, Avignon, Walter Gay
The volumes of the Matilda Gay diaries shelved in the Archives are filled with entertaining stories, interesting characters, and poignant insights into the ever-changing society of Paris and New York City. I learned so much about history, society, art, and people by reading the diaries written by Matilda, and enjoyed every minute of it.
Photographs from the Walter and Matilda Gay Collection have been digitized and are available through the Frick Digital Image Archive. You can learn more about this fascinating collection by consulting the finding aid.
Madeline High, Summer Intern, Frick Art Reference Library