Gay was born on January 22, 1856 in Hingham, Massachusetts. In 1875, he began his formal training as a painter, joining a studio on Tremont Street to draw from live models. Like many young painters in Boston, Walter Gay sought the guidance of William Morris Hunt, the influential teacher and painter who had enlightened the country about Jean François Millet and the Barbizon School. Hunt encouraged Gay to follow the path he himself had taken with Gay's uncle, Winkworth Allen Gay, and seek instruction in France. With earnings from a few picture sales supplemented by financial help from new patrons, Gay headed to Paris in 1876; he immediately entered the atelier of Léon Bonnat, where he soon met lifelong friend, John Singer Sargent.
France would be Gay's home from then on. As he and his wife Matilda prospered, they were able to keep an apartment in Paris as well as Le Bréau, an 18th century chateau near the Fontainebleau forest. The expatriate couple thrived within a wide social circle that included many American and French artists and writers: James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, among them. When the artist died in 1937, he was dubbed the "Dean of American Painters in France" in his New York Times obituary.
Many luminaries from the New York Gilded Age commissioned works of art from Walter Gay who specialized in recording the opulent interiors of prominent, social, and wealthy patrons including Mrs. William Henry Vanderbilt and Mrs. Henry Clay Frick.
The impetus for two such paintings The Library of Mrs. Oliver Gould Jennings and the Green Drawing Room was a chance acquisition at Wildenstein in 1920 by Mrs. Jennings of Gay’s Tapisseries Roses, a work displaying Gobelins tapestries and Louis XV furniture that had been assembled for an exhibition in Paris during the First World War. Within a few days of this purchase the young and extremely beautiful Mrs. Jennings had arranged for Gay to paint views of the library and drawing room in her elegant Fifth Avenue apartment. These two pictures, and many others of their ilk including our painting, The Library, bear witness to interiors that, while lacking a historical setting such as the Chateau de Fontainebleau, nonetheless were filled with sumptuous French furniture and objet d’art elegantly displayed in grand period fashion.
Private collection, New Jersey