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.
Museums and Public Collections
Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, California
Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Musee D'Orsay, Paris
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.