In Paris, Gay studied for three years under Leon Bonnat, and he concentrated upon still life paintings. In Bonnat’s studio he met John Singer Sargent, with whom he would maintain a close friendship throughout his life. He also developed during these years an abiding interest in the Spanish master, Velasquez, and in the contemporary Spanish painter, Mariano Fortuny. The style of these Spanish painters remained a more pervasive influence throughout his career than either the Impressionist style which was developing in Paris upon Gay’s arrival or the Parisian Modernism which gradually replaced it.
In 1882, Walter traveled to Barbizon with his uncle Winkworth and clearly fell under the influence of the famous place. From this time, scenes of peasants and workmen in rustic settings replaced still life compositions in his oeuvre. The artist exhibited widely throughout Europe, winning a gold medal at the Paris salon in 1888 and exhibiting at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. His painting Le Benedicite was purchased by the French government for the Musée du Luxembourg.
During the 1890’s, Gay began painting the opulent interiors for which he remains best known. These compositions reflect the artist’s interest in antiques and in old houses, such as the chateau near Fontainebleau where he and Matilda lived after 1904. At his death in 1937, the New York Times described Gay as the “Dean of American Painters in France.”
Work by Walter Gay can be found in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Musées Nationaux Paris, the Smith College Museum of Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery, among others.