Son of a French mother and an American father, Eugene Vail maintained strong ties with both of these countries throughout his life. He was born 29 September 1857 in St. Servan, France and, as a young man, studied both in Paris and New York. Although he showed an early aptitude and enthusiasm for art, his father required that he receive a practical education; before he was twenty Vail graduated from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey with a concentration in mechanical engineering. After college he joined the National Guard, during which time he participated in a Western expedition led by Captain George Wheeler. Vail sketched the terrain and painted portraits of his traveling companions and the Native Americans they met.
At the end of his service, the young artist studied first with William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and J. Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917) at the Art Students League in New York, then in Paris. After working under Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929), and Raphael Collin (1850-1916) at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he left to pursue his art independently at Pont Aven and Concarneau, favorite locations of painters in Britanny. The first of his canvases to be included in the Paris Salon had as its subject a Breton peasant girl. Vail went on to paint images of peasants and fishermen in villages and towns throughout Europe. His seafaring subject, Ready About (location unknown) won him a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.
Vail's realistic, anecdotal works were exhibited throughout Europe and the United States. He won medals at Berlin, Munich, Antwerp, Liege, and St.Louis, and his paintings were purchased by several institutions. In 1894 he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
After many successful years of producing work in the academic, "Salon" tradition, Vail's style underwent a change, gradually becoming looser and more impressionistic. His palette, too, was lightened, perhaps in response to the light and color of Italy, particularly of Venice, where he began to spend his autumns. At other times of the year he visited St. Moritz, St. Tropez, and Lake Como. He became particularly known for his light-hearted scenes of people engaged in winter sports.
Vail died in Paris on 28 December 1934. His wife, Gertrude Mauran Vail, brought the contents of his studio to America for safe-keeping during World War II. These works were circulated in a well-received retrospective exhibition that traveled to several museums between 1938 and 1941. Mrs. Vail later dispersed many of them to museum collections. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Earle, Helen. Biographical Sketches of American Artists. Lansing, Michigan, 1924: 316-317.
Cann, Louise Gebhard. "The Art of Eugene L. Vail." Bulletin of the American Women's Club of Paris (August 1928).
Cann, Louise Gebhard. Untitled essay in Exposition Eugene Vail. Exh. cat. Galerie Jean Charpentier, Paris, 1937.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 206.