Paul Chalfin, the accidental artistic director

Paul Chalfin at Vizcaya

A start as an artist

Paul Chalfin (1874 – 1959) intended to be an artist. After two years at Harvard, he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York, followed by three years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.  In early 1906, after three years as a curator of Asiatic Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Chalfin returned to Europe for a painting fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

Chalfin in Rome

For the next three years, he perfected his knowledge of Italian decorative arts that would later influence the design of Vizcaya’s interiors. He learned to speak fluent Italian, and became acquainted with the networks of art dealers, scouts and Anglo-American expatriates who populated the Italian art market.

It was almost Elsie de Wolfe

Back in the United States, Chalfin begin to work with influential interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe (1865 – 1950), and in 1910, when James Deering asked her to decorate his apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, she passed the commission to Chalfin. That was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted more than a decade and resulted in the creation of Vizcaya.

Chalfin, designer and decorator of Vizcaya

So, the painter who never really painted became the artistic director responsible for the choice of the general overall design of the main house and garden, and for decorating and furnishing the interior of the main house himself. Vizcaya was meant to launch Chalfin’s career as an interior decorator, but its cost and extravagance likely discouraged prospective employers. He never worked on another mansion, and Vizcaya remains his most recognized accomplishment.