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If you could look up the word "American" on the 19th Century equivalent of Urban Dictionary, there might as well be a picture of Newman's smiling mug. That is to say, Newman isn't just any American guy: he's a "powerful specimen of an American" (1.2).
In other words, he's a hottie with a cornfed-and-high-school-football-trained body.
But he's not a scumbag about it. He doesn't shout U-S-A, U-S-A when he walks through the Louvre. Henry James makes a point of telling us that Newman is a "fine American," not a jerk who walks around outside in flag boxers (1.2). And because Newman's easily identifiable as being part of American culture, other characters are always projecting that onto how he acts.
In other words, Newman can't easily blend in with the ever-so-French Bellegarde family. And it's not because he can't roll his French R's, either. He's just identifiably Yankee.
So what, exactly, does being American mean to Newman? Well, he takes pride in the fact that he's a self-made man. Newman's fortune was built entirely from scratch, without any help from wealthy relatives. That's some true blue (and red and white) bootstraps action, right there.
He's also a loyal guy. Even though Newman doesn't consider himself a "conscious patriot," he bristles when Tristram seems to prefer France over the good old U.S. of A. (3.6). In fact, he goes so far as to declare that America is the "greatest country in the world" (3.6).
Don't try to give him any French fries…but he wouldn't say no to some Freedom Fries.
But Newman's American nature is exactly what makes him stand out as vulgar to the Bellegarde family. Even Mrs. Tristram suspects as much when she refers to Newman as "odiously successful" (3.20).
It's not the fact that Newman's successful that turns the de Bellegardes off. It's more that he embraces his success in a way that seems like he's showing off. We get the sense that James wasn't trying so much to critique Americans as he was showing a clash between two cultures in the 19th Century. Newman just happens to be Example A.
Newman just loves art. Well, he loves strutting around the Louvre. That is, he likes seeing pretty girls out and about.
Hey, he just likes to look at pretty things.
That's why he offers to pay Noémie a pretty penny to paint him a copy of a picture. When M. Nioche finally delivers the picture, Newman is totally entranced…by the shiny, pretty frame. The cheap and tawdry frame looks "to Newman's eyes, wonderfully splendid and precious" (4.3).
We can't blame the guy for his taste. After all, he makes it clear that he's attracted to shiny, pretty things, much like a magpie can't help but go for the piece of tinfoil glittering on the sidewalk.
Here's what we have to determine, Shmoopers: does Newman's desire for pretty things extend to his love for Claire? Or is that a more special and genuine kind of attachment?
James gives us clues throughout the book, but we have to make the determination on our own. Sometimes, it seems like Newman is just ticking the boxes in his life, trying to collect as much loot (yes, that includes a bride) as he can. That's exactly the impulse that makes the de Bellegarde family wary of his existence.
But other times, he seems like he's just trying to do the right thing.
One of Newman's best qualities is that he's willing to shell out for a cause. Don't believe us? How about when he offers to give Noémie a dowry just for painting him a few shoddy pictures?
He even asks M. Nioche exactly how much Noémie needs in order to live comfortably:
"How big of a portion does your daughter want?" (4.18)
This generosity can be seen as an extension of many of Newman's character-defining traits. He likes pretty things—and is willing to pay for 'em. He's proud of his achievements, and likes to throw cash around to prove just how much of a baller he is. He's ultra-American, and so makes grand gestures that are oh-so-un-French.
And he's obsessed with living his ideal life…which means that he has to play the part of the art patron even when he's mainly just getting off on his own sense of being awesome.
Or, who knows—maybe he just really, really likes the frames that Noémie picks out.