On a lovely day in May, 1868, Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, sits down in the Louvre with an aesthetic headache, having seen too many paintings. A young Parisian copyist, Noémie Nioche, catches his eye, and he agrees to buy the painting she is working on for the extravagant price of 2,000 francs. Shortly thereafter, Newman recognizes Tom Tristram, an old friend from the Civil War, wandering the gallery. Newman explains that he has made quite a fortune and now, having realized the inanity of seeking competitive revenge on his fellow businessmen, has decided to move to Europe to enjoy his wealth. Over dinner, Newman admits to the Tristrams that he has come to Europe to find a wife to complete his fortune. Mrs. Tristram suggests Claire de Cintré, the beautiful and widowed daughter of an impossibly aristocratic family, the Bellegardes. Several days later, Newman stops by the Tristram house only to find the visiting Claire, who politely invites him to call on her. When Newman stops by the Bellegarde home, a pleasant young man promises to go get Claire, but is checked by an imposing older figure who claims she is not at home.