On a day in May 1868, Christopher Newman was observing a young lady in the Louvre Museum making a copy of a famous painting. He was the type of American who often admired the copy as much as the original. He appeared to be perfectly relaxed and was, at thirty-five, at the peak of his physical health.
He only knew a few words of French and asked the young lady the price of her painting. He asked her to write the amount down, and when she wrote 2000 francs, he knew that she was asking much more than the picture was worth, but he told her to finish it and he would buy it. She wondered if he was kidding her, but Newman assured her, as best he could, that he was serious. At this time, the young lady's father, who could speak some English, appeared. The father was the "image of shabby gentility." He had had severe losses in business and had lost his courage. The father, Monsieur Nioche, arranges to bring the picture to Newman as soon as it is finished and dried. As they are about to leave, his daughter, Mademoiselle Noémie, suggests to her father that he offer to teach Newman the French language. Newman had never thought of himself as being capable of learning French, but he is pleased with the idea and it is arranged that M. Nioche will come to him, take morning coffee, and converse in French.
As is typical in a James novel, it begins with the emphasis on the character placed in a certain situation and then allowing the situation to develop according to the nature of the character. As an individual, one of Newman's greatest attributes will be his natural and unpretentious honesty and forthrightness. His naturalness will later be contrasted with the European emphasis on formality and ceremony. Newman is seen here stretched out and reclining at ease as he watches the people making their copies. His ability to relax and to lounge, characterizes him as an American.
Newman's innocence and lack of experience are also suggested in this first chapter. As James characterizes him, Newman had "often admired the copy much more than the original." Thus, one of the things he must learn is to distinguish the worth of the original from that of the copy. In terms of the entire novel, he will later learn that Mademoiselle Noémie and her father are copies that he has overestimated, but this will be part of Newman's learning experience. Another of his qualities here emphasized is that he knew he was being overcharged for the copy, but did not seem to mind. He has a large soul which takes into account little discrepancies in people and is not bothered by them.
The quality most strongly emphasized is Newman's strangeness to these surroundings. Even though he is physically strong, the trip through the museum has almost exhausted him. This suggests that Newman is doing something that he is not accustomed to doing. In other words, as his name implies, he is the "newman" discovering the old world. He is in a situation that is new and strange to him and we must watch to see how he reacts in these new situations. He is reversing the voyage made by his name sake, Christopher Columbus.
Newman is later to learn that Mademoiselle Noémie is a flirt. The reader should be aware of this by the way James describes her glances at Newman. James will often devote a great deal of energy to describing his minor characters. M. Nioche is seen as a cringing man who has lost his courage. He is overly polite and obsequious, but for the first part of the novel, Newman is somewhat deceived about his character. Thus, part of Newman's education will involve his arriving at a recognition of M. Nioche's exact qualities.