Paul Chalfin (1874–1959), a painter who never really painted, conceived of Vizcaya as his work of art. He had the good fortune to meet in James Deering a patron who trusted him and gave him great freedom.
Chalfin grew up wealthy in New York. After two years at Harvard University, he decided to pursue a career as an artist. He enrolled at New York’s Art Students League followed by three years of study at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris.
After working for three years as a curator of Asiatic arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Chalfin returned to Europe in early 1906 for a painting fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. He studied and traveled in Italy for three years, returning to New York in 1909.
During his period abroad, Chalfin perfected the knowledge of Italian decorative arts that he would later apply to the design of Vizcaya’s interiors. He spoke fluent Italian and became acquainted with the networks of art dealers, scouts and Anglo-American expatriates who were thriving on the Italian art market.
Back home, he took up lecturing and began to work with Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950), who had just established herself as an influential interior decorator. In 1910, when James Deering asked de Wolfe to decorate his apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, she passed the commission to Chalfin. Rapidly Chalfin gained Deering’s trust and the two began a collaboration that lasted more than a decade and resulted in the creation of Vizcaya.
Chalfin ignited Deering’s imagination, while also, more practically, acting as his land agent, negotiating the purchase of several tracts from local landowner Mary Brickell.
Vizcaya was meant to launch Chalfin’s stellar career as an interior decorator, but ironically it had the opposite effect: its cost and extravagance likely discouraged prospective employers and Vizcaya remained Chalfin’s most recognized accomplishment.