The novel opens in Paris in May, 1868. Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman in his mid-thirties is visiting the Louvre museum, but becomes overwhelmed by the number of paintings he sees. He notices a young woman making a copy of one of the paintings and strikes up a conversation with her, offering to buy the copy. The young woman, named Noemie Nioche, persuades him to pay a high price, and also introduces him to her father, who offers to give Newman French lessons.
After the father and daughter depart, Newman runs into a fellow American, Tom Tristram, who he had befriended when the two fought together in the Civil War. Newman explains to Tristram that he has made a fortune for himself through hard work and enterprise, but is now focused on enjoying himself and increasing his cultural knowledge.
Tristram introduces Newman to his wife, and he confides to them that he is seeking to marry. Newman also describes the high standards he has in women, which he believes are justified because he will be able to give her a lavish lifestyle. He indicates that he would be willing to marry a European woman.
Mrs. Tristram mentions a friend of hers, a young widow named Claire de Cintre. She comes from a very old and aristocratic family. Mrs. Tristram praises her very highly, leaving Newman intrigued.
A short time later, Newman visits the Tristram family again. He finds Madame de Cintre there on a visit. She indicates that she is only remaining in Paris for another few days before leaving to spend the summer in the country.
Intrigued, he goes to her family home in hopes of visiting her, where he meets her two brothers. The younger, Valentin, is friendly, but the older, Urbain, is reserved and tells Newman that Madame de Cintre is not at home.
A short time later, Monsieur Nioche comes to deliver the painting to Newman. While there, Monsieur Nioche expresses his concern about his daughter's ability to marry, since he is unable to provide her with a dowry, and Newman offers to buy additional paintings, thereby financing her dowry. Noemie and Newman meet at the Louvre so that he can select the paintings he would like her to copy, but she frankly tells him that she is an unskilled artist and he is wasting his money. She also admits that she is not interested in simply finding a stable match; she has ambitions about marrying very well.
For much of his career, Henry James was fascinated by the ways in which norms and cultural expectations differed in different countries, and how this could create tensions when individuals traveled abroad. In the novel's first section, he establishes the tensions between American and European perspectives that will dominate the novel. Christopher Newman's very name signals his status as an archetypal representative of North America: "Newman" suggests he is a new kind of man, distinct from the forms of European masculinity that will be represented by Valentin and Urbain, and also echoes the idea of the New World. His first name is explicitly linked to Christopher Columbus, and the idea of the new continent. Newman is also a self-made man; he has risen from humble origins to great wealth through hard work. This possibility of social advancement was often contrasted with European models of inherited titles and land-based wealth, which made it very difficult to change one's social position. Moreover, in Europe, wealth and status were not always intertwined; as the Bellegarde family reveals, an ancient family lineage could guarantee an elevated social position long after the family income had dwindled.
Newman's personality also sets the stage for future errors and conflicts. While well-intentioned and generally good-natured, he lacks self awareness and often displays a naivety about the world around him. Newman wants to cultivate cultural knowledge and artistic appreciation because he believes these traits indicate sophistication, but he struggles with actually doing so. The "aesthetic headache" which he is suffering from in the novel's first scene indicates the strain he experiences trying to navigate and consume European culture and history without either education or the authentic understanding of his own taste to guide him.
His interaction with Noemie Nioche further reveals that Newman's attempts at sophistication are mostly pretense. Tellingly, the only word of French he know is "Combien [How much]?" He has the wealth to purchase whatever he wants, but lacks the discriminating eye necessary to determine the merits and artistic value of his purchases. It is Noemie who demonstrates shrewd business sense and a willingness to exploit the situation when she asks for an extremely high price for her painting, correctly understanding that she can dupe Newman into paying it. The fact that Newman is interested in copies of famous paintings also shows that he is trying to perform the role of someone knowledgeable about, and interested in, collecting art, rather than actually embodying it by seeking out originals and discovering what he likes. His lack of knowledge of the intricate social hierarchies that largely govern interactions among the European elite is comically revealed when he confuses the Marquis de Bellegarde, a high-ranking aristocrat, with a butler.
Noemie, as the first European character introduced in the novel, represents a sharp contrast with Newman. She is calculating and cunning, and very aware of how to provoke and manipulate reactions in others. She and her father are not wealthy, but she is ambitious about her future, and matter of fact about how her good looks and sex appeal will help her to attain the lifestyle she wants. Her frankness about the fact that she intends to advance in wealth and social rank, and her lack of concern about the ethics of how she does so, is distressing to her father, and also surprising and titillating to Newman. He expects that her aim will simply be to marry someone with a stable, if not impressive, income and achieve a happy domestic life. By agreeing to finance her dowry by purchasing paintings, he believes he is doing her a favor and expects gratitude. He is surprised to find that she is as discerning and ambitious as any young man might be, and wiling to rely on her own intelligence to get what she wants.
Newman's attitude towards women in fact plays a prominent role in this early section. Now that Newman has attained the financial success he has always dreamed of, he wants to marry, and he treats the idea of marriage very much like the acquisition of cultural knowledge: something he is entitled to, and something that should be readily obtained through a series of transactions. He has no hesitation about using his wealth to attract a wife but also views the marriage as a kind of exchange: because of the wealth he can offer, he feels entitled to someone who is very beautiful and meets all of his exacting standards. Newman's inability to think of the chemistry and complex dynamics that might engender love, as well as realize that a woman might have preferences beyond simply money, reveals his lack of insight and inability to think of women as complex individuals. This lack of insight and self-awareness, paired with his arrogance and sense of entitlement, have led critics such as Larry Reynolds to argue that one reason James revised the novel so substantially later in his life was because "the earlier version of the novel is marred by an even greater weakness, that is, a protagonist who fails to gain the reader's sympathy" (458).