In the late nineteenth century, US sculptors went to Paris to attain and refine their technical skills, but often also engaged with ideas of cultural nationalism and artistic modernism that encouraged an innocent eye. This article analyses this tension – between attaining and forgetting artistic knowledge – in the French careers of two US sculptors: George Grey Barnard and Frederick MacMonnies. By focusing on critical reviews, the article highlights the relationships between artistic performance and reception in the context of Franco-American exchange, which required artists to tread lightly between emulation and innovation within a cultural politics of competition between the two nations. With their emphasis on the innocent eye, critical responses to these two sculptors’ careers interwove the discourses of nationalism and modernism. These case studies reveal Franco-American artistic exchange as both an international history with a dialectical tension polarizing French and US cultures, and a more layered exchange, to draw from the theory of cultural transfer, that consists of ‘vectors’ of interaction, exemplified particularly in the overlaying between the innocent eye as both a modernist and nationalist strategy.