Saturday, June 19, 2010


John White Alexander
Photographic print ca. 1879
Photographer Napoleon Sarony
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, American art's internationalism and cosmopolitanism, perhaps its most characteristic features, were fostered by a generation of artists who sought foreign training, self-consciously reveling in their art's very lack of "Americanness." Their increased attention to formal issues, with little regard to subject matter, realism, or national expression, contrasted with ante-bellum concerns grounded in native subject matter and narrative. John White Alexander developed and flourished during this period. Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Alexander's early interest in drawing led him to New York in 1875, where he worked as an illustrator for Harper Brothers. In 1877, he sailed for Europe and, after a brief stop in Paris, enrolled at the Munich Royal Academy studio of the Hungarian artist Gyula Benczur. In 1878, he joined the circle of artists working around Frank Duveneck in Bavaria, and later in Venice and Florence. Upon his return to New York in 1881, Alexander began his career as a portraitist, gaining public recognition almost immediately after his first participation in exhibitions.

John White Alexander
Photographic print 1882 or 1883
Potographer Napoleon Sarony
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art

Artists in group
John White Alexander
John Moran, Ed Moran and Thomas S. Clarke
Photographic print, 1882 Aug. 5
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art

An Idle Moment
Oil on canvas, c1885
Public collection
From ARC

A King's Daughter
Oil on canvas, 1889
Public collection
From ARC

William Merritt Chase
Photographic print ca. 1890
Unidentified photographer
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art

John White Alexander ca. 1890
unidentified photographer
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art

Alexander moved to Paris in 1891 and remained there for a decade, rising to the forefront of American expatriate painters and achieving international recognition. His participation in the annual Paris salons of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, beginning in 1893, signaled his direct and vital involvement with several international art organizations and exhibitions including the Carnegie International Exhibition, the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, London, and the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition.....

John White Alexander and his son, James
Paris studio on the Boulevard Bertier
Photographic print between 1892 and 1898
Unidentified photographer
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art

Oil on canvas , 1895
Image is courtesy of the Fred Bridschge
From ARC

Alexander gained international success in the 1890s with his portrayals of idealized women in elegant interiors. Here, the figure's provocative expression and supple curves reflect the contemporary French taste for images of sensuous females and for the undulating linear rhythms of Art Nouveau. With its model decoratively swathed in billows of white fabric, Repose (above) was lampooned in a French magazine as portraying the American dancer Loïe Fuller (1862–1928), who was famous for manipulating swirling folds of silk.
(John White Alexander: Repose (1980.224), Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

Isabella and the Pot of Basil
Oil on canvas, 1897

Alexander's stylistic development falls into several distinct stages. His early landscapes and genre scenes of the 1870s bear the stamp of Wilhelm Leibl's Munich realism as espoused by Duveneck and William Merritt Chase. His fluid brushwork resembled that of Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez, painters he deeply admired. After his return to the USA in 1881 and under the influence of Whistler, he favored a more limited palette and experimented with the evocation of mood through shadow and gesture. His portrait of Walt Whitman (1886–9; New York, Met.) is one of his finest works of the 1880s. Many of his later portraits, notably of women, were psychological studies rather than specific likenesses, as in The Ring (1911; New York, Met.). His brushwork became less painterly and more concerned with suggesting abstracted shapes. He also adopted a very coarse-weave canvas, the texture of which became an important element in his mature work. By applying thinned-down paint to the absorbent surface, his pictures appear to have been dyed in muted tones, in marked contrast to the glossy, impasted surfaces of his earlier work. Throughout his career Alexander favored compositions with a single figure placed against a sharply contrasting background. The sinuous curvilinear outline of the heroine standing full-length in Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, 1897 (above) evokes contemporary Art Nouveau forms. Like the Symbolists, he sought by gesture and strong lighting to intensify the viewer's response to his sensuous treatment of the subject.

A Ray of Sunlight (aka The Cellist)
Oil on Canvas, 1898

Alexander returned to the United States nearly every summer while based in Paris, and among his commissioned paintings were murals for the newly-constructed Library of Congress, completed around 1896. In 1901, the Alexanders returned to New York permanently. The demand for portraits continued, and he had his first solo exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Galleries in 1902. Around 1905 he received a commission for murals at the new Carnegie Institute building in Pittsburgh for the astounding sum of $175,000. He created 48 panels there through 1908. During this period, the Alexanders spent summers in Onteora, New York, where Alexander painted his well-known "Sunlight" paintings. There they became friends and collaborators with the actress Maude Adams, with Alexander designing lighting and stage sets, and Elizabeth Alexander designing costumes for Adams' productions such as Peter Pan, the Maid of Orleans, and Chanticleer. The couple became known for their "theatricals" or tableaux, staged at the MacDowell Club and elsewhere, and Elizabeth Alexander continued her design career when her husband died in 1915.
Alexander left several commissions unfinished upon his death at age 59, including murals in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth Alexander held a memorial exhibition at Arden Galleries a few months after his death, and a larger memorial exhibition was held by the Carnegie Institute in 1916. Alexander won dozens of awards for artwork in his lifetime, including the Lippincott Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1899, the Gold Medal of Honor at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, the Gold Medal at the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1901, and the Medal of the First Class at the Carnegie Institute International Exhibition in 1911. In 1923, the Alexander Memorial Studio was built at the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire to honor his memory.
(SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art)

An Interesting Book
Oil on canvas, ca. 1901

The sitter for the present work, An Interesting Book, happened to be Evelyn Nesbit, one of the most sought after models of the time, who sat for some of the city’s most famous artists, among them Charles Dana Gibson, Carroll Beckwith, Frederick S. Church. She would later find herself at the center of the highly publicized scandal and murder of New York’s most famous architect Stanford White by her then husband Harry K. Thaw in 1906. Alexander’s formal approach in this painting is consistent with the stylistic refinements developed during his stay in Paris. An Interesting Book features a sophisticated treatment of shape through the contrast of light and shadow emerging into beautifully delicate edges. These edges are further accented by a rich dominant tone containing powerful yet subtle color gradations, especially in the subject’s face, and an asymmetrical composition that, overall, results in a brilliantly executed work at the height of his career.....

Oil painting, 1903
From freeparking's photostream

June, ca. 1911
Gift of William Alexander
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art

A Meadow Flower
Oil on canvas, 1912
Public collection
From ARC

Mrs. Daniels with Two Children
Oil on canvas, 1913

Alexander’s works are found in the following public and private collections: The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH; Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, MA; National Academy of Design Museum, New York City, NY; National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; Rhode Island School of Design-Museum of Art, Providence, RI; Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, IN; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY; The Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO; Watson Gallery, Wheaton College, Norton, MA and Yale University Art Gallery; New Haven, CT.

1856 - John White Alexander was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on the 7th of October.
1868 - He became a telegraph boy in Pittsburgh.
1875 - He became a political cartoonist and illustrator for Harper's Weekly in New York.
1877 - Alexander went to Paris for his first formal art training and enrolled at Kunstakademie in Munich.
1878 - He joined a colony of american painters in Polling, Bavaria.
1879 - He travelled to Italy and formed friendship with James McNeill Whistler and Henry James.
1881 - Alexander returned to New York and achieved in portraiture.
1893 - First successful exhibition in the Paris Salon and elected to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts.
1895 - He was awarded a pretigious commision for a series of murals entitled the Evolution of the Book.
1900 - Alexander received a gold medal of Paris Exposition.
1901 - He was named Chevalie of the Legion of Honor.
1902 - He became a member of the National Academy of Design and American Academy of Arts and Letters.
1904 - Alexander received a gold medal of World's Fair at St. Louis.
1915 - He died on May 31st.

John White Alexander
Photographic print ca. 1913
Unidentified photographer
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art

John White Alexander his studio New York, N.Y.
Photographic print
Unidentified photographer
SMITHSONIAN Archives of American Art


eloquor said...

Please note that A King's Daughter is NOT by Alexander (as many websites do indicate it) but by Theodore Robinson: look at the signature of this master, left bottom of the canvas.

rompedas said...

Dear eloquor,
Thanks for the corrections. Indeed A King's daughter is not by Alexander but by Theodore Robinson. You could verify this by the same brushstrokes and color mixture as seen in The Cowherd, House in Virginia, , Watching the Cows, Mother and Child, Italian Landscapes with a Fountain and In the Grove. I wonder why some websites indicate otherwise.