John White Alexander
(7 October 1856 - 31 May 1915)
Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1856, and as a young man he worked as a telegraph messenger before it was learned that he was a talented illustrator. His career began at Harper's Weekly as a political cartoonist and illustrator. As part of his assignments he was sent out on location to work en plein aire to create the drawings which were then converted to wood engravings.
After working as an illustrator he had traveled in Europe with Frank Duveneck and William Merritt Chase and spent the most time in Munich, where he attended the Royal Academy. It was in Venice where he was introduced to the Tonalist style of painting through James McNeill Whistler. In 1881 he returned to New York and quickly achieved great success in portraiture, numbering among his sitters Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Burroughs, Walt Whitman, Henry G. Marquand, R. A. L. Stevenson, and the president of Princeton University.
Alexander and his wife lived in Paris from 1890 to 1901, and while there they cultivated a circle of friends that reads as a Who’s Who of art and literature of the time: Oscar Wilde, Henry James, James Whistler, Auguste Rodin, and Andre Gide are just a few examples. This was also the time when he developed his signature style that can be witnessed in our painting, An Interesting Book. These powerful and imaginative works consisted of portraits and elongated female figures in dimly lit backgrounds. About this period in Alexander’s work, Sarah J. Moore observes, “Influenced by the pervasive example of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, champion of art-for-art's sake, Alexander's painting from the 1890s on asserts the decorative potential of figure painting whose primary impulse is aesthetic and formal rather than referential or representational.”
His participation in the annual Paris salons of the Société 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; the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition (where he won the Gold Medal), and in 1901 he was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Upon returning to the U.S. in 1901, Alexander and his wife settled in New York where he became a portrait painter of scores of prominent people. 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.
He became increasingly involved in the development and promotion of American art that lead to his membership at the National Academy of Design in 1902. He was awarded the Gold Medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. He eventually became president of the National Academy from 1909, until just before his death in 1915.
Alexander’s works are found in the following public and private collections: The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH; Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Institute,; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Academy of Design Museum, New York; National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Rhode Island School of Design-Museum of Art; Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, IN; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Brooklyn Museum of Art; The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY; The Saint Louis Art Museum; Watson Gallery, Wheaton College, Norton, MA and Yale University Art Gallery; New Haven, CT.
John White Alexander (1856-1915), American painter and illustrator, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Alexander is best known for his portraits of popular personalities, which have been called by some critics as graceful and occasionally powerful. His many subjects included such figures as American writer Mark Twain, French sculptor Auguste Rodin, and United States president Grover Cleveland. Alexander also painted sensitive, tonal landscapes and interiors. His paintings include "Study in Black and Green", "The Pot of Basil", "The Green Bow", and "The Engagement Ring". Some of his murals are in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and in the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Alexander was an illustrator for Harper’s Magazine for many years, and president of the National Academy of Design from 1909, until his death in New York City.
Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, John White Alexander moved to New York at the age of eighteen and began working as an office boy at Harper's Weekly, where he was promoted to illustrator in 1875. Two years later he enrolled at the Royal Academy in Munich, and from 1879 to 1881, he traveled and studied with Frank Duveneck in Italy. Upon returning to New York, he resumed work as an illustrator and also painted portraits. From 1881 to 1889, Alexander was an instructor of drawing at Princeton University. During this period he also traveled to North Africa, England, and many other countries. In 1890 he moved to Paris, where he exhibited with the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and was later elected a member. In 1895 he was commissioned to paint a mural for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. , and in 1905 he received a commission for a mural at the Carnegie Institute. Alexander was a member of many art associations and won numerous awards for his work, 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, and the Medal of the First Class at the Carnegie Institute International Exhibition in 1911.
Elizabeth Alexander (1867-1947), was the daughter of James W. Alexander, who was introduced to John White Alexander by Joseph Harper because of the similarity of their names.
Elizabeth and John were married in 1887, and the following year their only child, James, was born. Elizabeth was an educated, attractive woman who enjoyed the company of her husband’s circle of painters and writers.
This portrait of her was painted in Alexander’s New York studio late in 1902, and immediately included in his exhibition at Durand-Ruel’s galleries held in late November. It was one of the favorites of the exhibition, commended for its subdued color, flowing line, and grace. The portrait demonstrates Alexander’s mature style as it developed from his symbolist days in Paris. It is an evocative figure study in which mood and atmosphere take precedence over frank likeness. The portrait was painted in a palette of muted pinks and moss green -- the artist’s favorite colors -- on a coarse, loosely woven, absorbent canvas to produce a soft, hazy effect. Alexander cast his wife in a somewhat ambiguous, shadowy outdoor setting with dramatic spotlighting on her face and right hand. The strong light shining from below, which first appeared in Alexander’s early theatrical portraits of the 1880s, reappeared in his paintings of the late 1890s. Such lighting seems quite appropriate for a portrait of Elizabeth Alexander, for she not only shared her husband’s interest in the theater, she also collaborated closely with him on costume and lighting designs and, after his death, made a distinguished career in the theatrical arts. The shadowy illumination heightens the quiet sense of mystery which pervades the best of Alexander’s mature figure paintings.
Despite her quite independent nature -- in the 1910s she became active in the women’s suffrage movement -- Mrs. Alexander was portrayed by her husband as a fragile beauty. Her billowing gown forms a gentle flowing line, echoing the curves of her hat and the shadowy trees and clouds in the background. Alexander was deeply interested in late nineteenth-century theories regarding the psychology of line, and in the 1890s he began to compose paintings of elegant women in terms of sensuous, curving shapes. His fascination with emotive line caused Alexander to become increasingly bold, and by the early twentieth century he was creating paintings in which the figures and their dresses form daringly abstract compositions of exaggerated line and flat patterns.
Elizabeth Alexander often posed for her husband; between 1893 and 1902, he painted at least five portraits of her. This is one of the largest compositions identified as her portrait. Its size, as well as the full length of the figure and the presence of a balustrade -- a traditional motif of eighteenth-century portraits set in gardens -- places the painting within the grandmanner portrait tradition. When the painting was first publicly displayed, critics commented on its English landscape setting and Mrs. Alexander’s old fashioned gown, noting that it recalled the work of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). After the artist’s death the portrait was included in numerous memorial exhibitions, usually with the title "On a Balcony". By 1939, when it was included in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, the painting had become confused with another full-length portrait of Mrs. Alexander, one dated 1894, and sometimes referred to as "Changeable Taffeta". Consequently much of the subsequent literature on Alexander has included a date much too early for this painting and also incorrect exhibition and literature documentation.
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