Tuesday 5 September 2023

John White Alexander - part 1

John White Alexander, a native of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, worked as an illustrator in Harper and Brothers in his youth, just as Winslow Homer had done a decade before. In 1877, White joined the  ‘Duveneck boys’ in Munich, where training, much influenced by Hals, Velázquez and Courbet, was freer and looser than that of Paris or Dusseldorf. The work of the Munich artists was often richly brushed in a predominantly dark palette, and although the vogue was brief and was supplanted by the Barbizon and Paris schools, it produced a number of talented Americans, notably Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase, John White Alexander, and, John Twachtman.

In 1891, Alexander moved to Paris and over the next ten years gained prominence as an exponent of the current Art Noveau trend. However this was only one of several influences that converged on him and other artists during these years. In the 1890s proponents of the so-called Aesthetic Movement decried the Ruskinian conviction that art must perform a moral and didactic function and instead asserted that art was autonomous and self-referential. Free of literary, narrative conventions, artists could favour mood over story and assert the formal, evocative properties of color and line for their own sake.

This new freedom encouraged a shift in subject matter toward the representation of objects and figures that were simply beautiful in themselves. The culture of the 1890s, gritty and ugly as it appeared, produced such subject matter in abundance. The century’s end had witnessed the explosive growth of commerce, industry, and urban concentration, contributing to the creation of great fortunes in few hands; it also contributed to a radical adjustment in the social roles of women of the upper and middle classes. Deprived of the centrally productive role they had previously performed in a rural society, women were now relegated to a decorative role, serving as beautiful symbols of male wealth and status. As such they were bountifully represented by artists, and their images were eagerly acquired by patrons. It is noteworthy that in the current exhibition of fifty-two paintings there are twenty-four representations of women, almost exclusively upper class, and only one male self-portrait.

Alexander’s many depictions of beautiful women were also colored by his susceptibility to the prevailing Art Nouveau, an elaborately decorative style that emphasises the use of sinuous and sensuous contours. This movement was popularised by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, the dramatic posters of Alphonse Mucha, and the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Alexander’s work was also touched by the prevailing vogue for symbolism, the visual evocation of an idea, of an emotion through the association of analogous qualities.

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on the works of John White Alexander:

1880 Returning Home
oil on canvas 36.8 x 48.9 cm

1881 Old Cole
oil on canvas 113.9 x 76.2 cm
Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium, MA

c1881 Elizabeth Alexander
monotype 44.5 x 34 cm (sheet)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

1883 Alexander Stephens
oil on canvas (size not given)

c1885 An Idle Moment
oil on canvas 66 x 86.3 cm

1886 Frank Stockton
charcoal on paper 71.1 x 55.8 cm
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA

1886 James McCosh (1811–1894), President (1868–88)
oil on canvas 89.2 x 123 cm
Princeton University Art Museum, PA  (gift of alumni)

1886 Portrait of T.D. Sullivan
ink wash and gouache on wove paper
Addison Gallery of American Art,
Phillips Academy, Andover, MA

c1886 White and pink roses
oil on canvas 25.1 x 30.5 cm
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA

1888 Anna Palmer Draper
oil on canvas 182 x 121.9 cm

1889 Portrait of Kathrina van Wagenen and Garrat Bleecker van Wagenen
oil on canvas 81.3 x 127 cm

1889 Walt Whitman
oil on canvas 127 x 101.6 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

c1889 Walt Whitman
collotype on paper 20 x 15.2 cm
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI

1890-95 Young woman arranging her hair
oil on canvas 101 x 55.9 cm

c1890 Landscape, Cornish, N.H.
oil on canvas 77.2 x 114.2 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

c1890 Skull
monotype on paper 30 x 26.4 cm (plate)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

c1890 Study of a Man
oil on canvas 80 x 64.8 cm

1893 Woman in Black
(Portrait of Mrs. Paul W. Bartlett)
oil on canvas 191.8 x 91.4 cm

c1893 Grey portrait
oil on canvas 190 x 90 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

1894 Panel for Music Room
oil on canvas 94 x 197.5 cm
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI

1894 Panel for Music Room detail
1895 Alethea
oil on canvas 61.3 x 33.4

1894 Panel for Music Room detail

1895 Bronze vase
oil on canvas 60.9 x 49.5 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA

1895 Miss Helen Manice
(later Mrs. Henry M. Alexander)
oil on canvas 161.5 x 132.2 cm
Brooklyn Museum, New York

1895 Alethea
oil on canvas 61.3 x 33.4 cm

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