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John White Alexander

John White Alexander

1856 - 1915

John White Alexander was one of the most important and popular American artists at the turn of the century, rivaling even James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Although he painted murals and designed theater sets for which he was widely acclaimed, he is best known for his sensitive, dignified portraits. His subjects were some of the most eminent authors and artists of his day, including Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Auguste Rodin and Walt Whitman. Alexander traveled and painted along the East Coast and throughout Europe, where he established an aesthetic that was all his own. Alexander became one the leading American exponents of the aesthetic principles of Art Nouveau, as seen by his use of sweeping lines, broad patterns, and decorative tendencies. Alexander enjoyed an illustrious career and reputation. He was able to provide a comfortable lifestyle for himself and his family through his commissions, a rarity for any artist and a testament to his talent and style. His work earned him memberships in every major international art association at the turn of the century, including the prestigious French Legion of Honor, of which he was Chevalier, as well as the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts, the Society of British Artists, the New York Architecture League and the Scholastic Art League. He was also a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Academy, the Portrait Painter, the Society of Illustrators, the American Institute of Architects, the Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers in London and the Royal Society of British Artists, the Munich Secession, the Vienna Secession, the American Fine Art Society, the New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was also elected president of the National Academy of Design. As an esteemed artist, Alexander's work is represented in museums world wide. He is exhibited in the Louve, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery in Washington, D. C., the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, the Wilstach Gallery in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Cincinnati Museum, Carnegie Institute, the St. Louis Museum and the Library of Congress. He is represented in collections at Harvard University, Princeton University, Columbia University, Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, Radcliffe University, Mount Holyoke, and Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D. C. Alexander appeared to enjoy a successful career in art from a relatively young age. In 1874, at the age of seventeen, he left his hometown of Allegheny City, Pennsylvania for Manhattan. He worked for three years as a cartoonist in the art department of Harper's Weekly. Alexander's outstanding artistic abilities did not go unnoticed. Two of his co-workers, Abbey and Reinhart, successful painters and lithographers in their own right, encouraged Alexander to go to Europe to study and paint. Alexander scrupulously saved his money for three years, and by 1877, he moved to Germany and enrolled at the Munich Royal Academy. He studied at the Academy for three months and received a gold medal for drawing. He then moved to Polling in Upper Bavaria. There he met the American ex-patriot artist Frank Duveneck and became one of the famous "Duvenek Boys". Alexander lived with Duvenek and other American painters at a bohemian art colony. The group embraced American Realism, yet painted in a robust Munich style that featured strong Bravura brush strokes and heavy layers of pigment. Low-brow genre subjects were painted in candid scenes with a moody palette. It was under Duveneck that Alexander discovered his love of portrait painting and decided to make it his métier. In 1879, Alexander went to Venice with Duveneck and met James McNeill Whistler. The two became fast friends. Alexander was influenced tremendously by his new friend. Delicate brush work and thinly painted surfaces were evidence of his evolving technique. Soon after traveling to Venice, Alexander journeyed to Florence and then back to New York City. He returned to Harper's Weekly as an illustrator, was also receiving portrait commissions. Although not yet internationally well known, he was enjoying a respectable reputation on the East Coast. In 1886 Century Magazine hired Alexander to paint a series of portraits of distinguished authors. He painted Thomas Hardy, George Bancroft and Louis Stevenson, among others. However, it was his portrait of Walt Whitman that catapulted Alexander into critical and economic success. He portrayed Whitman as a dignified, sophisticated gentleman who completely belied the famed author's gregariousness and mischievousness. The painting became wildly popular and Alexander became one of the most prominent and sought after portrait painters on the East Coast. In late 1889, Alexander suffered a serious lingering illness. After his recovery in 1890, he and his wife moved to France for its warmer climate. Alexander flourished in Paris, artistically, financially, and socially. He was a member of an elite circle of artists, authors, and actors that defined and dictated the Parisian art world. He painted portraits of his friends, though he is best known for his portraits of wealthy society figures. Alexander's talent and reputation was so powerful that having one's portrait painted by him became an international status symbol. Whistler's influence on Alexander was still evident, though Alexander further developed his own techniques. He favored painting a single figure subject against an indistinct background. His palette was very earthy and tonal. He only hinted and suggested fabrics and textures. His Art Nouveau details were painted without depth, so as to flatter the picture. His style evolved considerably from his years in Bavaria. In 1901 Alexander and his wife returned once again to New York. His portraiture success continued to thrive and he soon added stage design to his repetoir. On theater sets he experimented with light and shadow with great success. Alexander used gauze for unconventional stage curtains that allowed him to control and manipulate light and to block in color. His work in stage design influenced his work as seen by his frequent use of sheer curtains with sunlight filtering through in most of his later paintings. Alexander also began painting murals at the turn of the century. In 1905 he received a large, prestigious commission to paint "The Apotheosis of Pittsburgh" for the Carnegie Institute. The mural was to consist of 67 panels. Alexander was singularly able to complete 47 panels before his death in 1915 at the age of 59. Alexander's paintings and techniques evolved throughout his life. Regardless of what stage he was at in his career, he always enjoyed prosperity. His success endures and his portraits are proudly displayed in museums, galleries, and corporate and private collections throughout the world.


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