October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
John White Alexander began his career as an office boy at Harper’s Weekly and rose to be a leading painter of his generation, especially of its women
In the early 1900s John White Alexander was considered one of the four preeminent American painters of his day, the peer of Whistler, Sargent, and E. A. Abbey. In 1905 he won a $175,000 commission to paint the murals at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh; in 1909 he became president of the National Academy of Design; and following his death in 1915, a commemorative exhibition of his work traveled to eleven cities. Then, for several decades, he was forgotten.
Alexander’s sudden fall from favor coincided with the profound shift in taste around the time of World War I, which affected an entire generation of painters. Alexander’s very success contributed to the decline of his reputation, since his family had no financial need to sell or even to publicize his paintings. Now that modernism as a movement has itself receded into history, many forgotten artists, Alexander among them, are being reexamined! and discovered to be of enduring interest. In recent years the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Graham Gallery in New York have organized major exhibitions of his work.
John White Alexander was born outside Pittsburgh in 1856 into circumstances that soon became desolate. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother returned to her own father’s house. She suffered from tuberculosis which steadily grew worse. In the fervor of her Calvinism, she sought to teach her five-year-old son of life’s uncertainty by keeping him in the room with her while she died.
Alexander went from somber boyhood to rigorous apprenticeship. Having taught himself to draw by copying the illustrations in Harper’s Weekly , he went to New York at the age of eighteen and found a demanding job in the art department of the newspaper. His letters home offer a vivid glimpse of life on the lowest rung of the editorial ladder: “It is anything but romantic in the ‘Art Department.’ … Davis, though he still talks as though he were my friend, seems to think I am a slave, and nothing else. It never strikes him that I get tired.… Our rooms are very high up—seventy steps, and it seems every time I come in tired and hot, he is waiting for me to send me out again. He never gives me two or three things to do at once, even though they are in the same direction, but gives them to me at separate times. … If he gave me things to do connected with the office I would not mind but when he gives me things to do for himself, such as cleaning a sprinkler before he takes it home, and even folding his paper so it will go in his pocket. …”
Despite all this scrambling, Alexander found the time to visit New York art galleries, where he saw “pictures that fill me up with such a terrible longing that I don’t know what to do.” He managed to save three hundred dollars in three years, and in 1877 he set off for Europe to study.
From Paris and Munich he moved to Pölling in Upper Bavaria, where he joined a group of American students working under Frank Duveneck. He remained with them two years, then settled in Venice. There he met the artist who was to exert the strongest influence on his work, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. As Alexander told it, he was painting by the canals when he became conscious of someone standing behind him. “I don’t know why, but I couldn’t help turning my head and instantly jumped to my feet as if the stool had suddenly become red hot. It was Whistler, posting characteristically and flourishing his mustaches. I spoke to him; and then he sat down on the stool, and, instead of criticizing the picture, he spoke only in the kindliest manner, suggesting where the composition might be improved, and where a bit of color needed a higher tone. … I was much surprised at his manner, for I had heard of his being always brutally frank.”
In 1881 Alexander returned to New York and began trying to establish himself as a portraitist. His early paintings show the strong influence of Munich realism, a bold style in advance of American tastes. He was disappointed at his work’s reception, but instead of retrenching, he became more experimental. In an 1884 letter, he wrote, “I have all sorts of crazy notions about getting down closer and closer to my work and even shutting myself up in some place in the woods and be a sort of Thoreau in art.” He described a painting in progress: “It is very simple—only one figure but in it I want to express a sentiment—and think it will either be a hit or a grand step up.” This may well be Woman with a Teacup , shown here, an undated work of the period in which the shadowed face and limited palette suggest his later style.
In 1887 Alexander married Elizabeth Alexander, no relation, who was a spirited, intelligent woman. A year later she gave birth to their only child, James. After a virulent attack of influenza in 1889 that left Alexander weakened and disconsolate, his doctor prescribed a change of scene, and the next year the family left for Paris.
Although at first he was too ill to work, Alexander quickly felt at home among his Parisian colleagues: “Here all the painters meet me with open arms and do anything they can to make it pleasant for us … and what is very flattering, I find they know all that I have been doing for years.”
During his second summer abroad Alexander began painting again, and the following spring he submitted three figure studies to the Salon du Champ de Mars, an annual exhibition organized to provide an alternative to the official, more conservative Salon. His three paintings were hung together in first place—the sensation of the exhibition. During the next nine years the artist developed his distinctive style, painting complex studies of women arranging flowers, playing musical instruments, or reading, their faces handled sketchily or averted altogether. They were not portraits, but he used women and their flowing dresses as vehicles for his formal concerns: the expression of mood and emotion with color and line.
In 1901 the Alexanders returned to the United States to give their son an American education and to do what they could to promote the appreciation of art in this country— an interest that led to the presidency of the National Academy and several mural commissions.
Alexander was fifty-seven when the 1913 Armory show gave the public its first glimpse of the styles that eventually would supplant his own. He seemed unperturbed that he was no longer in the vanguard. “In view of past experience,” he wrote a year before he died, “it seems quite possible that some of us may live to see the day when the much discussed Nude Descending a Staircase may come to be regarded by those who really keep up to date as too commonplace for serious artistic consideration.”