An artist who garnered widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, John White Alexander is best known for his evocative depictions of idealized women––especially those executed in Paris during the 1890s, when he developed his mature style. These paintings––in which he melded the influence of James McNeil Whistler, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau with his personal response to color, line, and composition––attracted patronage from discerning collectors who viewed his boldly designed canvases as progressive, urbane, and reflective of international ideals. Alexander’s work also caught the eye of leading critics such as Christian Brinton, who identified him as “the author of a series of feminine improvisations which are unique in the field of modern art” (Christian Brinton, “The Art of John W. Alexander,” Munsey’s Magazine 39 [September 1908], p. 744).
Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), Alexander was orphaned as a young boy. After the deaths of his maternal grandparents, who raised him, Colonel Edward Jay Allen, president of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company, was appointed his guardian.
Alexander became interested in art at an early age, teaching himself to draw by copying illustrations in Harper’s Weekly. In 1875, he moved to New York and found employment at the art department of Harper Brothers, initially working as an office boy and later as an illustrator and cartoonist. Intent on becoming an easel painter, he traveled to Europe in 1877, honing his skills as a draftsman by attending classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where he associated with fellow Americans, including J. Frank Currier. In 1878, Alexander traveled to Polling, Bavaria, joining the colony of American art students, including Currier, who went there to study informally under the Kentucky-born painter, Frank Duveneck. During this period, he painted landscapes and portraits, adopting the thickly impastoed surfaces, somber palette, and improvisatory technique favored by Duveneck. While visiting Venice with the so-called “Duveneck Boys” in 1879, Alexander met Whistler, whose “art for art’s sake” philosophy would later exert an important influence on his art.
Returning to New York in 1881, Alexander resumed his work for Harper’s and painted portraits of such notables as the writer Walt Whitman and the actor Joseph Jefferson. He also taught drawing classes at Princeton University. He traveled abroad again in 1884, visiting North Africa and Spain. In 1886, he went to London, having been commissioned by Century magazine to make charcoal portraits of distinguished Americans residing in England, Whistler among them. In 1887, he came back to the United States and married Elizabeth Alexander (no relation), a writer of short stories.
A turning point in Alexander’s career occurred in 1891, when he moved with his family to Paris to recuperate from a severe bout of influenza. After establishing his home and studio at 31, boulevard Berthier, he quickly became part of the city’s international cultural community, fraternizing with a circle of progressive-minded artists and literati that included Whistler, the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and writers such as Oscar Wilde and Henry James; indeed, as one commentator observed, the Alexanders “were in touch with French life and French art in a peculiarly intimate sense” (Catalogue of Paintings: John White Alexander Memorial Exhibition, exhib. cat. [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Carnegie Institute, 1916], p. 20).
Over the next three years, Alexander’s style underwent a major change: inspired by the lyrical oils of Whistler, the suggestive qualities of Symbolism, and the curvilinear shapes of Art Nouveau, he abandoned his dark realist manner of his Munich period in favor of a more subjective mode of figure painting––one that emphasized the creation of mood and feeling through a decorative use of color, line, and form. Another shift in Alexander’s approach involved the type of support on which he worked. Sharing Whistler’s interest in the roughness of burlap, he commissioned a French weaver to create a coarse-grained linen fabric (later known as the “Alexander” canvas) whose absorbency helped create delicate tonal effects along with varied surface textures.