John White Alexander


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Painter. Remembered for idealized figural works, he also painted portraits, murals, still lifes, and a few landscapes. His best-known painting, Isabella and the Pot of Basil (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1897), depicts a languid beauty mourning her dead beloved. With its sinuous art nouveau rhythms, mysterious shadows, and enigmatic mood, it numbers among the artist's most elegant and evocative works. Inspired by a John Keats poem, the theme relates to late-nineteenth-century symbolist interests in death, extreme psychological states, and female suffering. Born in Allegheny City, now part of Pittsburgh, Alexander left in 1875 for New York, where he worked as an illustrator. Two years later he sailed for Europe. While studying at the Royal Academy in Munich he became acquainted with Frank Duveneck. In 1879 he accompanied the older painter and his student entourage to Italy. In Venice he became a lifelong friend of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whose work initiated the redirection of Alexander's painting from a painterly realism characteristic of Munich to a more refined formalism. After returning to New York in 1881, he again worked as an illustrator but also established a reputation for portraits. In conformity with prevailing standards, Alexander normally emphasized a strong likeness for male sitters, but in images of women, whether portraits or ideal figures, stressed decorative aspects such as color harmony, pattern, and ornamental accessories. In addition to visiting the West in 1883, he had again traveled abroad on two occasions before moving in 1891 to Paris for a decade. There, renewed contact with Whistler stimulated the heightened aestheticism of such works as Isabella and the Pot of Basil. In the mid-1890s he completed a prestigious commission for six lunettes illustrating the Evolution of the Book in Washington, D.C.'s, new Library of Congress. After permanently resettling in New York, while continuing to paint murals and increasingly conventional figure compositions, Alexander also designed sets and costumes for theatrical productions and devoted much energy to activities benefiting the American art community. From 1909 until two months before his death, he served as president of the National Academy of Design.

Subjects: Art.

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