William Page


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Samuel Morse (1791—1872)

Washington Allston (1779—1843) painter and poet

Hiram Powers (1805—1873)


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Painter. His poetic, introspective portraits and figure studies stand somewhat at odds with mid-nineteenth-century taste for genial, fact-based images. Page's command of painterly technique, his sensitivity to light and texture, and his feeling for dignified, monumental design derive from wholehearted immersion in old master painting, particularly the work of Titian and other Venetians. Despite the balanced grandeur of his mature work, Page's life and his artistic development suggest a mercurial personality. Erratic, inconsistent, fond of elaborate theories, and spiritually hungry, he experimented extensively with styles and techniques but completed relatively few paintings. His known output is further diminished by irreversible deterioration of some works, in part a result of unorthodox methods. Page was born in Albany, New York, but moved with his family to New York City in 1819. As a teenager, he studied for about a year with Samuel F. B. Morse, who directed his attention to the work of Washington Allston. He then enrolled at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, with the intention of studying for the ministry but two years later returned to art full time. Painting portraits, miniatures, and subjects from literature and history, he worked in Massachusetts and upstate New York, as well as in New York City. In 1843 he settled in Boston, where he mingled with Transcendentalists and other members of the intellectual elite. In 1847 he returned to New York for three years before sailing to Europe. After two years in Florence, he settled in Rome. There he rose to prominence as a favorite of the Anglo-American community, numbering among his friends many artistic and literary figures, notably Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Despite distinguished supporters, financial success eluded him. In Florence, Hiram Powers had introduced to him the visionary philosophy of Swedenborgianism. Soon an eager advocate, Page also pursued spiritualist practices, such as communing with the dead at séances. Spurred by these quasi-religious interests, he developed a complex theory of art, embracing the modern notion that the quality of a painting depends on its interior vitality, independent of visual reality. Abetted by his enthusiasm for Titian, this belief encouraged his concentration on the purely painterly aspects of his art, resulting in richly glazed surfaces, jewel-like color, sensuous treatment of the human body, and complex interplay of light, shade, and texture. At the conclusion of his stay in Rome, Page started his best-known portraits, pendant images of himself and his third wife (both Detroit Institute of Arts, 1860–61). (Earlier spouses had deserted him.) Both he and Mrs. Page stand before references to the antique, he in the studio before a sculpture cast, she outdoors in front of the Coliseum. Each evokes a timeless gravity, enhanced by subtle, muted coloration, as well as compositional equilibrium between representation and abstract elements. Spatial compression slightly flattens all forms and creates a vitalizing tension by pushing the figures against the picture plane. By the time Page returned to New York in 1860, most of his best work had been accomplished. From the late 1870s, ill health limited his activity. He died at his home of some years on Staten Island.


Subjects: Art.

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