Painter and printmaker. A leading impressionist, he is known particularly for lyric landscapes and figure studies postdating his embrace of the new style around 1890. Earlier, Weir had established his reputation with sensuous, richly painted canvases, most notably still lifes that often incorporate lush floral elements. Responding to the etching revival, during the late 1880s and early 1890s he produced approximately 140 etchings and drypoints in the prevailing loose, suggestive style inspired by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. An active participant in the art life of his day, he taught at Cooper Union and the Art Students League, numbered among the founding members of the Society of American Artists and The Ten, shared in Tile Club pursuits, painted allegorical murals (his only large-scale works) for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and served as president of the National Academy of Design from 1915 to 1917. Additionally, he assiduously promoted exhibition opportunities for American artists, while also advising Duncan Phillips and other collectors on purchases. A native of West Point, on the Hudson River north of New York, he began his professional training at the National Academy in 1869. In the fall of 1873 he arrived in Paris, where he studied principally with Jean-Léon Gérôme but responded also to the art of a new friend, Jules Bastien-Lepage. He studied old master paintings during travels on the Continent and spent summers painting French peasant life in the countryside. Although he admired the work of Manet and Whistler, he at this time found impressionist painting unappealing. After returning to New York in the fall of 1877, he visited Europe on several subsequent occasions. From 1882 the area around his country home on a farm in the Branchville area of Ridgefield, Connecticut, provided landscape subjects and attracted as visitors such friends as Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, Albert Ryder, John Singer Sargent, and John Twachtman. Weir also sometimes painted at his wife's family home at Windham, in east-central Connecticut, and during the summers of 1892 and 1893 worked closely with Twachtman in Cos Cob, where he also visited at other times.
Although his 1880s etchings, watercolors, and pastels show experimental tendencies, through most of the decade Weir's canvases remained carefully finished, solidly designed, and somberly toned in rich, dark hues. Roses (Phillips Collection, 1883–84) contrasts heavy, pale blooms in two vases with the hard surface of a polished table top. A Renaissance Madonna relief in the rear shadows augments the mood of hushed solemnity. By 1890 Weir had altered his opinion of impressionism, soon becoming an early advocate of its light palette, feathery brushwork, and outdoor subjects. The Red Bridge (Metropolitan Museum, 1895) sets the freshly painted, orange-red iron structure of a new bridge, along with its watery reflection below, against organic forms of predominately green natural elements. Like many works of the mid-1890s, its combination of compositional drama and decorative pattern owes much to Weir's enthusiasm in this period for Japanese prints. After 1900 his characteristically delicate and romantic temper deepened, often leading his expression toward the evocative effects of tonalism. He died in New York. The core of the Branchville farm, including Weir's house and studio, is now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service. It comprises also a studio built there by Mahonri Young following his marriage to Weir's daughter, Dorothy Weir (1890–1947), a painter as well as the author (as Dorothy Weir Young) of the posthumously published Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir (1960).