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Artist Biography

Without a doubt one of the most fashionable American painters working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John White Alexander is above all renowned for his depictions of female subjects. He was born in the industrial town of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and worked his way from being an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly to a celebrated artist, impressing audiences in New York and Paris with his elegant compositions.

Alexander left for Europe in 1877, and while at the American artists’ colony in Polling, Germany he met Frank Duveneck and William Merritt Chase. He encountered the influential James McNeill Whistler in Venice, who was completing a series of pastels and etchings. In 1881 when Alexander returned to New York, he resumed his work as an illustrator, but began receiving portrait commissions. He excelled as a portraitist, and his rarified clientele included Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Burroughs, Walt Whitman, Henry G. Marquand (a famous art collector and the second President of the Metropolitan Museum), R. L. Stevenson, and the president of Princeton University, James McCosh.

Alexander later returned to Europe with his wife; they lived in Paris from 1890 to 1901, cultivating a circle of friends that reads as a Who’s Who of art and literature at that time: Oscar Wilde, Henry James, James Whistler, Auguste Rodin, and Andre Gide were just a few examples. It was then, while surrounded by new aesthetic influences, that Alexander created his iconic paintings of women. His signature style featured elegant female figures against muted backgrounds, as seen in our work, "An Interesting Book". Writing about the high-point of his work, Sarah J. Moore observes that “influenced by the pervasive example of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, champion of art-for-art’s sake, Alexander’s painting from the 1890s on asserts the decorative potential of figure painting whose primary impulse is aesthetic and formal rather than referential or representational.” An Interesting Book elucidates his interest in aesthetic effect, featuring a sophisticated treatment of volume, achieved through contrasts of light and shadow that merge together with beautifully delicate edges. The soft, airy quality is echoed throughout the asymmetrical composition with the light peach hues and feathery brushstrokes. Even his preparation of the canvas, so lightly primed as to let the natural texture of the canvas emerge, makes the oils seem as weightless and elusive as pastels. Scholar Mary Anne Goley confirms that the non-mitered stretcher is characteristic of Alexander’s paintings executed in France, and that the canvas is as he intended it: unvarnished and containing sections without pigment. Both in technique and style, Alexander experiments with certain effects, and he must have been pleased with the outcome because a photograph of this painting was found among the artist’s papers inherited by his granddaughter.

His participation in the annual Paris salons of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, beginning in 1893, signaled his direct and vital involvement with several international art organizations and exhibitions including the Carnegie International Exhibition; the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, London; the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition (where he won the Gold Medal). In 1901 he was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Alexander became increasingly involved in the development and promotion of American art, which led to his membership in the National Academy of Design in 1902. He was awarded the Gold Medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. He eventually became president of the National Academy from 1909 until just before his death in 1915.

Alexander’s works are found in the following public and private collections: The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH; Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; National Academy of Design Museum, New York, NY; National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence, RI; Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, IN; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, NY; The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York; Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO; Watson Gallery, Wheaton College, Norton, MA and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT.


Eight Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, NY, December 1904-January
1905, no. 307

Twenty Six Oil Paintings by John White Alexander, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, April
11-May 6, 1905, no. 24

Catalogue of Retrospective Exhibition of Painting of John W. Alexander, N.A., Buffalo
Fine Arts Academy, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, December 10, 1908-January 10,
1909, no. 3

John W. Alexander Retrospective Exhibition, National Arts Club, NY, February 23-
March 17, 1909, no. 29


New York Evening Post, January 7, 1905

New York Herald, January 15, 1905: “From the able brush of John White Alexander
come two superior portraits, ‘An Interesting Book’ and…”

Paris Herald, August [?], 1914 “Notes d’Art de New York”

Peter Hastings Falk, The Annual Exhibition Record of the National Academy of Design,
1901-1950 (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1990), p. 52

Bulter Institute of American Art: