The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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John White Alexander, 1856-1915

Nationality: American
Date of Birth: 1856.10.07
Place of Birth: Alleghany City, PA
Date of Death: 1915.05.31
Place of Death: New York, NY


John White Alexander was a portrait painter, illustrator and theatrical set designer.


Alexander began his career in New York in 1875 as a political cartoonist and illustrator for Harper's Weekly. In August 1877, he left for Europe to further his art education. After a few days in Paris, he travelled to Munich where he enrolled at the Kunstakademie under Gyula Benczur. In June 1878 he joined a colony of American painters established by Frank Duveneck in Polling, Bavaria. In September 1879 the 'Duveneck boys', a group which eventually included Otto Henry Bacher, Robert Frederick Blum, Charles Abel Corwin, Joseph Decamp, George Edward Hopkins, Harper Pennington, Albert Grantley Reinhart, Julius Rolshoven and Theodore M. Wendel, travelled to Italy, where they formed friendships with JW and Henry James. The young painters were in awe of JW's experience and reputation. JW, who enjoyed their admiration and from time to time benefitted from their financial generosity, happily discussed his work and gave advice to the students. He even moved in with the group at the Casa Jankowitz on the Riva San Biagio in Castello, and would frequently sketch from its windows. At the end of the summer of 1880 the boys began to disperse. Alexander's departure was marked by a raucous farewell party on the canals of Venice attended by Duveneck and JW. Alexander saw JW again in 1886 while on assignment for the Century Magazine to sketch JW's portrait (1886; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Following his return to the United States in October 1880, Alexander's paintings began to show the impact which JW's work had made on him with their limited palette and enveloppe of mood, e.g. Azalea (1885; Hudson River Museum). He earned a reputation at the Paris salons as a painter of women, with many of his images showing an interest in Symbolist ideas. Called the painter of the flowing line, he used line to capture the expressiveness of the female form. JW was in correspondence with Alexander from 1897-99, in part stemming from his support of JW during the Sir William Eden trial. In 1900 JW's Scottish patron John James Cowan, who had commissioned a portrait from JW in 1893, Arrangement in Grey and Green: Portrait of J. J. Cowan (YMSM 402), but despaired of ever receiving it, commissioned Alexander to paint his four daughters and a portrait of himself.

Alexander's admiration continued after JW's death. In 1907 he supported Mrs Samuel Untermeyer's appeal to Auguste Rodin to design a modified version of his London monument to Whistler for a site in New York City.

Mary Anne Goley


Mourey, G., 'An American Painter in Paris: John W. Alexander', International Studio, vol. 11, 1900, pp. 71-77; American Magazine of Art, vol. 7, 1916; Catalogue of Paintings: John White Alexander Memorial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, 1916; Goley, Mary Anne, John White Alexander (1856-1915), Washington, 1976; Leff, Sandra, John White Alexander (1856-1915): Fin-de-siecle American, exhibition catalogue, Graham Gallery, New York, 1980; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; Goley, Mary Anne, 'John White Alexander's 'Panel for Music Room',' Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, vol. 64, no. 4, 1989, pp. 4-15; Goley, Mary Anne, Out of the Kitchen, Into the Parlor. The Art of Still Life by John White Alexander, exhibition catalogue, Federal Reserve Board, Washington, DC, 27 June - 8 September 1995; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995; MacDonald, Margaret F., Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice, London, 2001; Eleanor Jones Harvey, 'John White Alexander', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 17 May 2002).