Alexander, John White, 1856-1915

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John White Alexander (1856-1915) was a painter, muralist, and illustrator of New York, N.Y.

From the description of John White Alexander papers, 1870-1942. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 220166405

Painter; Paris, France and New York, N.Y.

From the description of John White Alexander letter to Miss de Sansseur, [undated]. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122515765

American painter.

From the description of Autograph letters signed (4) : "The Chelsea," New York, to Messrs. Harper and Schell of Harper and Brothers, 1890 Jan. 9-1891 Mar. 7. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270132359

John White Alexander was born in 1856 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. He was orphaned at age five and taken in by relatives of limited means. When Alexander left school and began working at a telegraph company, the company's vice-president, former civil war Colonel Edward Jay Allen, took an interest in his welfare. Allen became his legal guardian, brought him into the Allen household, and saw that he finished Pittsburgh High School. At eighteen, he moved to New York City and was hired by Harper and Brothers as an office boy in the art department. He was soon promoted to apprentice illustrator under staff artists such as Edwin A. Abbey and Charles Reinhart. During his time at Harpers, Alexander was sent out on assignment to illustrate events such as the Philadelphia Centennial celebration in 1876 and the Pittsburgh Railroad Strike in 1877, which erupted in violence.

Alexander carefully saved money from his illustration work and traveled to Europe in 1877 for further art training. He first enrolled in the Royal Art Academy of Munich, Germany, but soon moved to the village of Polling, where a colony of American artists was at its peak in the late 1870s. Alexander established a painting studio there and stayed for about a year. Despite his absence from the Munich Academy, he won the medal of the drawing class for 1878, the first of many honors. While in Polling, he became acquainted with J. Frank Currier, Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase, and other regular visitors to the colony. He later shared a studio and taught a painting class in Florence with Duveneck and traveled to Venice, where he met James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Alexander returned to New York in 1881 and resumed his commercial artwork for Harpers and Century. Harpers sent him down the Mississippi river to complete a series of sketches. He also began to receive commissions for portraits, and in the 1880s painted Charles Dewitt Bridgman, a daughter of one of the Harper brothers, Parke Godwin, Thurlow Weed, Walt Whitman, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Alexander met his wife Elizabeth, whose maiden name was also Alexander, through her father, James W. Alexander, who was sometimes mistaken for the artist. Elizabeth and John White Alexander married in 1887 and had a son, James, in 1888.

Alexander and his family sailed for France in 1890, where they became a part of the lively literary and artistic scene in Paris at the time. Among their many contacts there were Puvis de Chavannes, Auguste Rodin, and Whistler, who arrived in Paris shortly thereafter. Alexander absorbed the new aesthetic ideas around him such as those of the symbolists and the decorative style of art nouveau. Critics often note how such ideas are reflected in his boldly composed paintings of women from this period, who titles drew attention to the sensual and natural elements of the paintings. His first exhibition in Paris was three paintings at the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts in 1893, and by 1895 he has become a full member of the Société.

Independent and secession artist societies emerged throughout Europe during this period, and Alexander exhibited with several of them, including the Société Neuvelle in Paris, the Munich Secession, and the Vienna Secession. He was also elected an honorary member of the Royal Society of Belgian Artists and the Royal Society of British Painters in London. His exhibited works sold well, and his influence began to be felt back in the United States. Andrew Carnegie and John Beatty of the Carnegie Institute consulted closely with Alexander in the planning and execution of the first Carnegie International Exhibitions. Alexander also became active in supporting younger American artists who wanted to exhibit in Europe, a stance which resulted in his resignation from the Society of American Artists in Paris, which he felt had become a barrier to younger artists. His promotion of American art became an central aspect of his career for the remainder of his life, most visibly through his presidency of the National Academy of Design from 1909 until shortly before his death in 1915. He also served frequently on juries for high-profile exhibitions, and was a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the national Institute of Arts and Letters. Around 1912, he helped to form the School Art League in New York, which provided art instruction to high school students.

Alexander returned to the United States nearly every summer while based in Paris, and among his commissioned paintings were murals for the newly-constructed Library of Congress, completed around 1896. In 1901, the Alexanders returned to New York permanently. The demand for portraits continued, and he had his first solo exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Galleries in 1902. Around 1905 he received a commission for murals at the new Carnegie Institute building in Pittsburgh for the astounding sum of $175,000. He created 48 panels there through 1908. During this period, the Alexanders spent summers in Onteora, New York, where Alexander painted his well-known "Sunlight" paintings. There they became friends and collaborators with the actress Maude Adams, with Alexander designing lighting and stage sets, and Elizabeth Alexander designing costumes for Adams' productions such as Peter Pan, the Maid of Orleans, and Chanticleer . The couple became known for their "theatricals" or tableaux, staged at the MacDowell Club and elsewhere, and Elizabeth Alexander continued her design career when her husband died in 1915.

Alexander left several commissions unfinished upon his death at age 59, including murals in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth Alexander held a memorial exhibition at Arden Galleries a few months after his death, and a larger memorial exhibition was held by the Carnegie Institute in 1916. Alexander won dozens of awards for artwork in his lifetime, including the Lippincott Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1899, the Gold Medal of Honor at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, the Gold Medal at the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1901, and the Medal of the First Class at the Carnegie Institute International Exhibition in 1911. In 1923, the Alexander Memorial Studio was built at the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire to honor his memory.

From the guide to the John White Alexander papers, 1775-1968, bulk 1870-1915, (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Sir William Rothenstein correspondence and other papers, 1887-1957. Houghton Library.
creatorOf John White Alexander papers, 1775-1968, bulk 1870-1915 Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
creatorOf Alexander, John W. Letter, 1956, to Sophia Mumford. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
creatorOf Bartlett, Paul Wayland, 1865-1925. Paul Wayland Bartlett papers, 1887-1925. Smithsonian Archives of American Art
creatorOf Alexander, John White, 1856-1915. John White Alexander costume designs, 1887-1916. Princeton University Library
creatorOf Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878. William Cullen Bryant and Parke Godwin papers, 1821-1901. Smithsonian Archives of American Art
creatorOf Alexander, John White, 1856-1915. John White Alexander : artist file : study photographs and reproductions of works of art with accompanying documentation 1930?-1990 [graphic] [compiled by staff of The Museum of Modern Art, New York]. Frick Art Reference Library of The Frick Collection
creatorOf Carnegie Institute. Museum of Art. Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records, 1883-1962, bulk 1885-1940. Smithsonian Archives of American Art
referencedIn Weir, John Ferguson, 1841-1926. John Ferguson Weir papers, 1838-1957 (inclusive), 1861-1928 (bulk). Yale University Library
creatorOf Alexander, John White, 1856-1915. Autograph letters signed (4) : "The Chelsea," New York, to Messrs. Harper and Schell of Harper and Brothers, 1890 Jan. 9-1891 Mar. 7. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Burger, Henry B. Islet Prince. Milwaukee Public Library, Milwaukee County Federated Library System
referencedIn Alexander, John White, 1856-1915 : [miscellaneous ephemeral material]. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas J. Watson Library
creatorOf Alexander, John White, 1856-1915. John White Alexander letter to Miss de Sansseur, [undated]. Smithsonian Archives of American Art
creatorOf Mrs. John W. Alexander letter, undated New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
creatorOf Alexander, John White, 1856-1915. John White Alexander papers, 1870-1942. Smithsonian Archives of American Art
referencedIn Schofield, Walter Elmer, 1867-1944. Walter Elmer Schofield papers, 1885-1974. Smithsonian Archives of American Art
referencedIn Autograph File, A, 1518-2002. Houghton Library.
creatorOf Alexander, John White, 1856-1915. John White Alexander artist file. Whitney Museum of American Art, Library
referencedIn Lovell, Tom, 1909-1997. Tom Lovell papers, circa 1845-1997. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
referencedIn Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records, 1883-1962, bulk 1885-1940 Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Abbey, Edwin Austin, 1852-1911. person
associatedWith Alexander, Elizabeth A., d. 1947. person
associatedWith Bartlett, Paul Wayland, 1865-1925. person
associatedWith Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878. person
associatedWith Carnegie, Andrew, 1835-1919. person
associatedWith Carnegie Institute. Museum of Art. corporateBody
associatedWith Chase, William Merritt, 1849-1916. person
associatedWith Gibson, Charles Dana, 1867-1944. person
associatedWith Harper, Mr, person
associatedWith James, Henry, 1843-1916. person
associatedWith La Farge, John, 1835-1910. person
associatedWith Levy, Florence N. (Florence Nightingale), 1870-1947. person
associatedWith Lovell, Tom, 1909-1997. person
associatedWith MacDowell Club of New York. corporateBody
associatedWith Millet, Francis Davis, 1846-1912. person
associatedWith Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Remington, Frederic, 1861-1909. person
correspondedWith Rothenstein, William, Sir, 1872-1945 person
associatedWith Schell, Mr, person
associatedWith Schofield, Walter Elmer, 1867-1944. person
associatedWith Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894. person
associatedWith Weir, John Ferguson, 1841-1926. person
associatedWith Whistler, James McNeill, 1834-1903. person
associatedWith Whitney Museum of American Art. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York (State)--New York
United States
New York (State)--New York
Art--American (?)--Reproductions
Portrait painters
Portrait painting--20th century
Artists--20th century--Drawings
Portrait painting--19th century
Muralists--New York (State)--New York
Costume designers--20th century
Illustrators--New York (State)--New York
Art, American
Portrait painting, American
Portrait painters--New York (State)--New York


Birth 1856-10-17

Death 1915-05-31




Ark ID: w6tm8dk3

SNAC ID: 28158058