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The tribute of Isabella: among the paintings by John White Alexander exhibited in 1897 at the Societe National des Beaux-Arts was his Isabella and the Pot of Basil. The painting represents one of the few times the artist moved away from his Whistlerian style, and is Alexander's hommage to Frederic, Lord Leighton.

'I think I told you that my principal picture this year is from Keats' Isabella and the Pot of Basil' (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), wrote John White Alexander (1856-1915) to Colonel Edward Jay Allen, the man who had taken him in as an orphaned youth in Pittsburgh. (1) The year was 1897 and the American was referring to his submission to the salon of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Since his debut in 1893, critics had consistently referred to Alexander's manner of employing harmonious tones accented with a single colour as Whistlerian. But his principal picture in 1897, based on a literary source, would be an aberration in his body of work and, with the exception of Pandora (purportedly destroyed by the artist) the following year, remained so. By any measure, this canvas was an epiphanal interlude in the artist's career, as can be demonstrated by his salon entries from 1893 to 1897. The unique quality of this painting is further substantiated by a sketchbook drawing, previously unpublished (Fig. 1), that shows how Alexander could, on occasion, step back from looking at Whistler and look instead at an artist such as Frederic, Lord Leighton, whose style was the opposite of his own.


Alexander's decision to become a portrait painter and the path he subsequently followed was not unlike that of others of his generation. He matriculated at the Munich Royal Academy in October 1877, but, disillusioned with academia, abandoned Munich for the American colony in the Bavarian village of Polling where the artists J. Frank Currier and Frank Duveneck held sway. While with Duveneck in Venice he first met James A.M. Whistler and Henry James. Like many of this generation, Alexander reached maturity in Paris in the 1890s. All the while he was producing illustrations for Harpers, an affiliation that would sustain him financially, professionally and personally throughout his lifetime.



The artistic legacy for which Alexander is best remembered is characterised as that of a painter of women with an ability to capture the essence of feminine grace. The American critic Joseph Walker McSpadden anointed Alexander as such in 'The Painter of the Flowing Line'. (2) The trajectory of Alexander's career was launched with his portrait of Miss May Harper (unlocated), the daughter of J. Henry Harper of Harper Brothers. Well received at the National Academy of Design (New York) annual exhibition of 1881, the painting depicts Harper dressed in a long white gown standing beside a red setter. (3) Critics remarked on the inspiration drawn from Whistler's White Girl, which had been exhibited in New York in April 1881. By 1884 Alexander clearly enunciated what he wished to achieve as a portrait painter: 'Next Spring, I hope to have a picture in the Ex[hibition], a subject and not a simple portrait ... It is very simple--only one figure but in it I want to express a sentiment.' (4) Azalea, painted in 1885 (Hudson River Museum), was one such example, in which the profile of a single female figure is seated facing a celadon vase from which extends an azalea branch (Fig. 3). Everything about it suggests Whistler: the soft tonally restrained palette and the shallow pictorial space with a cropped picture flame on the wall. Alexander's rationalisation of a portrait as a sentiment, rather than a record of a physical likeness, would be the genesis of his mature style.

Paris of the 1890s, in the words of the poet, writer and art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire, was emboldened with a 'new spirit'. Alexander, who had relocated there with his wife and son in 1891, saw it as a 'big moment for art', with 'nearly all the well known painters of all the different nationalities living there, because they were taking an interest in forming this new society, which had broken from the old salon under the direction of Puvis Chavannes and Meissonnier'. (5) As a loose association of artists, the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts espoused certain libertarian ideas but no fixed aesthetic doctrine.

Taking a studio at 31 Boulevard Berthier, Alexander's neighbours were the artists Albert Besnard, Giovanni Boldini, Walter Gay, Alfred Roll, Alfred Stevens and Puvis de Chavannes. (6) He mixed in the elite social and intellectual circle of avant-garde artists, writers and personalities who crafted this new spirit, among them Arsene Alexandre, Whistler, Auguste Rodin, Henrietta Reubell and Fritz Thaulow. Reubell, the progeny of a French father and an American mother, hosted one of the most fascinating salons in all of Paris, where she welcomed the greatest artistic and literary talents of the day. When Oscar Wilde visited, he commanded the floor. (7) Elizabeth Alexander, the painter's wife, recounted with disbelief what they observed during an impromptu visit in March 1896 to Whistler's residence on the Rue du Bac. Alexandre, Andre Gide, Stephane Mallarme and Octave Mirbeau were earnestly copying by hand the contents of a press release about the lower court verdict against Whistler in a suit brought by Sir William Eden to compel Whistler to complete his wife's portrait. (8)


In the epoch of Symbolism, Secessionism and Art Nouveau styles, Alexander fully realised his metier--expressing sentiment by means of the twisting, contorted and undulating female form, rendered in the colour harmonies of an admirer of Whistler. The new salon was considered by the critics as the venue for reinforcing the importance of Whistler--even when he did not submit pictures--and resonating in the work of those young painters of all nationalities who followed in his footsteps. Critics discussed the works of Edmond Aman-Jean, Jacques-Emile Blanche, Anders Zorn, Antonio de la Gandara, James Guthrie and John Lavery as being to varying degrees Whistlerian.

In a review of the 1893 Salon of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts for La Liberte, A. Pallier pronounced that Whistler was god and that a number of painters had become his prophets. (9) Alexander established his Whistlerian-like aesthetic credentials along with his particular decorative vernacular in the three paintings he submitted for his debut that year. He even titled his pictures Portrait Gris (Musee d'Orsay; Fig. 4), Portrait Jaune (unlocated) and Portrait Noir (New York art market), as Whistler would, according to a single dominant colour rather than by the identity of the sitter. The expression of sentiment conveyed through the pose of a single figure had been germinating in earlier paintings such as his 1885 canvas Azalea. But it fully blossomed in Paris in 1893 with these three canvases, in which he improvised with the manipulation of the pose for decorative effect. Alexander emerged on the world stage fully formed. His ascendancy to Associe within weeks of his debut and to full membership the following year attests to his rapid rise.

While Alexander's entries for the salon of 1893 were notable for their Whistlerian uniformity of colour and tone, such was not the case for the salon of 1894. There was a diverse number of pictures, including one landscape and two male portraits. The female subjects, however, did continue a Whistlerian preference for tonal painting, as noted by critics Louis De Fourcaud and Arsene Alexandre. (10) The latter spotlighted the aesthetic principles that the six female subjects had in common: strong silhouettes, broad harmonies and sentiment of feeling. (11) Of the four out of the six that can be identified, each in its way is an exploration of the lessons of Whistler, with each colour different from the other. Le Piano was a study in red and brown (Ann and Gordon Getty collection, San Francisco; Fig. 5). La Glace was a study in black with a red bow (unlocated). In the portrait of Mrs John W. Alexander she is dressed in an iridescent opal-coloured dress (unlocated). High praise was reserved for the gentility and whimsy of the exquisite portrait of Mrs Paul W. Bartlett (formerly Berry-Hill Gallery, New York), a romantic interest of Anders Zorn who was a good friend of the artist. American and French critics alike remarked on the colour harmony of her black lace dress accented by the violet sash. (12) This colour scheme would reappear in his principal picture of 1897.



Alexander revealed his talents in force at the salon of 1895. A critic for the New York Sun noted 'His exhibit of ten canvases this year is devoted entirely to studies of color and arrangement of drapery', suggesting a continuing strategy in keeping with the durable power of Whistler. (13) The artist introduced a floral patterned gown with a wide white collar, most probably of his own design, for the studies of drapery found in Devant la Glace (Eleanor and H. Man Frank collection, USA; Fig. 10), In the Orchard (American Institute of Arts & Letters, New York) and The Divan (unlocated). To the same end, but in a different dress, are Alethea (Barbara Millhouse, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Fig. 6), Repose (Metropolitan Museum of Art; Fig. 7) and L'Etude de Lieuse (unlocated). In some pictures a mirror or his studio divan serve as a foil for exaggerating the drapery for decorative effect.

From 1895 a new model, the diminutive Juliette Very, was employed by Alexander. Her short stature, dark features, distinctive profile and thick black hair are apparent in Repose, Alethea, The Divan, L'Etude de Lieuse and probably other salon entries for which there is no visual record. (14) Her restrained sensuality now began to take Alexander's paintings in a different direction. Repose and Alethea, in particular, have the allure of the decadence that the critic Saint-Mesmin must have had in mind when he alluded to an 'annoying tendency to decadisme'. (15) In Juliette Very Alexander had found his muse and she would model for him until at least 1899.

Preparing a new body of work for the 1896 salon was not foremost on Alexander's mind. Rather, it was the mural commission for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and his supporting role in inaugurating the Carnegie International that harnessed his energy to the point that he submitted only one picture. Meanwhile, a number of combined circumstances relating to the English painter, Frederic, Lord Leighton, who had died on 25 January 1896, had a formal impact on his principal picture for the 1897 salon. At the time of his death, Leighton had been President of the Royal Academy since 1878 and the pre-eminent figurehead of English painting. His artistic legacy, based on an academic style rooted in the classical ideal, was the opposite of the broad and summary manner in which Alexander executed studies of colour and tone.


Alexander's familiarity with Leighton would have begun in London in 1886 when he was sketching Leighton's friend, Robert Browning (American Institute of Arts and Letters) for Century. The English Academician would have loomed even larger in Alexander's consciousness in 1896. Alexander was in the States at the time of Leighton's death, working on a portrait of a Leighton patron, Henry Marquand, the distinguished financier and President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While Alexander was working on the portrait it is likely that he would have become familiar with Leighton's ceiling decoration for Marquand's music room (c. 1886). In the centre is a meditative and melancholic seated figure flanked by muses. The classically garbed figure on the left, in particular, is a reference for Alexander's figure of Isabella. Other coincidences included the Metropolitan's acquisition from Arthur Tooth, the London dealer, of Leighton's Lachrymae, depicting a Hellenic maiden standing in classic attitude (Fig. 8), with Catharine Lorrillard Wolfe funds for European art. (16) The museum took receipt of the painting about three weeks after Alexander departed New York for Paris. (17) Additionally, Elizabeth Alexander, who had been retained by Harper's Magazine to write seven articles, published her sixth in March 1897 on the subject of Marquand's Old Master collection at the Metropolitan Museum, in which she quoted Leighton. (18) Given these circumstances, it is highly likely that Leighton was very much on Alexander's mind.


We know that the subject of Alexander's 'principal picture' for 1897 was Isabella and a pot of basil, not because of the iconography but because of his designated title. Alexander's source was the poet John Keats, who in turn, revived the theme of unhappy women in love from Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1350) to write his poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1818). While Alexander's picture is distinctive for its literary source, for the most part reviewers of the salon referred to his five entries collectively as Whistlerian explorations of colour harmony and tone. Three of them were striking improvisations of colour--yellow, red or green--with a black cat as a foil to twist and turn the figure in unnatural poses (Fig. 9).

When singled out for comment, descriptions of Isabella varied from amusing, magnificent, sorrowful and having a 'charm of quality', rather than identifying any newfound tendency toward decadisme. Juliette Very appears in the leading role wearing a white loose-fitting Grecian-inspired gown layered with a black stole and with the undulating lines of black lacing following the contour of the body as it falls to the hem. The ubiquitous stiff bouffant skirt has been replaced by a garment akin to something that painters of the classical style such as Edward Burne-Jones, Albert Moore or Frederic Leighton might use.

Borrowing from Leighton, the statuesque Isabella stands erect in a neutral dark space with black, deep blue and violet overtones. In profile, she stands face-en-face to the severed head that John Keats tells us is contained within the vessel. She coddles the 'embowled' head with an outstretched arm. There are no sprouting basil shoots. Instead, placed in front of the jardiniere, similar in shape to the vase in Leighton's Lachrymae and resting on a niche, is a still life of white roses--a subject that Alexander had dabbled with since the mid-1880s. (19) While Alexander sustains his tendency for spareness, averting the fussy storytelling style of the English, the composition is an appropriation and simplification of the formal properties of Lachrymae. Alexander achieves a tour de force in conveying the sentiment of the bereaved, on this occasion, while abstaining from an unnatural twisting or turning of the figure.

The canvas did not escape branding as degenerate art by the critics Max Nordau and Sadakichi Hartmann. A Zionist and social critic, Nordau is most remembered for his book Degeneration. Published in 1892 in German and in 1895 in English, Nordau 'scented decadence in all that was rare and strange', as he did in Alexander's Isabella. He 'lumped Alexander' among 'that disreputable crew of daring innovators', (20) Ibsen, Rodin, Strauss, Wagner and Zola. Hartmann was the more perceptive of the two. As an art critic who appropriated the ideas of Nordau, he too bemoaned the degradation of society in every picture with decadent tendencies, namely those that were grey, violet and anaemic. Yet Hartmann writes poetically and perceptively, though less sensationally than Nordau, about Alexander's modern women. An example is this visceral description, 'with a vanishing throat line, finely chiseled as a cameo, yet palpitating as though an insolent lip had touched it', that aptly applies to two of Alexander's rare and strange canvases, Isabella and Alethea. (21) In Alexander's modern woman, Hartmann finds, 'A sort of Hedda Gabler ... who desire[s] to escape from the boredom of Philistia'. (22)



While the tone of criticism by Nordau and Hartmann tends to be more ominous compared to the salon critics, the fact remains that Alexander painted the dark side rarely. When he did, it bordered on harmless hints of decadisme, more dreamy than demonic. A possible explanation for the tendency to decadisme and the critical success of this unprecedented canvas is the model herself, Juliette Very. Hartmann's characterisation of Isabella is ostensibly a description of Very. She could not have been a better physical type for Alexander's purposes. While Repose is a transitional painting--a study of tone and harmony in the manner of Whistler, but deviating to the dark side with a whiff of the seductive--that whiff becomes fully realised in Isabella.

While a case has been made for the implied deference to Lord Leighton by Alexander, the existence of a previously unpublished drawing for Isabella and the Pot of Basil is an explicit nod to a formal relationship between it and the Metropolitan's new acquisition, Lachrymae. In Alexander's pencil drawing, the model's fully extended right arm leaning on a column invites comparison to Lachrymae, while in the painting the arm is bent at the elbow. The bowl atop the column in the drawing is similar in shape to that in Lachrymae, yet different in Isabella. Other alterations in the painting include the lacing up and rearranging of the stole, adding cut roses at the base of the jardiniere with a single rose at the hem, and placing the jardiniere in a niche rather than what looks to be a pedestal in the drawing. It is the drawing, rather than Alexander's canvas, that makes a stronger case for what captured his imagination in the Leighton canvas.

Given the inspiration found in his newest muse to suggest deeply felt sentiment, Alexander ventured briefly into the dark side with this masterful diversion. His self-proclaimed principal picture was one of five entries for the salon of 1897. While the other four were what might be expected of a follower of Whistler, there was nothing in Alexander's oeuvre to prepare the public or the critics for Isabella and the Pot of Basil. Given the circumstances--the death of Lord Leighton, the timing of Alexander's portrait of Marquand, the Met's acquisition of Lachrymae and Elizabeth Alexander's article--and the existence of a concept drawing, the likelihood that this ascendant star on the international stage intended to pay homage to the English master with this one canvas is not an unreasonable conclusion.

Mary Anne Goley served until 2007 as founding director of the Fine Arts Program of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, Washington, D.C. She is currently preparing a catalogue raisonne of John White Alexander's paintings and drawings.

(1/) Letter from John White Alexander, Paris, to Colonel Edward J. Allen, Pittsburgh, 20 April 1897: John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(2/) Joseph Walker McSpadden, 'John White Alexander: the painter of the flowing line' in Famous Pain tings of America, New York, 1923, pp. 355-76.

(3/) Sepia photograph, scrapbook: John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(4/) Letter from John White Alexander, Dordrecht, Holland, to Colonel Allen, Pittsburgh, 16 July 1884: John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(5/) De Witt Lockman's interview of Elizabeth A. Alexander, i February 1928, p. 3: John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(6/) Ibid., p. 2.

(7/) Elizabeth A. Alexander, 'Note, Miss Henrietta Reubell', unpublished manuscript, no date: John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(8/) De Witt Lockman's interview of Elizabeth A. Alexander, see n. S above, p, 10.

(9/) A. Pallier, 'Le Salon de 1893 (Champs de Mars)', La Liberte, May 1893: news clippings, John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(10/) Louis De Fourcaud, 'Les Arts Decoratifs aux Salon, I, Le Champ-de-Mars', Le Gaulois, May 1894, p. 343.

(11/) Arsene Alexandre, L'Eclair, 10 May 1893: news clippings, John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(12/) 'The new salon in Paris', New York Times, 24 April 1894.

(13/) New York Sun, 21 April 1895 : news clippings, John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(14/) For the identity of Juliette Very as the model see Sandra Leff in John White Alexander, 1856-1915: Fin-de-Sicle American, exh. cat., Graham Gallery, New York, 21 October-13 December 1980, p. 30; see also Anne Karnaghan, two-page manuscript, undated: John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American An, Smithsordan Institution. While Very's name cannot be found in publications about artists' models, in a series of emails in November 2009 with Helene Pinet, Rodin Archives, Musee Rodin, Paris, evidence was found to indicate that Very had along career as a model, having modelled for Rodin in 1912.

(15/) De Saint-Mesmin, Etoile, 24 April 1895: news clippings, John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(16/) Katharine Baetjer, European Paintings Department, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, provided file information about the source of the acquisition in an email of 24 September 2009.

(17/) An intriguing question would be whether Marquand and Alexander discussed the Metropolitan's new acquisition that arrived at the museum on 6 April 1896, according to the museum's Registrar files (email from Nina S. Maruca, Senior Associate Registrar, 29 October 2009). This was about three weeks after Alexander departed for Paris from New York.

(18/) Elizabeth A. Alexander, 'Mr. Henry G. Marquand', Harper's Monthly Magazine, vol. XCIV (March 1897), pp. 560-71.

(19/) For a discussion of Alexander's hate rest in the subject of still life see, Out of the Kitchen Into the Parlor: The Art of Still Life by John White Alexander, exh. cat., Federal Reserve Board, Washington, DC, 27 June-8 September 1995.

(20/) John Nilsen Laurvik, 'John W. Alexander: an analysis', The Metropolitan Magazine, voI. XXXI (December 1909), p. 370.

(21/) This descriptive language appears in a draft version of Hartmann's 'A painter of the modern women, John W. Alexander' for The Stylus (January 1910), but is edited out in the published version: John White Alexander Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian institution.

(22/) Sadakichi Hastmann, 'A painter of women', The Stylus (January 1910), p.3.
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Author:Goley, Mary Anne
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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