Biographical / Historical
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 Nouvelle 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.