Tuesday, 19 June 2012

American Venuses by William McGregor Paxton

 Nude (1915)

Agent Triple P has recently returned from the splendid city of Boston, Massachusetts, where he had a particularly enjoyable time as a result of a positive concatenation of factors which included extraordinarily fine weather, a well located hotel and the presence of his particular friend S from Vancouver.  Boston has, of course, a long history (for North America, anyway) and a particularly fine artistic reputation.  We were pleased, therefore, to discover, in its extremely impressive Museum of Fine Arts, this lovely nude (top) by William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941).   American galleries being more visitor-focused than British ones (whose main concern seems to be protecting revenue from postcard and print sales) we were able to photograph the painting ourself (without flash, of course).

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts last week.  The current building was opened in 1909.

Paxton was born in Baltimore but when he was a young child his family moved to Newton Corner, now a suburb of Boston and only a dozen miles west of where the Museum of Fine Arts is situated.

Glow of Gold, Gleam of Pearl 1906

We had been aware of Paxton's art before through this effective full length figure painting from around ten years earlier. Paxton won a scholarship to Boston's Cowles Art School at the age of eighteen and two years later he continued his studies in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He returned to Boston in 1893 where he studied under Joseph DeCamp.  His first one man exhibition was in Boston in 1900 and he was an immediate success.

Seated Nude with Sculpture (1915)

Paxton married the Parisian classical style of the likes of Gérôme with the colourist accuracy of the impressionists.  Although we are only showing his nudes here he was best known as a portraitist and was much in demand for society and political portraits. He even declined a commission to paint Theodore Roosevelt as he was "too busy".

The Red Mules

He actually taught at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School from 1906 until 1913.  He sat on many juries of the most prominent exhibitions in the US and was a major figure in the American art world.  However the spectre of modernism haunted him as it did many classical painters at the time and eventually Paxton and others in his circle were forced out of the Museum of Fine Arts to be replaced by modernists.  He had seen Matisse's work in Paris but rejected modernism and continued to paint in the traditional representational way.  He died in 1941, whilst painting a picture of his wife, at the age of 72, largely forgotten and rejected by the art establishment.  

Nausicaa (1937)

Fortunately his work has been rehabilitated of late.  The picture we saw in Boston, at the top of this post, is an excellent example of the influence of Vermeer on his work.  Paxton had studied Vermeer's paintings and observed that only one small part was painted "in focus" the rest was deliberately blurred. In Nude (1915) only the woman's breast and right arm are painted sharply and draw the eye to the centre of the painting.

Paxton's handling of composition, colour and light was remarkable and these features are at the core of his paintings.  As one of his students, RH Ives Gammell (1893-1981) put it in his book The Boston Painters 1900-1930: "His unsurpassed visual acuity combined with great technical command enabled him to report his impressions with astounding veracity.  Of all the painters whose color perception had been sharpened by plein air study he was the most accurate draftsman and he never slackened his efforts to render both shape and color just as they appeared to the artist's eye.  Paxton opined that all painters, excepting Vermeer at the top of his form, permitted some tonality absent in nature to tinge their pictures.  He constantly pointed out that the invisible atmospheric envelope through which we look is limpid, 'like a glass of pure water' and he responded to that challenge.  His best indoor paintings are distinguished by an ambient lucidity we do not find to a like degree in the pictures of other men."  Gammell, himself a realist painter whose greatest work The Hound of Heaven was completed in 1956, was the last great American painter to be trained in the classical French tradition and so was an appropriate champion for Paxton and his Boston-based contemporaries (Joseph DeCamp, Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson who are also covered in his book).  

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