Skip to main content

John White Alexander papers, 1775-1968, bulk 1870-1915

John White Alexander papers, 1775-1968, bulk 1870-1915

Alexander, John White, 1856-1915

Painter, Portrait painter

The papers of John White Alexander in the Archives of American Art were digitized in 2009.The bulk of the papers have been scanned and total 5,592 images.

Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art

Collection Information

Size: 11.2 linear feet

Summary: The papers of the painter, muralist, and illustrator John White Alexander measure 11.2 linear feet and date from 1775 to 1968, with the bulk of materials dating from 1870 to 1915. Papers document Alexander's artistic career and many connections to figures in the art world through biographical documentation, correspondence (some illustrated), writings, 14 sketchbooks, additonal artwork and loose sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, awards and medals, artifacts, and other records. Among the artifacts of note is a souvenir engraving of a Mark Twain self-portrait.

Biographical/Historical Note

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

Provenance

Donated 1978 and 1981 by Irina Reed, Alexander's granddaughter and in 2017 by Elizabeth Reed, Alexander's great grandaughter.

Funding

Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art

A Finding Aid to the John White Alexander Papers, 1775-1968, bulk 1870-1915, in the Archives of American Art
AAA.alexjohn
Author
Finding aid prepared by Megan McShea
Biographical/Historical note
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.
Arrangement note
The collection is arranged into 11 series. Glass plate negatives are housed separately and closed to researchers.
Series 1: Biographical Information, circa 1887-1968 (Box 1, OV 23; 0.1 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, circa 1870-1942 (Box 1; 0.7 linear feet)
Series 3: Associations and Memberships, circa 1897-1918 (Box 1; 2 folders)
Series 4: Legal and Financial Records, 1775, 1896-1923 (Box 1; 5 folders)
Series 5: Notes and Writings, circa 1875-1943 (Boxes 1-2; 0.3 linear feet)
Series 6: Awards and Memorials, circa 1870-1944 (Box 2, OV 24; 0.8 linear feet)
Series 7: Artwork, circa 1875-1915 (Boxes 2-3, 6, 14-16, OV 23; 1.5 linear feet)
Series 8: Scrapbooks, circa 1877-1915 (Boxes 17-22; 1.8 linear feet)
Series 9: Printed Materials, circa 1891-1945 (Boxes 3-4, OV 23; 1.5 linear feet)
Series 10: Photographs, circa 1870-1915 (Boxes 4-8, MGP 1-2, OV 25-43, RD 44-45; 4.2 linear feet)
Series 11: Artifacts, circa 1899-1915 (Box 6, artifact cabinet; 0.4 linear feet)
Scope and Contents note
The papers of the painter, muralist, and illustrator John White Alexander measure 11.2 linear feet and date from 1775 to 1968, with the bulk of materials dating from 1870 to 1915. Papers document Alexander's artistic career and many connections to figures in the art world through biographical documentation, correspondence (some illustrated), writings, 14 sketchbooks, additonal artwork and loose sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, awards and medals, artifacts, and other records. Also found is a souvenir engraving of a Mark Twain self-portrait.
Biographical Information includes multiple essays related to Alexander, his family, and others in his circle. Also found is an extensive oral history of Alexander's wife Elizabeth conducted in 1928. Correspondence includes letters written by Alexander to his family from New York and Europe at the start of his career, and later letters from fellow artists, art world leaders, and portrait sitters of Alexander's. Significant correspondents include Charles Dana Gibson, Florence Levy, Frederick Remington, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, John La Farge, Francis Davis Millet, and Andrew Carnegie. Correspondence includes some small sketches as enclosures and illustrated letters.
Certificates and records related to Alexander's career are found in Associations and Memberships, Legal and Financial Records, and Notes and Writings, which contain documentation of Alexander's paintings and exhibitions. Scattered documentation of Alexander's memberships in various arts association exists for the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy in Rome, the National Academy of Design, the Onteora Club in New York, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, the Ministère de L'Instruction Publique et des Beaux-Arts, the Union Internationale des Beaux Arts et des Lettres, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Notes and Writings include speeches written by Alexander, short stories and essays written by his wife, and articles by various authors about Alexander. Extensive documentation of the planning and construction of the Alexander Memorial Studio by the MacDowell Club is found, along with other awards, medals, and memorial resolutions adopted by arts organizations after Alexander's death.
Artwork includes fourteen sketchbooks with sketches related to Alexander's commercial illustration and cartooning, murals, paintings, and travels. Dozens of loose drawings and sketches are also found, along with two volumes and several dozen loose reproductions of artwork, among which are found fine prints by named printmakers. Many sketches are also interspersed throughout the correspondence. Eight Scrapbooks contain mostly clippings, but also scattered letters, exhbition catalogs, announcements, invitations, and photographs related to Alexander's career between 1877 and 1915. Additional Exhibition Catalogs and later clippings, as well as clippings related to the career of his wife and other subjects, are found in Printed Materials.
Photographs include many portraits of Alexander taken by accomplished photographers such as Zaida Ben-Yusuf, Aimé Dupont, Curtis Bell, Elizabeth Buehrmann, and several signed Miss Huggins, who may have been Estelle Huntington Huggins, a New York painter and photographer. Portraits of others include Alexander's friends William Merritt Chase and Edward Austin Abbey. Also found are photographs of groups, juries, family, friends, and studios in New York, Paris, and New Jersey, and a handful of scenic photographs of Polling, Bavaria, where Alexander had an early studio. A large number of photographs of works of art are found, many with annotations. Among the photographs of murals are a small collection of snapshots of the Carnegie Institute murals in progress. Miscellaneous artifacts include a palette, several printing plates, and an inscribed souvenir engraving of a self-portrait caricature of Mark Twain.
Provenance
Donated 1978 and 1981 by Irina Reed, Alexander's granddaughter and in 2017 by Elizabeth Reed, Alexander's great grandaughter.
Processing Information note
The papers were arranged and microfilmed upon receipt on reels 1727-1731, 1807, and 3483. The accessions were merged, re-processed, and fully described in this finding aid in 2007 by Megan McShea with funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art. Glass plate negatives were re-housed in 2015 with a grant from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund.

Additional Forms Available

The bulk of the collection was digitized in 2009-2010 and is available via the Archives of American Art website.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center.

How to Cite This Collection

John White Alexander papers, 1775-1968, bulk 1870-1915. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

  • No downloads available