Skip to main content

William McGregor Paxton, American Master

In the Studio, 1905

Born on June 22, 1869, William McGregor Paxton was an American painter from Baltimore. Paxton was a founding member of the Boston School from the early 1900's, which drew its inspiration from Impressionism with an emphasis on both the landscape and the upper-class society of Boston. Paxton's prestigious training included working under Jean-Léon Gérôme and Joseph DeCamp, leading him to teach at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, where he met a student and future wife, Elizabeth Okie Paxton. His style was deeply influenced by Vermeer and he often paints interiors with soft, dramatic light. Paxton was a poet in the way he captured the elegance and grace of women in his era.

Looking at In the Studio above, Paxton portrays himself and the model as subjects bathed in warm afternoon sunlight coming from a window. I love the reflection of the glowing fireplace shimmering across the floor. Paxton creates depth by composing the model in the foreground with himself in the background, dressed in black to contrast with her white dress. The model is presumably his wife, Elizabeth seated in an elegant yet dynamic pose next to a massive easel. Paxton stands back from the easel in true artist fashion, observing his work from a distance to judge his tones and values. Note the unusually large palette in his left arm with a very warm range of colors on it. The way her face is away from us but looking directly at him emphasizes the idea of the artist as both a subject and a self-portrait, not posing for us but deeply engaged in the act of painting. This speaks volumes about the personality and sensibility of Paxton as someone who works at his craft and not caught up in the label of "being an artist" as so many modernists succumbed to even in his lifetime. Paxton here is making the statement of observation as the cornerstone of his art, and something all artists need to recognize.

William McGregor Paxton, 1919 - Woman Sewing
Woman Sewing, 1919

I love the sheer simplicity and power in this painting. Bathed in that warm, beautiful sunlight, this woman sews in the late afternoon. So peaceful. And quiet. Paxton repeats the depth composition again with the corner of the dresser against the far wall. This is pure essence of Vermeer in a modern setting, and it is superb. The gracefulness of that hand pulling the thread and the calmness in her face, is poetic. It doesn't need the dark-tiled floor in perspective of Vermeer to complete the composition...the mood is completely understood. Her dress is a mottled pattern of neutral tone combined with orange and blue to break up the monochromatic walls and floor, yet it doesn't distract. This is a painter who understands that communicating honesty like this, with soft light and heavy shadows, is all the poetry an artist needs.

William McGregor Paxton, Portrait of the Artist's Father (James Paxton), 1902
Portrait of the Artist's Father (James Paxton), 1902

I love the concentration on his father's face here. An honest portrait without any pretension. Paxton uses greens here both as neutral tones and indicate shadows, both on the man's forehead and his jacket, and even along the wall. It's not important what he is reading, but his gentle character and distinguished demeanor that matters.

William McGregor Paxton, Tea Leaves, oil on canvas, 1909, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tea Leaves, 1909

A gorgeous painting more representative of a Sargent, Paxton is conveying the society of his era. Paxton has a true understanding of body language here...look at the way the woman pours the tea, stiff like the conservatism she represents, while the woman seated across from her gazes wistfully lost in thought while staring at the leaves in her porcelain mug. Note another mottled dress on the chair off to the left, as if to suggest the lower class have no place in this ritual of tea. Paxton uses texture here in a fresh and tactile way, contrasting the frilly fabric of their dresses to the shiny metallic objects like the teapot and the dark tone of the ornate table off to the right. Narrative is such an important element in painting, like the words of a writer each object, each color, each subject can helps to tell a story. And the truly great storytellers like Paxton leave just enough to our imagination that we want to know more about what is happening, and that in some way we already know and understand.

Nude in Interior, ca. 1905

This lovely nude is a more modern interpretation of the female form that, unlike a Degas who only painted dancers, here Paxton takes a rather introverted young woman and imbues her with grace and innocence in spite of her nude body...something that requires incredibly astute powers of observation and understanding the subject so well. Paxton understands the person beneath the skin. And that makes this nude insightful and more beautiful.

The string of pearls, 1908

This cute painting is a satirical comment on the materialism of the women in his this elegant woman turns into a childlike stupor over pearls. What is more amusing is how her dress is already adorned with pearls and yet she is fascinated by the necklace. This lovely young woman could be a character right out of a Jane Austin novel. Note the different colors of pearls in her lap. How Paxton captures her wistful expression so aptly it needs no further explanation.

Paxton was a storyteller with great powers of observation. Much can be learned from his work. A true American master.


Popular posts from this blog

More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.
Robert Henri

Charles Louis Müller, A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864

Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755

One of several Academic nude studies by Mengs, this …


Nymphs and Satyr, 1873

If there is one artist today that hardly needs an introduction, it would be William-Adolphe Bouguereau, supreme giant of 19th century Academic art. Born on November 30, 1825 in La Rochelle on the southwest of France, his talent would define the era he lived in only to fall into obscurity for decades after his death in 1905 until as recent as the early 1980's, shockingly. Today he has the distinction of being lionized by the Art Renewal Center as one of the greatest artists of all time while at the other end of the spectrum vilified by modernists as artificially perfect and sentimental. In fact it is quite rare to see such polarization over an artist of a calibre like Bouguereau, whose bravura is difficult to equal yet at the same time thematically his work admittedly tends toward women and children, a subject matter that sold well and he had endless patience for. Over the vast array of his oeuvre, some 820 paintings, I have tried to find some of his very b…

René-Antoine Houasse, French Classical Master

Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens, 1689

Born in 1645 in Paris, René-Antoine Houasse was a French painter who worked in the Château de Versailles under his teacher, Charles Le Brun. Despite the initial impression of Classical formality, Houasse actually was quite musical and rhythmic in his compositions and had a very French palette. His figures are quite sculptural while retaining an elegance and grace regardless of gender.

In the above Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens, Houasse divides the painting with light to add a stark drama to an otherwise Classically formal composition. Taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the first king of Athens, King Cecrops was looking for a patron god or goddess for his beautiful city, and both Mineva and Neptune fought to win the favor of the gods. Neptune creates the sea by striking his mighty trident into the ground, and while impressive, the gods didn't much care for s…