John White Alexander was an American illustrator and painter in the Victorian era. He studied in Munich and for a while joined a colony of painters Frank Duveneck had established in Bavaria. On the advice of James McNeill Whistler, he continued his studies in Florence, Amsterdam and Paris before returning to the U.S. in 1881.
I’ve been hard pressed to find many examples of his illustration on the web, but his portrait paintings are represented in several museum art collections.
In his later career, he devoted himself to portraiture and counted Oliver Wendell Holmes, R.A.L. Stevenson and Walt Whitman among his formal portrait subjects, and did a large charcoal portrait of Whistler.
The image shown here is of Isabella and the Pot of Basil, a literary theme he shared with some Pre-Raphaelite painters. It’s interesting to compare his elegant theatrical staging of the subject with William Holman Hunt’s luminous and richly detailed take on the same scene.
Alexander’s portrait paintings are most often full-length or 3/4 portraits of women, dressed in Victorian finery and occasionally languorously draped across a divan or couch with skirts flowing out in waves of shimmering fabric. You’ll also find examples of portraits of younger women or young girls, and he’ll occasionally sneak in a New Hampshire landscape.
Like Sargent, who immediately comes to mind when looking at Alexander’s portraits, Alexander has an open painterly style, at times with broad visible brushstrokes that coalesce into solid realism when viewed from the painting’s intended distance. Also like Sargent, Alexander has a great command of the texture of fabrics, hair and skin with a surprising economy of rendering.