Repose, John White Alexander
In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; use the download or zoom icons under the image for high-resolution version.
This stunning painting by 19th century American artist John White Alexander — who focused on paintings of well-attired young women in luxurious settings — combines the fluid brushwork of fin-de-siécle portrait masters like John Singer Sargent, Cecilia Beaux and William Merritt Chase, with an Art Nouveau compositional sensibility.
The sweeping movement of the gown, the woman’s languorous pose, and the curved forms of the divan and pillows become swirling design elements. Combined with Alexander’s subtly rich color and mastery of value, they lead your eye inexorably through the composition — grabbing your attention with the bright folds of the gown in the foreground, leading you back through the darker area of the woman’s torso and the shadows that envelop it, to the highlight of her gently lit face and forearm — drawing you back into the painting almost like a well-composed landscape.
To my eye, the most fascinating aspect of this work is as a tour-de-force in hard and soft edges, particularly softness — not just the overt texture of the fabrics and the implied softness of youth and femininity, but the painter’s use of soft edges, soft value transitions and soft color contrasts.
There are only a few passages in the painting with hard edges, notably the edge of the sleeve in front of the young woman’s mouth — accenting the bottom of her lip; the key folds of her gown where it arcs along the back of her legs, bunches under her hip and just reaches the floor — emphasizing the flow of movement in the composition; and the edges of shadows in the decorative fabrics behind her.
Every other transition between elements in the painting is soft to the point of almost melting one form into another, as if areas of the room were in slight mist — another way in which Alexander’s figure in an interior takes on some of the aspects of a landscape composition.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this painting both in its place in the Met’s galleries, and in the context of the Americans in Paris exhibition in 2006, and it remains a standout, even amid other treasures.
For more, see my previous posts on John White Alexander, linked below.