John White Alexander and the Construction of National Identity: Cosmopolitan American Art, 1880-1915

By Sarah J. Moore | Go to book overview
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At the time of John White Alexander’s death in 1915, he was widely considered one of the United States’ foremost artists, particularly by traditionalist critics who had a vested interest in maintaining the validity of works by Alexander and the cosmopolitan artists of his generation.1 Given his stature, it is not surprising that most of the obituary notices and critical eulogies that appeared in the American and European press were highly laudatory. Several memorial exhibitions were held in 1916 and 1917. The largest of these was organized by the Carnegie Institute and featured 82 paintings from Alexander’s entire career, although the majority of works were from his postexpatriate period.2 Considering Alexander’s participation in the annual international exhibitions held at the Carnegie Institute since 1896, his major mural cycle in the Institute’s building itself, and the degree to which the Institute’s international exhibitions were located at the intersection of the shifting discourse of American art’s national identity at the turn of the twentieth century, there could not have been a more appropriate site for such a retrospective view of his career. Organized by John Beatty, Alexander’s friend, colleague, and director of fine arts at the Carnegie Institute, the exhibition attempted to provide a definitive overview of Alexander’s career and to locate his work along the trajectory of American art’s national identity whose boundaries had shifted during the course of his career. Arguing for Alexander’s rightful place in the annals of American art history, Beatty wrote, “John Alexander’s record of achievement is one of the brilliant pages in the history of American art and the estimate in which he is held by the great painters of our time is the confirmation of the success he had won.”3 In addition to reproducing several paintings from the exhibition, there was a detailed biographical essay by John Beatty, a bibliography, and a register of paintings compiled by Elizabeth Alexander.

In 1919, Portrait gris, the painting that definitively signaled Alexander’s arrival in the international art arena at his Paris Salon debut in 1893, was included in an exhibition in Paris at the Luxembourg Museum.4 The exhibition, which had been originally scheduled to take place before the outbreak of World War I, presented an overview of the American paintings in the collection of the Luxembourg Museum. It featured a variety of styles and subject matters although decorative figure painting predominated. Moreover, most of the artists represented had significant tenures in Paris; their cosmopolitan styles demonstrated the internationalism of much of American art at the turn of the twentieth century when many of the works were purchased.

Léonce Bénédite, curator of Luxembourg Museum, addressed the rapport between l’école américaine and l’école française in his prefatory statement to the exhibition: “Open the present catalogue and look at the name of each artist’s master or school; nine times out of ten you will find the academies of Montmartre or Montparnasse or our own École des Beaux-Arts. Their teachers are the same as those who led our own generation of artists.”5 Ironically and quite inadvertently, the exhibition provided a final retrospective glance at American works, such as Alexander’s, whose cosmopolitanism and former currency on an international scale were matched by and, in fact, assured their future neglect and disregard. Portrait gris, for example, has not been exhibited since 1919.

The decline of Alexander’s fame and reputation after his death was swift and nearly as decisive as was his meteoric rise to international acclaimin Paris in the 1890s. However, the collapse of his reputation as an artist was not an isolated incident but rather was shared by most of Alexander’s cosmopolitan colleagues and resonated with fundamental changes in American art’s assumptions of national identity and directions. As much as international influences have informed American art, to varying degrees, from its very beginning, the vicissitudes of internationalism have affected the physiognomy of American art history. Unlike historians at the turn of the twentieth century—Samuel Isham, Charles


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John White Alexander and the Construction of National Identity: Cosmopolitan American Art, 1880-1915


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