DescriptionProperty of a Private Collector, New York
WILLIAM MCGREGOR PAXTON (American, 1869-1941)
Portrait of Eleanor Anne Schrafft, 1926
Oil on canvas
52-1/2 x 38-1/4 inches (133.4 x 97.2 cm)
Signed lower right: Paxton 1926
Sotheby's, New York, November 28, 2001, lot 99;
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
One of Boston's most celebrated portraitists, William McGregor Paxton is best known for his elegant depictions of the leisure class. Together with artists Edmund Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson, Paxton was a prominent member of the early twentieth century Boston School of painting, and a central figure in the establishment of American Impressionism.
Born in Baltimore and raised in Newton, Massachusetts, Paxton won a scholarship at the age of eighteen to the Cowles School in Boston, where he studied with Dennis Miller Bunker. Two years later, he traveled to Paris to attend the École des Beaux-Arts and began studies under Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose mastery of figure painting would have a profound influence on him. In 1893, Paxton returned to Boston to the Cowles School, where he met Joseph De Camp, who inspired his signature compositions: affluent sitters in elegant, evocative settings.
Paxton became quite famous for his beautifully executed portraits such as Portrait of Eleanor Anne Schrafft, and he was commissioned frequently by wealthy patrons. In Philadelphia, where Paxton lived briefly, he received so many commissions that he was referred to as the "court painter of Philadelphia." Portrait subjects included such notables as Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Grover Cleveland. Significantly, his commissions did not simply adhere to the standard aesthetics of formal portraiture; rather, they exuded a distinctive decorative appeal and charm. Paxton often placed his gracefully posed figures in darkly hued settings, paying special attention to the effects of chiaroscuro, which he described as "what makes pictures rich." Paxton constructed his elaborate compositions with models in his studio, and the props he used frequently reappeared in different paintings. The present portrait was descended in the family of the young sitter until 2001.
Much like a number of his Boston peers, Paxton studied the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Not only fascinated with Vermeer's imagery, Paxton also studied carefully Vermeer's system of optics, in particular, his device of rendering only one area of the composition in true focus, while blurring the remainder of the image. Paxton credited Vermeer with this optical tool of "binocular vision," and stated himself in 1901, "Seek a noble and ample design; make the objects swim in the air; paint all things in relation to the focus."
Paxton also became committed to the ideals of Impressionism, believing that the primary function of the painter was to interpret the act of seeing in order to share that subjective experience with his viewers. He strove to render his impression of reality, not to create a facsimile of it. He insisted on truth of form, value, and color coupled with superb composition. Paxton's focus on color was unique, developed by much thought and observation. He described, "I let the surfaces flow into one another in a supple envelope of light and paint." His deliberate use of color resulted in extraordinarily tactile and supple depictions of flesh in his portraits.
In addition to his portraits, Paxton painted murals, for example for the Army and Navy Club of New York City and for St. Botolph's Club of Boston. He was also a lithographer and etcher, with studios in Boston, East Gloucester, and Provincetown. In 1928, he became a lifelong member of the National Academy of Design. Paxton's works are held in the collections of many noted institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Detroit Institute of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Estimate: $80,000 - $120,000.
The following condition report was prepared by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: This painting is in beautiful condition. There is a thin crack immediately to the left of the right knee of the sitter which has been retouched, yet other than this there appear to be no retouches. Stretcher marks have begun to become apparent; there is one running horizontally through the forearm and dress, there is a vertical stretcher mark to the left of the face in the background and there is a further hint of a diagonal mark running through the hair. It is a consideration at this time to line the canvas which may not be considered a detrimental process for a painting like this, where Paxton's technique and craft depends on an even and smooth surface.
*Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.
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