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Home / Great Artists / A / John White Alexander / Biography
Biography John White Alexander

John White Alexander Biography


1856-1915


American Symbolist Painter


John White Alexander (7 October 1856 - 31 May 1915) was an American portrait, figure, and decorative painter and illustrator.

Alexander was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, now a part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Orphaned in infancy, he was reared by his grandparents and at the age of 12 became a telegraph boy in Pittsburgh. His talent at drawing attracted the attention of one of his employers, who assisted him to develop them. He moved to New York at the age of eighteen and worked in an office at Harper's Weekly, where he was an illustrator and political cartoonist at the same time that Abbey, Pennell, Pyle, and other celebrated illustrators labored there. After an apprenticeship of three years, he travelled to Munich for his first formal training. Owing to the lack of funds, he removed to the village of Polling, Bavaria, and worked with Frank Duveneck. They travelled to Venice, where he profited by the advice of Whistler, and then he continued his studies in Florence, the Netherlands, and Paris.

In 1881 he returned to New York and speedily achieved great success in portraiture, numbering among his sitters Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Burroughs, Walt Whitman, Henry G. Marquand, R. A. L. Stevenson, and president McCosh of Princeton University. His first exhibition in the Paris Salon of 1893 was a brilliant success and was followed by his immediate election to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts. Many additional honors were bestowed on him. In 1901 he was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and in 1902 he became a member of the National Academy of Design. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and President of the National Society of Mural Painters. Among the gold medals received by him were those of the Paris Exposition (1900) and the World's Fair at St. Louis (1904).

Many examples of his paintings are on display in museums and public places in the United States and in Europe, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Butler Institute, and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. In addition, in the entrance hall to the Art Museum of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, a series of Alexander's murals entitled "Apotheosis of Pittsburgh" (1905-1907) covers the walls of the three-storey atrium area.

Alexander was married to Elizabeth Alexander Alexander, to whom he was introduced in part because of their shared last name. Elizabeth was the daughter of James Waddell Alexander, President of the Equitable Life Assurance Society at the time of the Hyde Ball scandal. The Alexanders had one child, the mathematician James Waddell Alexander II.

Alexander's original and highly individual art is based upon a very personal interpretation of humanity. He died in New York.