Atelier · September 15, 2006

Friday in the atelier: “Cherry” by William Paxton

This painting is called, “Cherry, or the Gay Nineties”, painted in 1906 by William McGregor Paxton, (1869-1941.)

I love this painting because it shows a very refined woman who seems capable of both joy and mischief. She’s comfortable at the formal ball, but would be equally comfortable on horseback in a fox hunt. Her eyes are serious, but with an irreverent twinkle while the slight smile acknowledges some secret understanding between you and her.

Two or three nights a week I teach adult literacy in my local library. As a side benefit I get to spend time browsing the books – and over the past 6 months I’ve checked out about half of the woodworking books.

I had a few minutes break the other night while at the library, not long enough to really get into browsing some good titles. But I decided that I would see what I could find about today’s artist, so I went through about 15 large tomes on Western Art examining the indexes for the name of William McGregor Paxton; and came up with absolutely nothing.

Oh there were books dedicated to the “great masters”, DaVinci, Monet, and Rembrandt. There was an entire shelf dedicated to Picasso.

William McGregor Paxton was never mentioned. Not once.

Paxton seems to be somewhat mysterious, but arguably he had the most impact on modern artists who paint in the Academic style that is now identified with Realism. Art history books may make a passing mention of Bouguereau, but have completely missed that Paxton was a bridge between 19th and 20th century artists trained in traditional Ateliers.

Paxton first studied at the Cowles Art School in Boston, his teacher was Dennis Miller Bunker, who had studied under French master Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris. By the late 1800’s Boston had become a very important center of the art world due in a large part to the Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870 which mandated free drawing classes for public schools. Boston art schools were training art teachers, and students were exposed to drawing and art.

In 1889 Paxton traveled to Paris and studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for four years. His instructor in France was Gérôme, the same master who had taught his Boston instructor. Gérôme heavily influenced Paxton, shown in the precise details of his works.

Paxton returned to his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts by 1893 where he earned his living as a portraitist. In 1905 Paxton started tutoring students in traditional Academic techniques, first at the Fenway Studio Building and later at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. From 1893 to 1905 Paxton was busy with painting, a trip to Madrid to study the works of Diego Velazquez, and several art shows, including two one-man art shows. His one man show in 1904 was serendipitous in that it saved his best works from a fire that destroyed his art studio.

Paxton was fascinated with Jan Vermeer, and carefully studied the Dutch master’s works. He discovered that Vermeer’s works were tightly focused on one area, and slightly blurred throughout the rest of the painting, which naturally caused the viewer’s eyes to focus on the central subject of the painting.

Paxton started using this technique in his paintings, and you can see this effect in “Cherry”. Look closely and you will see that the subject’s face, and especially her eyes, are in complete focus while her jacket is less focused and her hands even further unfocused. The background is mostly unimportant to the painting and is unfocused, and blurred to indicate the action of the others attending the ball.

In 1928 one of Paxton’s new apprentices was Robert Hale Ives Gammell, Gammell had been working as a portraitist but was unsatisfied with his technical abilities in drawing and composition. Gammell, who died in 1981, absorbed the methods of the Academic style during the time when Art Critics were dismissing it in favor of promoting Impressionism and later Modernism. Paxton and Gammell kept alive traditional techniques.

Students of Art History have been taught to dismiss masters like Paxton because their techniques were ‘technical’, ‘academic’, and emotionless. Critics of these masters were almost successful in ending the long succession between Master and Apprentice, and allowing techniques to disappear. Paxton was one of the few who were able to ‘bridge’ the gap between the time when Academic art was respected world-wide through the dark ages of ‘modern’ art that was completely unconcerned with form and composition.

Look into “Cherry’s” eyes and tell me – is this an emotionless painting?

My thanks to Brian Yoder, of the Art Renewal Center for his help with this article.

Other references:
The Butler Institute of American Art
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Traditional Fine Arts Orginization
Aristos