William Paxton Information and Inventory

William Paxton

(1869 - 1941)

William Paxton


Much has been written about this major Boston School figure painter who brilliantly synthesized the early teachings of Jean-Léon Géromé; interior compositions with attention to fabrics, skin tone and lighting reminiscent of Vermeer; and the desired look of his day exemplified by his teachers and peers Tarbell, Benson, and De Camp. Paxton painted many subjects, but his porcelain-skinned, elegant young women, frequently depicted in a moment of quiet repose, is his legacy. Paxton’s skill in pastel was equal to his more prevalent oils, and perhaps even closer in texture and technique to the Impressionist practices of the early 20th century. The first figural example is a nude acquired from Vose Gallery in 1978, which was really at the beginning of a serious reappraisal of Paxton’s place in American art. The simple yet dramatic pose off- set by the deep red background enabled the artist to reveal his extraordinary drawing abilities but also his great skill in fully capturing the subtlety of skin color and tone. Unquestionably, this woman with her auburn red hair appears in many of his figure works. One evening when my wife met me at the train station returning from work, I was greeted with, “Is Paxton important?” This got my attention, unaccustomed to such queries.“Why?” I asked. “I have one,” was the reply. Then the game commenced: “Is it a drawing?” “No!” “Is it a landscape?” “No!” “Is it a portrait of somebody’s father, or a business- man?” “No!” “Is it an old lady?” “No!” (I was gradually working my way up the food chain of desirability, from least to most.) “Is it a young woman?” “No!” (I’m running out of options here.) “What is it?” I asked as we rolled into the driveway. “You’ll see,” she replied coyly. The picture was leaning against a wall in a period frame and under glass that, though clean on the surface, was almost impossible to see through, like smoke glass. The outline of a young girl was visible, seated, clutching something in her hand in what seemed to be a colorless, perhaps gray dress. I could make out the simple, capital letter signature, and determine it was pastel and it looked right. As I grasped the frame, I realized the reverse was covered in soot—it had been hanging over a fireplace in my hometown for more than sixty years. Turning the picture around, I was puzzled that it was a canvas on a stretcher, like an oil, but painted in pastel and under glass. I removed the nails and took the piece out, still viewing it from the blackened, sooty back, and I turned, showing the front side to my wife. Her face said it all, and I can’t adequately describe her expression. As I discovered, since the painting was not sealed, like works on paper, air flowed freely, leaving a sixty-year deposit of fireplace soot on the inside of the glass—resulting from static electricity, I guess—but nothing on the pastel surface; it was perfect, just like new. Unbelievable. Right from our local consignment shop, and nobody wanted it, the consigner or the shop owner. For $900 my wife made one of the best discoveries of forty years of collecting… and it is hers.

William Paxton Gallery

No paintings by this author