Sunlight: portrait of an American lady

John White Alexander, Sunlight, 1908

John White Alexander was an American painter who began his career as a political cartoonist and illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. Known particularly for his society portraits, he was considered one of America’s foremost artists during his lifetime, but after his death in 1919 he dropped quickly out of fashion.

‘Sunlight’ shows a young woman standing with her back to us, streaks of sunlight raking across her gown. The curve of her neck and the folds of her gown create a graceful sweep; the soft palette and rich tones lend a lyrical quality to a deceptively simple composition. The background is muted, the brushstrokes sketchy; the focus is on the central figure, and the play of sunlight on her gown. It is, I think, quite lovely, both luminous and luxurious, if a little sentimental.

The painting was lauded at the time (it was completed in 1909) for the  ‘Americanness’ of its subject and execution. This was in stark contrast to the self-conscious cosmopolitanism of earlier works painted while Alexander was studying and living in Europe. I’m not sure what makes it  distinctly ‘American’; whether it’s the nationality of the painter or the subject, the style, or the fact that it was painted on American soil. Very probably a combination of all three; America’s artistic identity was still forming, and would not be clearly articulated for some time to come.


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