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Saturday, May 23, 2015

William McGregor Paxton

The Breakfast, 1911, William McGregor Paxton
William McGregor Paxton Self-portrait
We seldom think much as to how our way of life has changed in the past one-hundred years. Most of those changes fall into two major area--social changes and technological changes. It's hard to say which has had the greatest impact on the way we live today. I've been arguing with myself over the matter all day long. Sometimes the argument has gotten rather heated. On the one hand there's everything from computers, digital coffee-makers, microwave ovens, and the internet. But then, on the sociological side, we have equal rights for women, African Americans, gays, even our four-legged friends now have rights. Virtually none of these changes could have been foreseen in their present form in 1915. Take the family of the New England artist, William McGregor Paxton and his wife, Elizabeth Vaughn Okie Paxton, for instance. She was his former student and a first-rate artist in her own right, though one who bent to the times and promoted her husband's career over her own (and likely did so better than he could have). They married in 1899, summered in Cape Cod and Cape Ann, while living in Newton, Massachusetts. They were a proper, white, middle-class family, childless, and about as progressively modern as any to be found at the time.

The White Veranda, 1902,
(Elizabeth Okie Paxton)
William McGregor Paxton
Paxton's The Breakfast, (top) from 1911, gives us a feel for what their quiet, restrained, home life was like. Though far from wealthy, they dressed well, breakfasted together; she somewhat pensive (perhaps bored) in a long, cotton "day" dress; he in a business suit before moving on to his studio where a client will soon arrive for a portrait "sitting." A maid tends the couple's needs as silently and proper as the presumably happily married couple. There is no rush to gulp down hot coffee, no Pop Tarts, no breakfast bars, or Kellogg's Corn Flakes (though they were becoming popular at the time). As many young couples did back then, the young Mr. and Mrs. Paxton lived with his parents (below, left and right) until he obtained a teaching position at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts School. The young artist, having studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts and later at the Academie Julian in Paris, was ideally suited for the academic life, though he taught for only seven years.

Portrait of the Artist's Father, 1902,
(James Doherty Paxton)
William McGregor Paxton
Portrait of the Artist's Mother
 (Rose Paxton), 1902,
William McGregor Paxton
In the Studio, 1905, Elizabeth Paxton
poses for her husband.
With his attractive young wife both managing his career and posing for many of his paintings (left), Paxton rose to prominence in the Boston art world. He was commissioned to paint President Grover Cleveland, and two decades later, President Calvin Coolidge. Wealthy Bostonians took a liking to his somewhat impressionist portraits, though if fact, Paxton was more influenced by the Dutch artist, Jan Vermeer than any painter in his own time. Though society ladies made up the bulk of Paxton's commissions, his portraits of their daughters are some of the most enchanting of all his works. Paxton's Portrait of Elizabeth Blaney (below, left) from, 1916, and his Portrait of Eleanor Anne Schrafft (below, right), from 1926, are two of his best--distinctively different yet similar.

Portrait of Eleanor Anne Schrafft,
1926, William McGregor Paxton
Elizabeth Blaney, 1916,
William McGregor Paxton
The Kitchen Maid,
William McGregor Paxton
However, adding an extra dimension to Paxton's work is his attention to their service staff, the young women who made their quiet, laid-back life possible a hundred years before modern technology filled that function. His paintings in this regard remind me somewhat of the PBS series, Upstairs, Downstairs with their duality of classes, sympathetically portrayed, originally on British TV during the 1970s, and later in the U.S. (now recently revived). Though the TV series was set in the 1930s with a distinctly English storyline and characters, the Bostonian family, as seen in both Paxton's "upstairs" and "downstairs" portraits have much the same ambience translated to the early 20th-century. His Kitchen Maid (left) seems every bit as dignified in her own way as any of his society matrons and their daughters. Paxton's The Housemaid (below, right) from, 1910, and his The Waitress (below, left), from 1929, are seen dutifully at their work, yet, portrayed with a warmth and humanity leading one to believe the Paxton household was one of quiet efficiency, patience, and love.

The Housemaid, 1910,
William McGregor Paxton
The Waitress, 1929,
William McGregor Paxton
Despite all this dignity and social rectitude there was an erotic, sexually laden aspect to Paxton's work. One has to wonder almost if his wife knew about his copy of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres' famous Odalisque with a Slave (below, left), dating originally from 1839-40. It was acquired by a Boston millionaire named Carroll S. Tyson, a friend of Paxton's in 1932. Paxton's copy (below, right) is surprisingly faithful to the original painting by Ingres (below, left). However Paxton's erotic streak was not limited to merely copying famous masterpieces from the not-too-distant past. He also produced quite a number of languid, nude, beauty cuties on his own as seen in his Glow of Gold, Gleam of Pearl (left), from 1906, or his blockbuster Nausicaa (bottom), from 1937. It's doubtful his wife posed for any of these.

Glow of Gold, Gleam of Pearl,
1906, William McGregor Paxton

L'Odalisque L'esclave, 1839-40,
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres
Copy of Odalisque with a Slave, 1932,
William McGregor Paxton

Nausicaa, 1937, William Paxton.
(Paxton died in 1941. All this nude pulchritude must have been too much for him.)

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