Miss Dorothy Quincy Roosevelt (later Mrs. Langdon Geer)

MAKER:
Artist

John White Alexander ( American, 1856 - 1915 )

DATE:
1901–1902
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General Description

John White Alexander was a truly cosmopolitan painter, whose mature career is a synthesis of the major stylistic trends affecting late 19th-century American art. In 1874, eighteen-year-old John White Alexander moved to New York City and found an illustrator job at Harper's Weekly. Like so many young Americans after the Civil War, Alexander traveled to Paris in pursuit of formal art training, but he quickly moved to Germany. He joined the smaller number of students residing in Munich, where painting from life, directly onto the canvas was emphasized instead of the preparatory drawing of the French school. Alexander became one of “Duveneck’s boys,” the group of devoted pupils of Cincinnati-born Frank Duveneck, who with William Merritt Chase was one of the earliest adherents of the Munich school—and whose return to the U.S. in the late 1870s revolutionized art making and instruction for a generation. After his encounter and subsequent friendship with James Abbott McNeill Whistler during a trip to Venice, Alexander's style shifted to include elements of Aestheticism in addition to Munich-trained realism. The heavy brushwork of the Munich artists emphasized the outer world by laying down paint to build forms, but Whistler encouraged Alexander to soften his technique, attenuating figures to suggest mood, not matter.

Although a leading muralist and illustrator in his day, Alexander is best-known as a portraitist. This painting of Dorothy Roosevelt was executed in 1901-1902, at the moment Alexander returned to the United States from his most recent ten year European stay. The sitter was the first cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt and married Langdon Geer in 1907. The work effortlessly demonstrates all the qualities that put Alexander in demand. The simple composition—a solitary seated figure accompanied by a dog—allows for a focus on Miss Roosevelt, whose grace is emphasized by the sweeping brushwork that defines her tall, elegant figure. Yet the oblique gaze and profile view remove this painting from the straightforward depiction of a particular sitter and position it as a study in reverie. Here it joins such mood pictures as the artist’s Repose (1895, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Indeed, his works hold their own against his contemporaries, particularly John Singer Sargent. If Sargent’s paintings are the exuberant, emphatic articulation of self in the crucible of the modern age, Alexander’s by contrast offer the reverse side of the coin—the looking inward while the outside world marches on.

Adapted from

  • William Keyse Rudolph, DMA label copy (2007.36), December 2007.
  • William Keyse Rudolph, DMA Acquisition proposal (2007.36), May 2007.

Fun Facts

  • The chair shown in this painting is an Empire style chair that John White Alexander kept in his studio and often used in his commissioned portraits.
  • Upon her marriage to Lagdon Geer in 1907, Dorothy Quincy Roosevelt was featured in numerous fashion and "society" articles in the New York Times.
  • John White Alexander was accepted as a member of the National Academy of Design in 1902 and was its president from 1909 to 1915.
  • At the time he painted portraits of women sitting calmly in interior settings, this activity (or lack of activity) was prescribed as an antidote for the psychological condition neurasthenia. The diagnosis was extremely common for wealthy Americans in the Northeast, including John White Alexander. Neurasthenia, also commonly known as nervousness, was associated with the heightened pace and pressures of modernity and was thought to explain a person's intense anxiety and exhaustion.
  • This is one of several American paintings at the DMA believed to have its original frame. In the case the frame is doubly significant because it was most likely designed by Stanford White, a leading Beaux-Arts architect and partner in the firm McKim, Mead & White. Stanford White designed the triumphal arch in Washington Square Park (1899, New York City), the Boston Public Library (1895), as well as pedestals for Augustus Saint-Gaudens' sculptures. The style of frame seen here became known as Stanford White frames.
  • Stanford White, the American architect who likely designed the frame for this portrait, was also an avid art and antiques collector. At the time of his death in 1906, his collection included another DMA work, Gustave Courbet's The Wave (c. 1869-1870; 1950.86).

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