William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941)
William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941)

The Green Dress

William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941)
The Green Dress
oil on canvasboard
18 x 15 in. (45.7 x 38.1 cm.)
(Probably) Acquired from the artist.
Mr. Charles Van Cise Wheeler, Washington, D.C.
By descent to private collection.
Sotheby's, New York, 28 May 1987, lot 205.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
C.V. Wheeler, "Specimens," Sketches, Washington, D.C., privately printed, 1927, p. 98.
Sale room notice
Please note that a party with financial interest may be bidding on this lot.

Lot Essay

William McGregor Paxton painted The Green Dress at a time when the artist was at the height of his career, and the celebrated painters of the Boston School were creating many of their finest works. The Green Dress exemplifies the timeless beauty that these artists sought to create. An elegant young woman in a green dress and green hat leans over a desk in a subtly lighted room. She stands with her back to the light source, near a window, which illuminates her and the figurine on the desk before her. The rarefied, tasteful setting underscores the sense of restraint and elegance that typified Paxton's style at this time. His finest domestic portraits masterfully capture moments of quiet and introspection with a competence that has been compared to the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, an artist whose work was admired by the Boston School painters.

The Green Dress is a reduction of Paxton's painting, 1875, painted in 1914. Ellen Lee writes of the larger work, "Regardless of how intently Paxton's model may study the porcelain figurine, the focal point of 1875 can be nothing other than her green silk costume. The dress was specially made at the artist's request and was also worn by Elizabeth Paxton in 1913 when she posed for a picture known as The Green Princess. An ideal vehicle for Paxton's love of texture and his penchant for pungent color, the gown absorbs all the composition's light and casts its reflections on the floor below. 1875's appearance at the 1916 annual exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago prompted one critic to associate Paxton with the noted Belgian painter of fashionable domestic interiors, 'No one, save Alfred Stevens, has ever made close studies of feminine apparel so utterly fascinating, and the instance in point is a masterpiece. (Fine Arts Journal, XXXIV, 12, December 1916)'" (William McGregor Paxton, 1869-1941, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1979, p. 126)

Portraits of women were among Paxton's most sought-after works. Trevor Fairbrother has written, "A mainstay of the Boston School was the female portrait, which typically presents the sitter against a quiet background while strongly suggesting that she is both stylish and intelligent, elegant and accomplished . . . It is consistent with the tradition of John Singleton Copley, whose eighteenth-century female sitters were dignified, thoughtful, and expensively dressed, but rarely ostentatious." (T. Fairbrother, The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1986, p. 66)

Common to many of Paxton's works, the various still-life groups on the desk play their own unique roles in the structure of the painting. The orchestration of these elements is quite deliberate. "The Bostonians, to be sure, were among those who still constructed their pictures with great care, often with telling results. Paxton was the most diligent in this respect and the most original, arranging his mises en scène with a sure instinct at the start and then, as the painting progressed, steadily improving the abstract pattern created by his light and dark shapes. More than the others he successfully created handsome arabesques with silhouettes made by his darks, an art of which Vermeer was a supreme master but which his Dutch compeers and most later genre painters neglected. In conjunction with a well-balanced distribution of tonal masses these beautifully studied contours impart an architectonic character to the representations of incidents trifling in themselves." (R.H.I. Gammell, The Boston Painters: 1900-1930, Orleans, Massachusetts, 1986, p. 118)

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