William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941)
Property from the Estate of Mrs. John G. Rauch
William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941)

The Letter

Details
William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941)
The Letter
signed and dated 'Paxton - 1908' (upper right)
oil on canvas
30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm.)
Provenance
The artist.
E.T. Webb, Webb City, Missouri, 1910.
Mr. and Mrs. John G. Rauch, Indianapolis, Indiana, after 1925.
Literature
W.H. Downes, Boston Transcript, February 27, 1909
J. Nutting, Boston Journal, March 4, 1909
American Art News, VII, March 6, 1909, p. 2
Providence Journal, March 28, 1909
Exhibited
Washington, D.C., The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2nd Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, December 1908-January 1909, no. 208
Boston, Massachusetts, St. Botolph Club, Paintings by William M. Paxton, March 1909, no. 13
Providence, Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design, Exhibition of Paintings by William McGregor Paxton, March-April 1909
New York, Macbeth Galleries, 35 Paintings by 13 Boston Artists, April 1909
Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum, 12th Annual Exhibition of Paintings, May-September 1909, no. 19
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 105th Annual Exhibition, January-March 1910, no. 551
Indianapolis, Indiana, Indianapolis Museum of Art, William McGregor Paxton, 1869-1941, August-October 1978, no. 17, illustrated (This exhibition also traveled to: El Paso, Texas, El Paso Museum of Art; Omaha, Nebraska, Josyln Museum; and Springfield, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts)
Sale room notice
Please note the frame for this lot is a 19th Century Dutch-style frame on loan from Eli Wilner & Company, Inc., NYC. This frame is available for purchase. Please inquire with the department.

Lot Essay

William McGregor Paxton painted The Letter in 1908, 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 Letter exemplifies the timeless beauty that these artists sought to create. An elegant young woman in a navy blue coat and white and blue hat leans over her desk in the subtly lighted room. She stands with her back to the light source -- near a window -- which illuminates her and the letter on the desk before her. On the desk also sit two lovely ceramic vases, as well as a larger bowl. 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 Letter is undoubtedly a subject fit for the little Dutch Masters," Ellen Wardwell Lee writes, "but it also aligns William Paxton with a group of painters much closer to him in time and place -- his own colleagues of the Boston School. Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp, and Frank Benson also painted genteel New England women in well appointed parlors. They were known for depicting life's happier aspects, leaving the more earthy themes to Ash Can School artists such as Robert Henri, John Sloan, or George Luks. By 1908 Paxton was teaching with Tarbell and Benson at the Boston Museum School, and all three artists maintained studios in the Fenway Building. Their shared interests extended to a dedication to the observation of natural light and its effects." (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)

In The Letter Paxton touches upon a narrative without providing any specific details. The subject of the work is either about to post or has just received a letter -- it is up to the viewer to surmise not only whether she is coming or going, but the rest of the narrative, as well. Paxton's audience knows as little about the identity of the sender of the letter as it does about its contents. What is evident is that the letter has an emotional effect on the woman, as she appears to be hesitant and contemplative.

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, Orleans, Massachusetts, p. 118)
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