William McGregor Paxton Biography
William McGregor Paxton, one of the most highly esteemed members of the school of Boston figure painters, was born in Baltimore in 1869. At the age of eighteen, Paxton won a scholarship at the Cowles Art School in Boston, where he worked under Dennis Miller Bunker for two years. Paxton then went on to Paris, studying at the Académie Julian and at the École des Beaux-Arts under Bunker’s former teacher, Jean-Léon Gérôme. Deeply inspired by both men, Paxton soon developed a strong sense of draftsmanship and a mastery of the human form that remained with him throughout the course of his career.
Returning to Boston in 1893, Paxton established his studio on Clarendon Street. Paxton also resumed his studies at the Cowles School, under the tutelage of Joseph De Camp, while supporting himself by working as a portrait painter and by drawing advertisements for the Boston Herald. In 1897 Paxton made a second trip to Europe, familiarizing himself with the paintings of Velasquez in Madrid. Two years later, Paxton married Elizabeth Okie, a fellow student, who eventually became known as a painter of still lifes and figure studies.
During this period, Paxton focused his attention on scenes of young women in outdoor settings, which he rendered with the broken brushwork and vivid coloration of Impressionism. Many of these early paintings were exhibited locally, at the St. Botolphe Club and the Worcester Art Students’ Club and at the Art Club of Philadelphia.
Shortly after the turn-of-the-century, Paxton began to concentrate on interior genre subjects, featuring one or two stylish, idealized women in elegant but sparsely decorated rooms. This approach, also adopted by his colleagues Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson and Philip Hale, became unique to the Boston School, and was influenced a great deal by the paintings of the Dutch master, Jan Vermeer. Paxton quickly became renowned for his highly finished, tightly rendered paintings. Although Paxton paintings were sometimes compared to those of De Camp, another avid worshipper of the female form, Paxton paintings were more varied in color and his treatment of light more subtler than that of his former teacher. Paxton also utilized a method of painting which he described as "binocular vision", whereby the central area of his composition would be sharply defined while the background objects were slightly blurred (another Vermeerian trait). Although Paxton softened his approach after 1910, by the end of the teens his paintings had attained an even greater degree of hardness. In addition to his figure paintings, Paxton was also an extremely successful portraitist, his sitters including such noted figures as Presidents Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge.
In 1918, Paxton had a solo exhibition at Rosenbach Co. in Philadelphia, followed by another one-man show at New York’s Folsom Gallery a year later. By this time, Paxton had acquired a firm anti-modernist stance, claiming that avant-garde art, in its non-naturalistic inclinations, lacked beauty and symmetry of form.
Throughout his career, which also included seven years of teaching antique drawing at the Boston Museum School (1906-1913), Paxton was the recipient of numerous awards and honors; indeed, by 1935, Paxton had received more popular prizes than any other American painter. Paxton died at his home in Newton, Massachusetts in 1941.
Although Paxton lost nearly one hundred paintings in a devastating fire at his Harcourt Street studio in 1904, much of Paxton paintings from that period were on display at the St. Botolphe Club, to some extent minimizing his losses. Representative examples of his paintings can be found in public and private collections throughout America, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the St. Louis Art Museum. An important retrospective exhibition of Paxton paintings were held at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1979.