William M. Paxton, N.A.
A discerning contemporary of Paxton’s once commented that his art had been insufficiently admired because the debatability of his very individual taste was perceptible to the most callow gallery trotter, whereas the commanding merit of his qualities was only fully apparent to genuine connoisseurs of painting. And so, while his impeccable but subtly stylized draftsmanship and his deceptively effortless execution were taken for granted, the unsurpassed truth of his color notations merely ”looked right” and only the practiced eyes of experienced picture makers detected the masterly patterning which unified his arrangements. Each of these major pictorial assets has often sufficed singly to confer lasting fame on painters of the past. Yet during Paxton’s lifetime casual visitors to exhibitions insisted on disparaging fancied sartorial incongruities, an unusual though perhaps distinguished color combination, or a minor discrepancy in the furnishing of an interior, as if they were major flaws in his work. With the passage of time these manifestations of a powerful personality are seen to contribute a certain tang to his pictures which is not without a savor all its own.
The man’s personal deportment, too, for all his geniality and amiability,was alloyed by untoward minor traits which obscured his superior endowment of heart and intellect. Many of Paxton's acquaintances never suspected the fine intelligence and delicate sensibility immediately beneath the brash exterior of this sharply apparelled rotund man whose bald head and tiny black goatee evoked the race track. Yet Paxton and his close friend Philip Hale were the only painters in the Boston coterie who could properly be called cultured. He was well-read in both English and French literature and had a comprehensive understanding of several arts allied to painting. When it came to painting itself his interest covered its entire range whereas most of his Boston colleagues ignored artists, however renowned, whose aims differed from their own. Indeed, in all matters pertaining to his profession his thirst for knowledge was insatiable, his analytical faculty penetrating and he unfolded his theses, sometimes brush in hand, with a lucidity unmatched in my experience of painters. It was a great loss to art that this artist's tactless outbursts all too often obscured the wisdom of his argument while his social maladroitness indisposed those whom he most needed to persuade. Because of these comparatively slight defects Paxton, for all his brilliant gifts, exerted little direct influence on the directions followed by painting in his time. He could otherwise have acted as a stabilizing element in the turbulence of the mid-century art scene and exerted his remarkable teaching talent with determinative effect.
For William Paxton crowned the edifice of nineteenth century Impressionism by carrying their logical principles to their logical conclusion. This is not to say that he was the greatest artist among its practitioners but that he achieved their proclaimed objectives more completely in all respects than anyone else. His unsurpassed visual acuity combined with great technical command enabled him to report his impressions with astounding veracity. Of all the painters whose color perception had been sharpened by plein air study he was the most accurate draftsman and he never slackened his efforts to render both shape and color just as they appeared to his artist’s eye. Paxton opined that all painters, excepting Vermeer at the top of his form, permitted some tonality absent in nature to tinge their pictures. He constantly pointed out that the invisible atmospheric envelope through which we look is limpid, "like a glass of pure water” and he responded to that challenge. His best indoor paintings are distinguished by an ambient lucidity we do not find to a like degree in the pictures of other men. Let no one confuse this with photographic imitation, which it in no way resembles. Effects of this kind are only captured when the artist visualizes the depicted scene as an entity all of whose colors are accurately observed in their mutual relationship, a singularly difficult feat only understood by the talented after years of study.
A similar relativity must be maintained in the degrees of sharpness whereby the apparent shapes in the field of vision are defined. Even a slight error of judgment in either of these areas may jeopardize the truth conveyed in a painting. The entire operation calls for a very perceptive eye, consummate draftsmanship and, above all, a firm intellectual grasp of the problem involved. comparatively few painters have carried it through even passably well.
If the reader understandably turns away from these technicalities professing that he looks at pictures for a private delectation, not in order to marvel at some painter’s professional prowess, I can only apologize for my shoptalk. But it may interest him to know that pictures of lasting import have been painted in this way and that the pleasure which countless thousands have derived from them stems from the degree of success with which their makers executed the complex procedures I have touched upon. If he shrugs them off as "mere technique" I will paraphrase Buffon’s celebrated definition of literary style, ”Le style c’est l’homme," and say that in the visual art of painting the technique is the man. Every touch, every line, every tone reveals the mind of the painter who made it. Perhaps the realization that this is so will increase the enjoyment which my reader will take in looking at fine pictures.
But Paxton was likewise a master of composition, that twin supporting pillar of the painter’s craft without whose assistance even the finest representation will not elevate a painting to the status of art. Of course, every artist worthy of the name tries to impose some sort of order on his pictorial material, but, in their pursuit of spontaneity, impressionistically oriented painters have tended to slight this major constituent of their art, and in the early years of the century the type of carefully ordered composition whose every element contributes to an over-all pattern which delights the eye, fell into neglect. 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 scéne 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 often than the others he successfully created handsome arabesques with the 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.
Despite the eminently individualistic character of the effects which Paxton obtained, with some compositional devices he learned from Vermeer, this homage rendered to the Delft master nettled demi-connoisseurs. “Paxton does not realize that near Vermeer may be mere veneer,” gibed Harley Perkins, an amateur painter whose bumbling incompetence passed for avantgardism in 1916 and who also dabbled in art criticism. But the quip only calls attention to Paxton’s capacity for assimilation. Like every painter who has left a permanent mark, he evolved a personal mode of self expression by studying nature in conjunction with the works of his great predecessors. The three whom he most admired were Velasquez, Vermeer and Ingres, and it is not difficult to detect reverberations of all three in the Bostonian's art. But the net result is extremely personal, albeit remarkably free from mannerisms of any kind.
Take ”The Green Dolman" for example. While that magnificent tribute to womanhood in its radiant maturity rivals the most extolled portrayals of the fair sex, it resembles none of them in its color scheme or pagination. The draltsmanship, unexcelled during our century in its classic perfection, which distinguishes "The One in Yellow” doubtless recalls that of Ingres but that master is in no sense parroted. The superlative drawing of the outstretched arm reflects Paxton’s own reaction to the beauty of the female form, whose nobility is accentuated by the unexpected context of the 1914 backstage locale in which it is presented.
Similarly striking are the almost hieratic overtones evoked by the gesture of the statuesque young woman simply arranging flowers, stylistic suggestions generated by the assertion of significant shapes and emphasized by the artfully contrived Chiaroscuro of the composition. Nor can the Vermeerian disposition of the stabilizing verticals in "Tea Leaves" be faulted as plagiarisms. But all these observations serve to bring out one of Paxton's governing idiosyncracies. The intrinsic nature of the objects he elected to paint meant comparatively little to this artist. His interest centered in the light and dark patterns and the intriguing color schemes they created in unison.
But above all he was fascinated by the pellucid atmosphere and light which enveloped, transfigured and unified them. And this ambience he captured with a truth and subtlety undreamed of before pleinairism had rendered the vision of painters more acute than ever before. This unprecedented luminosity is perfectly exemplified in ”The Kitchen Maid," a masterpiece destined to remain unequalled in this respect for many decades to come.