William McGregor Paxton and his wife, Elizabeth Okie Paxton
William McGregor Paxton Elizabeth Okie Paxton
My blog today features an artistically talented husband and wife who were born in America in the late nineteenth century. Let me acquaint you with Mr William “Bill” McGregor Paxton and his wife Mrs Elizabeth “Betty” Okie Paxton.
Portraits by William Mc Gregor Paxton of his father and mother (1902)
William McGregor Paxton was born in Baltimore on June 22nd 1869. He was the only child of James Paxton and Rose Doherty Paxton, a daughter of Irish immigrants. The family left Baltimore before William’s teenage years and settled in Newton Corner, a village just west of Boston, where his father set up a baking and catering business. Whilst at school, William became interested in art and became a very proficient painter, so much so, whilst still at the suburban high school he was accepted into the Cowles Art School in Boston which was one of the largest art schools in the city. Cowles Art School offered instruction in figure drawing and painting from the flat cast and life, artistic anatomy, perspective, and composition, painting still life, drawing, and painting the head from life, drawing still life, oil and water colours. He studied with the American Impressionist Dennis Miller Bunker, a friend of John Singer Sargent, who was the chief instructor of figure and cast drawing, artistic anatomy, and composition at the school. Bunker was so impressed by the work produced by Paxton that he persuaded him to travel to Paris to further his artistic tuition.
In the Studio by William McGregor Paxton (1905)
From this Boston art school, William Paxton travelled to Paris in 1889 and studied at the Académie Julian. Later he transferred to the government run, prestigious all male, art establishment, École des Beaux-Arts and studied under the French Academic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme in his Paris atelier. William Paxton remained in Paris for four years and did not return to America until 1893. On his return, William returned to the Cowles School and studied with Joseph DeCamp and became a junior instructor. Around the same time, Elizabeth Vaughn Okie was also studying art at the Cowles Art School, under Ernest Lee Major and Joseph Rodefer DeCamp.
Elizabeth Okie Paxton
Elizabeth Okie was born into a well-to-do family on March 17th, 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island. She was the daughter of Dr. Howard Okie who had studied medicine in Germany and Elizabeth Coleridge Vaughn whose family were stockbrokers and bankers. Elizabeth had a younger sister, Adele. Both Elizabeth and Adele were home-schooled by a governess which gives you an idea as to the financial status of the family. While Adele loved music, Elizabeth loved her art and her parents enrolled her at Cowles Art School when she was sixteen-years-old. One of her tutors at Cowles Art School was William Paxton during his brief tenure teaching at the school. Love blossomed between teacher and pupil despite a nine-year age difference and in 1896, she and William became engaged.
My Wife, Elizabeth (Wedding Portrait of Elizabeth Okie Paxton) (1899).
On January 3rd, 1899, just a few months before her twenty-first birthday, the couple married. The long length of the engagement could well have been down to Elizabeth’s well-off parents being concerned with the future financial prospects of their future son-in-law. After their marriage, William and Elizabeth lived with his parents at 43 Elmwood Street, and later bought a house at 19 Montvale Road in Newton Centre, one of a number of villages within the city of Newton in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. William Paxton would continue to commute daily into Boston.
Elizabeth Vaughan Okie by William McGregor Paxton (1894)
In the collection of the Boston Athenæum’s is one of the earliest portraits of Elizabeth by her husband which he completed in 1894. It is thought that it may have been painted specifically for her. It is fortunate that the work still survives as most of Paxton’s early paintings were destroyed in a studio fire in 1904, making this a rare survivor from that period of his professional life.
In 1906, now back in Massachusetts, William joined the faculty of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as an instructor and became friends of Frank Weston Benson, head of the Painting department and the Impressionist painter, Edmund Tarbell. These three artists and art educators believed passionately in teaching art and conveyed to their students an in-depth understanding of painting methods and composition. All three of them had studied at the Parisian art academies where demanding technical classes were coupled with an intensive study of the most well-known painters of the past. For them it was important to try and convey to their students what it was about the great paintings of the past that made them timeless. William Paxton summed it up, saying:
“…Other people can look at pictures just for the pleasure they get out of them. We painters, when we are on the job, must always be looking to see how they achieve their effect. Just as an actor, when he goes to the theatre, never loses sight of the scenery, lighting, pulleys, gestures and tricks of inflection, the sum of which stirs the audience, so we painters must always be watching to discover the procedures by which the great masters produced beauty…”
La Russe by William McGregor Paxton (1913)
William Paxton, along with Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson, was one of the founding members of a group of Boston-based painters active in the first three decades of the twentieth century, known as the Boston School. Their preferred subject matter was of a genteel nature such as portraiture, picturesque landscapes, and young women posing in well-appointed interiors. They were influenced by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, and Jan Vermeer. The Guild of Boston Artists was established in 1914 by the three artists and was created to be an artist-owned and artist-operated gallery. With the mission of promoting both emerging and established artists living in the region, the Guild developed a reputation for excellence in quality and presentation.
Elizabeth Okie Paxton featured in a number of her husband’s paintings. One such example was his 1906 work entitled The Red Fan.
The Red Fan (Portrait of Mrs Paxton) by William McGregor Paxton (1906)
Paxton had been brought up in a middle-class background and was well aware of Society’s hierarchical rules. On getting back to America from his time in France William Paxton completed a number of paintings which featured the domestic opulence of the upper-class. His favoured depictions were those of composed females of the leisure class, often his patron’s wives, often with their domestic servants, with sumptuous backdrops of richly decorated interiors. He was an important genre and portrait painter in the Beaux Arts style.
The Figurine by William McGregor Paxton (1921)
The females that featured in his genre and portraiture varied from dowagers and schoolgirls to servants, and his paintings helped identify idealized female roles of upper-class New Englanders at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was all about female beauty and elegance which was in stark contrast to the work of the Ashcan School painters of New York who featured the gritty, and unglamorous realities of city life, often featuring New York women wandering down busy streets, flirting openly, and willingly catching the eye of passing strangers. Paxton’s females oozed confidence and a sensual wistfulness but at the same time exuded demureness and respectability in stark contrast to the vulnerable yet gregarious Ashcan School’s women
Tea Leaves by William McGregor Paxton (1909)
A fine example of this is his 1909 painting entitled Tea Leaves. We see two well-dressed young women taking tea together. The woman in the blue-trimmed hat looks closely at the leaves at the bottom of her cup, which was a popular way of telling one’s fortune.
The String of Pearls by William Mc Gregor Paxton (1908)
His 1908 painting String of Pearls was another work which portrayed a sophisticated and cultured female enjoying a period of leisure, studying her pearl necklace. Paxton often depicted ladies with expensive and beautiful accoutrements in luxurious settings. For affluent male observers of Paxton’s works, it was if it were not just the furnishings and the jewellery which were items they would like to possess, but it was also the females themselves.
Woman with Book by William McGregor Paxton (1910)
Like many of his Boston colleagues, Paxton was influenced by the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Paxton was fascinated not only with Vermeer’s imagery, but also with the system of optics he employed. He studied Vermeer’s works closely and discovered that only one area in his compositions was entirely in focus, while the rest were somewhat blurred. Paxton called it “binocular vision,” crediting Vermeer with recording the slightly different point of view of each individual eye that combine in human sight. His painting, Woman with Book, we see the sunlight beaming through the window at the left, a woman (who even looks like one of Vermeer’s models) stands and reads a large book, with a painting on the wall behind her. The optical focus of the work appears to be the purse which the woman holds high against her left shoulder.
William Paxton began to use this system in his own work, including his narrative painting The New Necklace, where only the gold beads are sharply defined while the rest of the objects in the composition have softer, blurrier edges. The New Necklace, which he completed in 1910, is one of Paxton’s best-known paintings. It is an intriguing work and we are made to wonder what is going on. In the depiction, we see a younger woman, dressed in fashionably coloured clothes, sitting at a narrow bureau writing. She has turned her chair so that she can reach behind and hold out her left hand to receive the new necklace mentioned in the title. The jewellery is being placed into her hand by a slightly older woman, in a drabber dark blue-green dress. She rests her chin on her left hand. She purposefully does not make eye contact with the seated woman. What is going on? We, the observer, are provoked to use our imagination as to what is taking place in front of us. There is obviously an air of subservience between the standing and seated woman but how does the handing over of the jewellery come into the story. What hold does the seated woman have over the other? I leave it for you to decide.
Nude by William McGregor Paxton (1915)
This blurring effect can be seen again in Paxton’s 1915 painting simply entitled Nude, which is part of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts collection. In the depiction, we sees a young woman seated on a blue dress that is spread across the seat of a backless divan. She leans to the right as she reaches out for her pink underwear. We observe the woman partly from the back and partly from the side. Paxton has slightly blurred all the items in the room and the woman herself with the exception of her right breast and parts of her right arm. From seeing the props used in this painting in other of his works, we know they are part of the trappings of his studio.
The Beach at Chatham by William McGregor Paxton (1915)
Paxton completed a number of landscape paintings such as his 1915 work Beach at Chatham. Chatham is a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, located at the southeast tip of Cape Cod. It is an unusual painting format with a low horizon line and seven-eighths of the work taken with the sky. The result being the minute figures of those people on the shore. However, the unusual format gives us, mere mortals, the feeling of how little we matter in the Grand Plan. When Paxton began painting The Beach at Chatham, he envisioned the same problems that confronted the first Dutch landscape painters, namely, how to perfectly balance the visual expansiveness of a seascape with the presence of the human element. Adopting an extremely low horizon line and filling seven-eighths of the canvas with sky, the beachgoers appear diminutive, allowing the artist to promote the infinite over the everyday, and create a powerful, even awe-inspiring composition.
Nausicaä by William McGregor Paxton
William McGregor Paxton delved into mythology with his painting Nausicaä. It is based on Homer’s story of the trials and tribulations of Odysseus on his journey back home after the fall of Troy. Odysseus has finally escaped on a raft from the clutches of Calypso and her island of Ogygia. The raft is wrecked in a storm inflicted by Poseidon, and Odysseus has to swim ashore on the island of the Phaeacians. After swimming along a river estuary he manages to clamber up the banks exhausted and naked and heads into a wood, where he falls asleep. The next morning, Nausicaä, the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia, and her handmaidens go to the seashore to wash clothes. Awakened by their chatter and play, Odysseus emerges from the forest completely naked, scaring the servants away, and begs Nausicaä for aid. William Paxton’s depiction is at the point in the story when the naked Odysseus approaches Nausicaä and her handmaidens.
Red Apples by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1920)
Elizabeth Paxton continued with her art studies under her husband’s guidance and became known for her beautiful still life paintings and her timeless works which featured everyday domestic objects, beautifully depicted with a sensitivity to light, colour, and form. By shifting from interior scenes to still life works, Okie Paxton avoided competing with her husband’s subjects. Elizabeth Okie Paxton painted still life works, finding a ready market with private collectors. Unfortunately, this meant that very few of her paintings are on show to the public in a museum.
Copper Jug with Apples by Elizabeth Okie Paxton
Copper Jug with Apples is a still life of a table covered partly by a white tablecloth upon which a copper-handled jug, three apples and a green cup and saucer.
Continental Breakfast by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1907)
Another of her still life works is entitled Continental Breakfast which was exhibited at Rowland’s in Boston and described on May 17, 1907, and was described as:
“…she has set forth a dainty little breakfast, daintily arranged on a crisp, clean white tablecloth; there is a silver coffee-pot, a coffee-cup and a saucer of thin white porcelain, with a light green rim, a brown breakfast roll, a dish of fruit containing a half of a grapefruit and a bunch of grapes, and a covered dish of blue and white hawthorn ware. All these things are painted with so much delicacy and loving care, they are so pretty in themselves, and they are so well related together, that it is a pleasure to look at them. It is a long time since we have seen a better piece of still life work…”
Okie Paxton utilized light, texture, and colour like that of other artists of the Boston School.
The Breakfast Tray by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (c.1910)
In contrast to this pure still life work she also completed another work which featured a breakfast tray. The painting is her famous 1910 work entitled The Breakfast Tray. The painting requests our company into a world of femininity. What we see before us is a scene of disorder and yet highly sensual, and utterly credible. It has a personality of its own. Before us is not a depiction of staged harmonious domesticity but one that pricks our curiosity. It is a provocative, almost erotic narrative work and yet it is almost a still-life work. What at first glance appears to be a simple depiction 0f morning light streaming through an unseen window. On the left falling we see the light falling upon the silver service of a breakfast tray which has been placed on a chair next to the unmade bed. On the tray there is a small samovar, half a grapefruit, a bread roll, and a porcelain mug and jug.
Look at the artists depiction of light and shade. See how the morning light bounces of the highly polished wooden leg and spindles of the Windsor chair. It is still early morning and the sun has yet to rise high in the sky and so we see deep shadows under the shoes and along the rails of the chair as well as the space under the bed. The bedding is rumpled. A dressing gown has almost slid from the bed. The lace-trimmed sheets and pillow, still with the marked impression of the sleeper’s head who has now risen and vacated the bedroom and it is all those aspects which prevent it being a still-life and steer it towards a narrative work. So, what is going on? The pillows on the bed are intimately close. On the footboard of the bed there is another item of clothing. What is it? Maybe another robe or a pair of trousers. The more we stare and seek out minute details the more we become a voyeur. A rumpled bed and abandoned shoes allow our mind to race towards the sexual nature of the scene and yet our erotic thoughts are dampened when we realise the breakfast tray is set for just one person. Who brought the tray to the sleeping person – a servant, a lover? Where has everybody gone?
Sick-a-bed by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1916)
A similar setting can be seen in her 1916 painting entitled Sick a-bed. The painting was bought by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Academy officials said that the work would serve to bolster the museum’s effort to build its contemporary holdings and add to its growing body of art by women.
Is this all just a figment of my imagination and yet I say to you never just flick your gaze over a work of art, study it and imagine what was in the artist’s mind when they put brush to canvas and the painting makes us want to know more about the artist who created it. What little we know about her is that Elizabeth Okie Paxton enjoyed a harmonious marriage, who would selflessly endorse her husband’s career. They loved and respected each other. She was a beautiful woman who also served as her husband’s muse, and often modelled for many of his paintings. Although she painted The Breakfast Tray which some considered a risqué work, she enjoyed painting less controversial still life works. She and her husband were not blessed with children and consequently her life was devoted to both her and her husband’s art. She continued to manage her husband’s business affairs after his death with correspondence regarding his art estate until 1970, apparently paying even more attention to his posthumous career than her own active one. Of course, this leads to the obvious question – could she have been better known as a painter had she not married William? On the other hand, if she had not married William Paxton would she have missed meeting influential people and teachings that subsequently propelled her own development? It is just the age-old question “what if?”
The House Maid by William McGregor Paxton(1910)
Over the decades that followed, both William and Elizabeth became successful artists, William best known as an accomplished portrait painter who painted two US presidents, Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge and Elizabeth gained fame as a painter of still-lifes and interiors. William Paxton was made a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1928. He was working on his last painting, a view of his living room at 19 Montvale Road, with his wife posing for him, when he was stricken with a heart attack and died in 1941, at the age of 72. After her husband’s death Elizabeth once again gave up her own art to focus on promoting her husband’s art and legacy.
Elizabeth Okie Paxton died on April 2, 1972 in Boston, aged 94.