William M. Paxton (1869-1941)

William M. Paxton (1869-1941)

The note of Mr. Paxton’s work is this sincerity. There never was a man who tried harder to get the aspect of things, the look of nature, and very few have been more successful.

 --Philip Hale, International Studio, December 1909

William McGregor Paxton formed an association with the Boston School of painters while studying under Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890) at the Cowles Art School in Boston. While Bunker would not quite live to see thirty years of age, instructors at the Boston Museum School, such as Paxton, Edmund Tarbell, Philip Leslie Hale and Frank W. Benson, would carry on his teachings to future generations. Faced with the changing tastes of a new century and the advent of Modernism, these artists formed an alliance with the more conservative artwork of the 19th century and sought to celebrate and improve upon this tradition of painting.  

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Paxton proved to be one of the most outstanding painters of the Boston School, bridging the divide between academic painting and Impressionism during the last decades of the 19th century.  Raised in Newton, Massachusetts, he was a dedicated draftsman and a keen observer of his surroundings as a youth, and sought out local art instruction at the Cowles Art School.  There he won the respect of Bunker, and moved on with his teacher’s letter of introduction to the Paris studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1889.  From both Bunker and Gérôme, Paxton learned how to perceive color and shape with extreme accuracy, and continued to perfect these skills over the course of his career.

Upon returning to Boston in 1893, Paxton set up a studio in the Grundmann building and resumed his studies at the Cowles Art School, now under the instruction of Joseph DeCamp. There he met fellow student Elizabeth Okie, who would later become his wife, his staunchest supporter and his favorite subject, serving as a model for numerous canvases over their 42-year union. Prior to their marriage in 1899, Paxton traveled to Madrid where he encountered the 17th century paintings of Diego Velázquez. The Spaniard’s painterly approach to realism influenced young Paxton’s work, especially in the first years following his return to America when he produced several large, striking portraits and figure paintings, most of Elizabeth.

After their marriage, the Paxtons resided in Newton while William maintained a space at the Harcourt Studio building on Irvington Street in Boston. In 1904, a fire ravaged the structure, destroying the life’s work of several artists. Paxton lost many early paintings and sketches, but miraculously several important canvases were on display at the St. Botolph Club and thus saved from ruin. In 1905, Paxton relocated to the newly constructed Fenway Studios building on Ipswich Street and remained there for the next nine years, where teaching, portrait work and his own easel paintings filled his days. In 1906, he took a position at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts as a drawing instructor where he stayed until resigning in 1913, along with Tarbell and Benson, in protest of the School’s increasingly modernist approach. He would later remark: “[The modernists] don’t know what they are trying to do, and of course they can’t say what it is…I quarrel with them because they don’t make beauty. Now if a painting does not have some kind of beauty, it isn’t worth painting.” [1]

Paxton was fully immersed in the Boston art scene, joining the Copley Society, the Boston Art Club, the St. Botolph Club and the Guild of Boston Artists, and also showed with the National Academy and the Pennsylvania Academy. A master of lace, pearls, satiny skin, and rich fabrics, Paxton became a favorite of any audience and frequently received the “Popular Prize” by vote in exhibitions across the country, including first place at the Corcoran Gallery on four occasions, as well as three first place awards at the Pennsylvania Academy, and runner up each year between 1915 and 1925.  His commissioned portraits included such sitters as Presidents Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge, and numerous governors, educators and elite members of society along the East Coast, leading him to be called the “Court Painter of Philadelphia.” Regardless of the subject matter, Paxton enforced exactitude in his work, carefully composing the sitters and their surroundings prior to beginning his oils, and his skill was applauded in 1928 when the National Academy appointed him a full member.  Following his death in 1941, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, held a memorial exhibition, followed thirty-seven years later by the Indianapolis Museum’s retrospective which brought his work to new light. Today Paxton’s work can be found in numerous museum collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

References: See Trevor J. Fairbrother, The Bostonians, Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870 - 1930 (Boston 1986); Lee, Ellen Wardwell, and Gammell, R. H. Ives, William McGregor Paxton 1869-1941 (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1979); Jessica Smith, 2001 Yale Dissertation; Vose Galleries artist files.

[1] R. C. Curl, “Boston Artists and Sculptors Talk of Their Work and Ideals,” Boston Sunday Herald, December 26, 1929.

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