Monday, July 16, 2012

A letter from William Paxton

 I will return to my little tricks series, but first a for an interesting artifact from art history.

I was allowed to reprint this nearly 100 year old letter courtesy of Tom Dunlay, a well known New England impressionist painter. I suppose I should explain the players here, they are;

William Paxton (1869–1941) the author of the letter, I have decorated the page with a few of his paintings. A major American impressionist painter. He was a student first  of Dennis Miller Bunker and then in the Parisian atelier of Leon Gerome, a member of the Boston  School group of painters and a founding member of the Guild of Boston Artists. He was a National Academician and successful portrait painter commissioned to paint both Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge. Below is his painting Tea leaves from the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henry Brooks (1898-1981), a student of Paxton who  was touring Europe with,

R.H.Ives Gammell , painter, teacher and writer, author of  "Twilight of Painting". Incidentally, my teacher as well. Also the teacher of Tom Dunlay who provided the letter for us to read.

 19 Montvale Road
Newton Centre

Dear Brooks;

Your good letter made me quite envious of your luck.

The Ingres exhibition must be intensely interesting— at least
it would be to me. Of course you'll have to swallow hard to take in
some of his color, but if you consider it as a means of emphasizing
his drawing it becomes very interesting, and I think you'll get to
like it.

The Vermeer head that you speak of and the Mona Lisa are, to my
mind, the two top notch performances in modelling in the world. The
Da Vinci charms me more, but the Vermeer is surely more truthful in
total effect.

Here I am writing like "dear teacher" and probably boring you
stiff, but even at the rist (sic)of that I'll ask you to examine the way
in which every picture which interests you is made.

The beauty, greatness, style, or whatever the salient quality
of a picture is, you'll get anyway, but, if you don't look sharp, the
way it's done, will escape you.

It's fine to sit open mouthed while the conjurer takes the rabbit
from the hat, but if you want to be a conjurer it's up to find
out how he does it-

That fact is a rather grubby comparison but I want to make it
clear that the artists task is to create the emotion rather than to
be moved.

No doubt one who has never felt emotion is incapable of
communicating it to others, but most of us have felt it, and

William Paxton

few can pass it on. Don't let the old master over awe you, and don't
get cheeky with them either. Most of them had something or they
wouldn't be Old Masters.

Look at them as you would look at your friends work: find the faults
and praise the qualities. There is no reason • for a different standard
of criticism than the one you use for your contemporaries.

You may lose some pleasure by finding how the wiser are pulled but
think of the pleasure you can give others if you \ learn how it's done.

As I look over this that I have written I'm tempted to throw
it away as it seems neither original or new, but as I want you to
know that I'm keenly interested in your work, and this will perhapes (sic)
show it, I'll let it go.

The pulchritudinous Edna is still on the job and occasionally
expresses her yearning for your return and also that of Gammell. It seems
only fair to state that her affections seem divided.

By the way: when you get to Venice be sure to see the
Museo Civico (spelling doubtful). There are samples of drawings
by Tielapolo(sic) and delightful things by Guardir (sic,Gaurdi) and Longhi. There
is no news to write. . . .

"The purple days of drouth expand like a scroll opended out
again.1* Well—I "drink to you only with minor eager" for obvious

With best regards to everyone interested and particularly

 to yourself and Gammell, I am,

 Yours truly;

 William Paxton

July 7, 1921.


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Philip Koch said...

That letter was cool and expresses the job of the artist well (and clearly). And that final painting you chose by Paxton is such a mouthwatering beauty of an oil. God but he could be good!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, Philip

Sonya Johnson said...

What an interesting, and insightful, read. Thanks for sharing. I was not familiar with Paxton's work - just wow! Do you know if these paintings are in museum collections? I can only imagine how stunning they are in person.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes Sonya;
Those are museum pieces. The top one is in the Met.

Robert J. Simone said...

Sounds like Edna was quite a hotty. Pulchritudinous indeed. Maybe her in her birthday suit.

Steve Baker said...

Look at them as you would look at your friends work: find the faults
and praise the qualities. There is no reason for a different standard of criticism than the one you use for your contemporaries.

I recently commented on some less than stellar Homer watercolors mixed with some very fine work. I thought I sensed a bit of defensiveness in the responses and took the conversation on further. I do believe that hero worship (for lack of a better phrase) is all too common. We all have our bad days/months/years. A large part of recognizing and understanding good work is being objective, don't you think?

Pulchritudinous, try putting that in a text message. said...

This is a great post. I love the way you mix them up.
The flesh colors are superb and worth study.
I have been a follower of Paxton ever since I first saw, Tea Leaves, in the Met. At art school in England they didn't dwell too much on American painters so I have enjoyed finding out about the many great ones. said...

From overlooking what few paintings I could find from Howard Henry Brooks, I would say that he squandered his time with Paxton and didn't learn much. What a wasted opportunity.

Durinda Cheek, Fine Artist said...

Oh if we just could "make the magic happen."

Linda Tracey Brandon said...

Thought you might be interested: I have the Paxton book (via Ebay) and it came with a letter from Paxton to another of his students, a man named Lankes. I posted on my blog about it on this link: