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Beauty
July 2003

William McGregor Paxton's Tea Leaves

Author Affiliations

Institute of Fine Arts
New York University
New York, NY

 

Institute of Fine Arts
 New York University
 New York, NY


Arch Facial Plast Surg. 2003;5(4):364. doi:10.1001/archfaci.5.4.364

WILLIAM McGregor Paxton was born in Baltimore, Md, in 1869, but grew up in Boston, Mass, where he studied painting under the Impressionist painter Dennis Miller Bunker at the Cowles Art School. In 1889 at the age of 20, Paxton traveled to Paris to study at the famous Ecole des Beaux Arts and was eventually accepted in the atelier of the great French academic and orientialist painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme. In Gérôme's studio, Paxton mastered both pictorial composition and draftsmanship, which became the hallmarks of his personal style. In Paris, Paxton also discovered the paintings of Jean-August-Dominique Ingres and successfully assimilated his tight execution and harmonious tonal relationships in his own work. His exquisite painting The One in Yellow (Private Collection), showing a young woman leaning against a large mirror, is a modern homage to Ingres's masterpiece Comtesse d'Haussonville (The Frick Collection). Upon his return from Paris in 1893, Paxton fell under the influence of the leading society painters in Boston: Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, and Joseph De Camp. These artists were collectively referred to as "The Boston School" and taught at the Museum of Fine Arts School of Drawing and Painting, where Paxton himself began teaching in 1906. The paintings of the Boston School are conservative in both style and subject matter. Despite their early attraction to Impressionism with its fascination with capturing the abstract and ephemeral qualities of light, the Boston painters abandoned their painterly style in favor of the atmospheric Tonalism and geometric compositional arrangements of Vermeer. Like the other Boston painters, Paxton experimented with the Impressionist style, but soon opted for the tight execution and near-photographic verisimilitude of Ingres and Gérôme. Paxton's Tea Leaves (Figure 1) reflects the union of these diverse influences; its luminous lighting and silver tonality are reminiscent of Vermeer's interiors while its hard, linear style and realistic depiction of surface detail recall the work of Ingres. The narrow compositional space is dominated by a large, blank, rectangular screen, which partially obscures the mirror behind it. The screen effectively "screens" the viewer from glimpsing the wider world the women inhabit in the mirror's reflection. The absence of doors or windows opening to the outside reinforces the sense of being "hemmed in" by the opulent surroundings. Paxton meticulously renders the textures of the fine linens and silks of the women's dresses and the hard reflections of light upon the silver decanter and the porcelain cups. The various surfaces find correspondences with other objects in the room: the starched linen of the hostess's dress is echoed in the crisp white tablecloth, the 3 folds in the tablecloth are mirrored in the folds of the screen, and the blue trim on the seated woman's hat is repeated in the border of the screen behind her. In this painting, Paxton makes no attempt to differentiate the figures from their decorative surroundings, but rather treats them as ornamental objects themselves.

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