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A Boy of the Boston School: the illustrated edition

A Boy of the Boston School

The invitation I jumped at was to root around in my own memory of the Museum of Fine Arts, starting in the 1950s.  My real agenda was also to examine and nail my impression that John Singer Sargent and what became the MFA aesthetic had managed to postpone the arrival of the 20th Century in Boston for at least 50 years or more, well into my time as a museum visitor and summertime drawing student.  I’m a little sore about it.

Here is what I’ve been musing about on the way here this evening: the triggers and stumbling blocks of expressive energy in every one of us; and this amazing power of provincial taste known as the Boston School to eclipse a world sensibility known as modern art. 

The little Lydon kids, 6 of us, felt the force of the Boston School concentrated in the exquisite person of Elizabeth Paxton—an accomplished painter and a close family friend, also the student, model and wife of William McGregor Paxton, a very popular pillar of the Boston School.   William Paxton died about the time I was born, but Betty Paxton lived in beauty and style to her mid-nineties, my thirties.  And she never stopped saying that Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Klee, Modigliani, Cubists, Abstractionists, cursed Modernists all, only did what they did because they couldn’t draw a straight line and hadn’t studied color. 

How, I still wonder, did she and those grand Bostonians cling to their view, much less propagandize us?  John Updike writes about something entirely different that he took away from his afternoons at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in his twenties.  “Gaiety, diligence and freedom” –I love those words—were the gifts he got at MOMA from Juan Gris, Braque, Brancusi and Cezanne, as well as Matisse and Picasso.  “A freedom from old constraints of perspective and subject matter, a freedom to embrace and memorialize the world anew, a fearless freedom drenched in light.” 

These were things that Boston boys learned later, or elsewhere, or not at all, or are still learning.  But things we didn’t get at the MFA.  I wonder what it cost me.  I am also wondering: was there a grain of truth in all that Bostonian damnation of ugly and incompetent painting from the Teens and Twenties straight on through to Hell?  Also:  is it allowed to enjoy the Boston painters ever again?

First, just a little of my own introspection: So many images from the MFA in my boyhood are sharp and significant; the interesting thing is they all signify something else: 

Degas’ bronze dancing girl was all about dawning Eros.  At 13 or 14, I had a crush that chokes me up to this moment on that lithe, springy compact little dancer.  She was the personification of rapture, girlishness centered and self-confident, ready to spring, blissfully aware that she is irresistible.  She was my dream girl; maybe still is.

John Singleton Copley’s “Paul Revere” was a metaphor of Boston itself: historic painter, giant American subject, but over and done, much too heroic for what Boston had become, too good perhaps for this dowdy museum.  That Paul Revere portrait was my first brush with a very Boston hang-up.  For ambitious kids wanting to be worldly there was ambivalence about Boston itself.  The question was: Is Boston a smaller version of New York, or a larger version of Quincy?  Was I going to stay here?  Or as Gauguin put it in the title of an MFA treasure that we didn’t exactly get: “Where Do We Come From?  What are We? and Where Are We Going?”

Jean Leon Gerome’s “Eminence Gris” riveted me two ways:  first, the flawless precision of the brushwork was breathtaking—still is; not to mention the court drama around this Power Monk—the man behind the man behind the throne.  More important for me, the hot link beyond the painting went to matters of class and local politics.  I looked at those steps under the Grey Eminence’s feet and what I saw, and still see, is the tawny marble staircase of the Boston Public Library.  Then and now that library and those steps stand for a double message about social standards that may be peculiar to this town as we grew up in it.  First aristocratic message: the public library is a palace on a European model, on a platform, aristocratic, grand.  Second populist message: in the inscription facing Copley Square: the Public Library of the City of Boston, Built by the People for the Advancement of Learning, and as it says in stone over the door, it’s “Free to All.”  The building went up in 1895 at the very moment my father’s parents arrived in Boston, illiterate peasants from the West of Ireland.  My father loved to spend a Sunday afternoon in the great reading room beyond those stairs.  His sister Sarah assured us it was among the handful of most beautiful public buildings in the world.  The Gerome painting compressed the meaning of the BPL down almost to postage-stamp size: deluxe Old World style, at the service of self-improvement here in Boston.  The trick for us as kids was mastering books, and then the world would be open to us.  Of course none of this was in the painting, but it’s what the painting conjures in me still.

Sargent’s “Daughters of Edward Boit.”  My God, what a painting.  But what I saw as a teenager was four High Protestant pre-debutantes, beautiful children of the prep-school caste.  I’m not sure when I discovered they were in Paris.  I placed the urns, the Chinese rug, the girls all on Commonwealth Avenue.  I had crushes on those girls, too, the three who were standing for sure.  But I was seeing them from the other side of the tracks and a little ashamed of my interest in them.

This sounds strange to tell—and not what I mean to dwell on—but my vision in the MFA was that of an Irish-Catholic kid on the make, and self-conscious about it.  I came to the Museum in those days for drawing lessons in the summer.  Our teacher, as it happened, had been my 4th or 5th grade Sunday school catechism teacher at the Holy Family Church in Duxbury a few years earlier.  Leo Prince was curly-haired and handsome, an Italian who could have passed for anything, a good draftsman and a good man who showed us how to render shoes and hands, plaster manikins in the classroom, Roman busts upstairs, how to manipulate soft lead and also pen and ink.  It came to hours of enchantment and a small stack of respectable drawings for the archive until the hideous moment at the end of college when the family moved out of a big house in Milton to a small one in Watertown and I foolishly heaved my oeuvre into a trash barrel.  So the record is gone.  Part of what lingers from my drawing-class head at age 14 is the notion that I had a Catholic connection, of course unspoken, with Mr. Prince.  It was an intimation somehow of safety and seriousness.  I had an embattled Catholic stance on a lot things in those days, including other matters artistic.  John LaFarge, of the stained-glass windows in Trinity Church, we understood to have been an RC like us, and we were encouraged to take some pride in that, even though Trinity, as a Protestant  Church, was strictly speaking off-limits.  Also, for example: the ban on modern art in general was lifted in the case of George Roualt—because anyone could see the strong piety in those heavy strokes, in so many Roualt images of Jesus.

What memory churns up around MFA images, in short, has almost nothing to do with painting or aesthetics or art at all.  The boy in the museum was trying to locate himself on many maps—sex, love, politics, belief, the wider world, how to get ahead and save his soul.  And the museum was just a very suggestive place to explore the possibilities.

With all that as preface—as a way of saying it’s not about art; it’s about us; it’s about me—let’s talk about the Boston School.

The Boston School: The Four Horsemen and Ives Gammell

The Four Horsemen of the Boston School were riding high 100 years tonight, at a peak of their prosperous productivity.  Let’s look at their work.

Joseph DeCamp was the eldest, born just before the Civil War; and from Cincinatti, the only non-New Englander. 

Frank Benson and Edmund Tarbell were both born in 1862, Benson in Salem, Tarbell in West Groton, Massachusetts, though he migrated to town and graduated from the English High School in Boston.  Benson was the illustrator, in effect, of the first Preppy Handbook, as in “A Calm Day.”  Women wear white and sit in repose.  Men and ducks are set handsomely outdoors.  Tarbell is an American Monet with images of upper-class women and children at play. William Paxton, born five years after the Civil War, was the son of a caterer and a graduate of Newton High School. 

They’d all gone to Europe as very young men: DeCamp to Munich, the others to Paris, to apprentice themselves to old masters, as Sargent had.

John Sargent, as they called him, was of course the definitive “Boston” painter of the period, but he was not of the Boston School.  He was a virtuoso and a genius of sharp characterization and blazing sword-strokes of paint, even if it took him many tries, many re-paintings to get the stroke just right.

The Bostonians, by contrast, were patient perfectionists about color and form.  Their aim was not virtuosity but veracity in color relations and highly considered grace, proportion, and balance in composition.

They were impressionists in a city that bought a lot of Monet: capital I Impressionists in that sense.  But they were lower-case impressionists in the broad division that their student Robert Douglas Hunter makes of all painting since the Renaissance.  Impressionists, as he said to me, none moreso than Vermeer and Velazques, aim to paint what the eye sees—and by Bob Hunter’s definition, painting is the easy part; the real test is figuring out what it is your eye has absorbed.  In the other camp, Academic painters, starting with Michelangelo and Rafaello, paint what the mind knows is there.  The Boston painters, though dismissed eventually as “academic,” were surely impressionists in that broader sense. William Paxton in particular was an almost scientific student of “binocular vision,” how the two eyes focused very selectively and threw the periphery of their interest into double-images and blurred impressions.  Paxton’s pictures often tried to reproduce that effect.  About color above all, he and his colleagues were relentless: getting the complexities of color right and true, in original combinations.  Vermeer was the closest thing they had to a god of color, but even Vermeer wasn’t quite as perfect as they wanted to be.

It was a marvelously exclusive fraternity these Boston painters had: master professionals all, they were their own teachers, students and judges.  When the Museum School installed above them an administrator who was not an artist, they quit all together, went back to their studios, and that was that. Critics who were not themselves accomplished painters had no standing whatsoever with them.  Think of Tom Wolfe’s history of modern art, The Painted Word, in which critical theory becomes the absolutely required framework for seeing Abstract Expressionism: without Clement Greenberg there is no Jackson Pollock; progressing to the laughable point where the art disappears and only the criticism lives on: it’s no painting, all theory.  The Boston School thrived at the other pole of that history: it was all painting, no theory.  These were prize-winning painters who had not much time for kibitzers outside their circle.  There was pain in this for Paxton in the sense that as one of his admirers said: anybody at all could see something wrong in a Paxton painting—a saccharine tendency, say, or the narrowness of his social context; but only an advanced student of painting history and technique could see the subtleties he was getting brilliantly right. 

Paxton was convinced, as he said in 1921, that “the best group of painters in the world today is right here in Boston.”  Which sounds like my mother’s joke about the visitor to Boston from faraway, Philadelphia probably, who asked a Boston lady: “And where do you get your hats?”  And the Boston lady replied:  “Get our hats?  My dear, we have our hats!”  By God, Boston had its painters, too, and the world seemed to know it.  Three Presidents of the United States commissioned Boston portraits: Grover Cleveland by Paxton, Theodore Roosevelt by DeCamp, and Woodrow Wilson by Tarbell.

It’s curious to me that though these Bostonians were all trained in Europe and crossed the Atlantic regularly, they were not cross-cultural.  Except for Paxton apparently they were not well read, and not much interested in music.  The Diaghilev ballet company that came to Boston in 1914 with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring made no impression on them.  They were blindsided by the Armory Show of 1913 which marked the arrival of modernism in New York, also Chicago and Boston—Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”  As they were blindsided also by World War I and later by the social crisis of the Depression.  William Paxton in his self-effacement and maybe his chagrin could be quite funny about it:  “What success has come to me is chiefly as a painter of bank presidents.  In no branch of the arts,” he said, “have whiskers played so important a part.”

Our Boston School: the ladies on Montvale Road and Ives Gammel

            That’s the short form on the Boston School.  I also want to introduce you to my Boston School.  Her name was Betty Paxton.  Elizabeth Vaughan Okie Paxton, born in Providence in 1877.  Mrs. Paxton to us.  She was a widow in the quarter century we knew her, but for forty-plus years she had been the student, then wife and model for many of William Paxton’s paintings.  “It is doubtful,” Ives Gammell wrote, “whether any painter ever had a more beautiful wife.”  It staggered us: she had great legs and a face and figure to turn heads well into her 90s.  I don’t know how many times we asked my mother: “How old is Mrs. Paxton?”  My mother was absorbed in the question, too, and would recalculate by marriage dates and other clues and guesswork, but the numbers never came out right.  Betty Paxton was impossibly young and pretty in every dimension, including her house at 19 Montvale Road in Newton Center, her rose trellises, her picnic baskets with cucumber sandwiches in blue linen napkins:  the look of her life recapitulated those paintings.

          My Aunt Sarah was a maiden lady with a small business; she was a sort of third parent in our family.  She came to live at Betty Paxton’s house for the last 15 years of her life in the 1950s and 60s.  So to visit Aunt Sarah was to enter Paxton World: the paintings and the orthodoxy in a house that William Paxton had had designed for wall space above all, for his own paintings that hung there in abundance for 30 years after his death. 

We were kids coming up from the country on those visits to Mrs. Paxton’s house for great occasions in Boston like the BAA track meet or the Bob Cousy/Bill Sharman Celtics.  I specially remember coming to Mrs. Paxton’s, because we had no television on our little farm in North Duxbury, to watch the Marciano-Walcott title rematch in 1953: over in one round.  And I know that my Aunt Sarah and Betty Paxton and I together at Braves Field, now BU’s football field, watched one of the incomparable spectacles of 20th Century sports, which is to say: Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers dancing off third base, taunting the Braves’ pitcher, and picking his moment to steal home as only he could.  The same night at Braves Field, Carl Furillo of the Dodgers threw one of his famous perfect strikes to home plate from right field.  “Mr. Caffarillo,” Mrs. Paxton called him.  “A remarkable throw by Mr. Caffarillo.”  I wasn’t sure she really got the baseball experience, but she was a sport about it, and about us.

          She didn’t declaim about painting, but she didn’t have to.  The work on her walls said it all.  She’d also bestowed on us a book that left a deep mark:  “The Twilight of Painting,” by R. H. Ives Gammell, published in the late 1940s.  It was a sort of manifesto of the Boston School, after it had died, an unremitting and often ridiculous assault on modern painting: worthless rubbish, Gammell thought, symptomatic of the profound spiritual disruption of the distressful era between the world wars, a wrecking ball that had discredited and virtually destroyed the laboriously built technology of European painting.  It’s been fun to rediscover the genteel fury of Gammel’s book:  “The pervading characteristic of contemporary painting,” he declared, “is it’s fundamental technical incompetence.”  The discrediting of craftsmanship came inevitably, he said, with “so much prominence and praise to the slovenly, the inchoate, the crude and the clumsy.”

          The book had illustrative plates in case you wondered who he was talking about: Dali, Diego Rivera, Orozco, Chaim Soutine, Chagal, Picasso, Dufy and Matisse.

Leaving School: Fighting Arrested Development and Discovering Life:

          Even at 10 or 12 I knew the cadences of reactionary nonsense, but by the time we went off to college, we were laughing about both the doctrine and the work of those Boston painters.  Back Bay Vermeers, we pegged them, Boston’s Little Masters, little and shrinking, so obviously derivative in subject matter and style, so vacantly leisure-class, empty and idle.  The Boston School embodied the threat of arrested development, in them, in us, so we fled them with shame and embarrassment.  Call this period: Running Away from the Boston School.  But we hung on to the hand-me-down Paxtons we had. 

          It occurs to me now that this was precisely when we discovered music.  And for all the knocks on the Eisenhower Fifties, it was an fabulously rich time in which we discovered Erroll Garner, Chuck Berry, the Ellington band, Joe Williams and the Basie band, the sounds of Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie through to Miles, Coltrane and the “Kind of Blue” album.  It was just a few blocks really from the Museum of Fine Arts, right over the tracks, literally, to Connolly’s Bar on Tremont Street.  And some of the best of the brilliant sounds to be heard in those days had Boston roots: Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, the high and low notes of the Ellington reed section, and Sonny Stitt and Roy Haynes, all reappeared from time to time in their home town.  We got hooked on sounds and a sensibility that put the Boston painters in perspective, in their place, and sealed the Boston School into the past.

          Betty Paxton re-entered my life a couple of years ago with the “Studio of Her Own” show that Erica Hirshler curated here at the MFA.  The range of gifts in a sympathetic circle of women artists at the turn of the 20th Century (Lillian Westcott Hale, Gretchen Rogers, Betty Paxton among them) was provocative.  So was Deborah Weisgal’s line in the New York Times review that Elizabeth Paxton may well have been a better painter than her celebrated husband.  There was also the curious note that Betty Paxton’s work was hard to evaluate because it had disappeared into the hands of personal fans and private collectors.  Nobody knew where to look for it, but what I knew was that we had three Betty Paxton’s—all lovely and quite distinct, as you can see.  But surely I thought: it’s a moment at least to ask: what was this work and this woman all about?

          I don’t have a satisfying answer to the question.  Consider her painting “The Open Window,” the only full figure study I’ve seen of hers.  It’s a profile of a woman at a sewing machine, looking leftward to the light, her hands on the cloth under the needle.  It’s an accomplished treatment of surfaces: plaster wall, tissue-paper patterns pinned up behind her, the cloth of her coat and the material she is sewing.  In the “Studio of Her Own” show, people wondered: was she gazing through the window in hope of escape?  Is this a working seamstress wishing she could “take this job and shove it?”  Is she a lady having fun with a new machine?  Might not the picture be a modern, mechanized version of many pictures we’ve seen of women at relaxed work with their needlepoint frames?  Surely the title of the painting is there to say she is looking with feeling somewhere beyond her sewing.  But it would be hard to argue from the painting that she is discontented, or happy with her situation. 

          Her “breakfast tray” paintings look like nothing so much as the meals that Betty Paxton would set before us with a graceful air of mastery at Montvale Road.  I can taste the fresh orange juice, which she would have squeezed herself.  There are so many brilliant effects in each of these understated, modest but memorable images:  the reflections of a yellow apple in a silver dish, of a silver creamer in a silver coffee pot, the golden brown crust of a Parker House roll, the shell of a cupped egg, a postage stamps on the morning mail, a soft cotton napkin and a starched one.

My sense is that these paintings are about painting, about illusion, about color and the mysterious assimilation by the eye of many, many effects.  As people would say about abstract paintings that Betty Paxton wouldn’t like, these are paintings about themselves.  We all know sonnets that burst with passionate statement, and other sonnets that are tricks and games within the form.  We’re looking, I think, at sonnets in paint about a set of games that Betty Paxton learned from and alongside her husband, with a certain playfulness and immense delight.  They are about the tricks of light and paint that make the suggestion of the shadow under the knife blade in front of “The Yellow Apple,” or the skin of the egg, or the stiffness of that blue napkin.  They are also about time—the gift of the time that she was afforded to master this game.  I can see her in a gray smock at her easel, cheerfully engaged, confident, an artist as purposeful and professional as any dentist.  I remember her as a woman without self-doubt.  She made these paintings happily.   They are remarkably skillful celebrations of her own constancy, and wit, and in the end they are lovely indeed, as she was.

Rediscovering Boston: the Paintings I’d Steal:

            The test when people with me visit a museum or a gallery, the final


question is: which one, if you dared, would you steal?  In a general tour of 


the Boston School, here’s my list in Letterman reverse order:


12   Dennis Bunker: The Pool at Medfield.

I’ll take this just to remind me to learn more, and see more of our New England Monet. Bunker was a prodigiously strong painter whose death at the age of 29 is still deemed mysterious.  A friend of Monet’s and of Sargent’s, he was Paxton’s most important American mentor.


11   Joseph DeCamp: The Blue Cup. 

 An Edwardian pin-up, almost, a candy-box cover.  But it’s rescued from the conventional or the merely pretty by a marvelous understanding of light.

10   Frank Benson: Portrait of My Daughters. 

Because we have three daughters, too, and could have endless fun arguing and analyzing the triangle of these personalities on canvas and in life.

Dennis Bunker:  Jessica.

The unconventional power of the face and the lighting all suggest Thomas Eakins and prompt us to keep asking why Eakins’ images have so much more muscle, action and character than the typical Bostonian’s.  Bunker, had he lived a long life, would have given Boston painting another reputation.

Childe Hassam: Rainy Day, Boston. 

Because he caught something about light and weather along Columbus Avenue and the South End that has not changed to this day.

William Paxton: Nude

Only the right hand is in focus here—a clue to the many other designs that Paxton was plotting in the arrangement of shapes and color masses and in the consideration of beautiful human flesh.


6   Conger Metcalf: Honor

This was a portrait from memory of our youngest daughter at the age of 4.  Remarkably it caught spirit and looks in Honor’s eyes that are entirely recognizable in her today, nearly 25 years later.  Honor is in the hall tonight, and the door prize goes for spotting the young woman by this early likeness.




Sargent:  Venice Interior  

Check the linen trousers on the man leaning on the table at the left: We can feel the fabric and admire the perfect tailoring, but look again: it’s only a couple of miraculous stabs of paint that have suggested all that.  The painting looks like a scene out of The Wings of the Dove, which is to say it pulses with narrative energy around passions that are genteel but real.

Gretchen Rogers: Woman in Fur Hat

Because it, too, has a Jamesian dimension of intelligence and independence.  In her eyes, this lady looks as determined as Isabel Archer to choose her own path, as tough as Kate Croy, as irresistible as Millie Theale.


Elizabeth Paxton: Anemones 

In the unusually intense green-yellow back-lighting of the image, this jug of flowers reminds me of the Gretchen Rogers.  Only one flower is focus.  Each of a dozen blossoms seems different in temperament.  The spool of thread and its reflection in marble are the artist’s strong signature, in her late 80s!

William Paxton: The Green Dolman

Check the hand that has paused in donning a glove, in this rather roosterish image of the painter’s mature wife.  Here is the hidden sensuality of Edwardian Boston—of the physical charge between Betty and Bill Paxton, at all events—but in this case it is hidden in plain sight.  It’s a gorgeously erotic image of a tightly jacketed woman, with only her face and one hand showing.  Was ever a striking face more beautifully placed and framed?

Sargent: Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

Among the legends about this perfectly square canvas is that none of the four girls, so individual in their matching aprons, ever married.  Which only underlines the feeling that lurks in this painting of a Henry James plot, some variation on Turn of the Screw, or What Maisie Knew.  What Maisie didn’t know, perhaps, or was bound to find out.  In the Metropolitan show this spring (2003) on what Manet learned and applied from Velazques, Sargent’s Daughters were hung as a climactic example of the American effect.  In such strong company, this was unmistakably a masterpiece: beautiful and dark and provocative of a new line of emotional inquiry every time we see it.




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