Flesh and Fabric: William McGregor Paxton
William McGregor Paxton was a leading member of the Boston School during the first quarter of the 20th century, along with his fellow artists Frank Weston Benson and Edmund C. Tarbell. Born in Baltimore in 1869, the family moved to the suburbs of Boston when Paxton was just a few years old. He attended the Cowles Art School in the Massachusetts capital before traveling to Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian. Paxton settled in Newton, just outside of Boston, and eventually married fellow artist Elizabeth Okie, herself a prominent member of the Boston School.
Inspired by the interiors of 17th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer, Paxton utilized a method which he termed “binocular vision,” in which the central area of the composition was sharply defined, in contrast with the slightly blurred background. Paxton was a master at depicting idealized, refined figures in beautiful and elegant interiors, precisely rendered and with a restrained palette that revealed an acute sensitivity to the effects of light. Of his work, Paxton said: “I let the surfaces flow into one another in a supple envelope of light and paint.”
“Interior with Two Nudes” (estimate $100,000-150,000) is characterized by a sense of quietude and introspection. It is the most significant work of a series of nudes Paxton created in 1930. The classical and idealized nudes sit and lie in repose, one turned away from the viewer; the other leading our eye with her languid pose and her right arm extended behind her head. The placement of the two models seems carefully arranged. The artist must have had Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ “L'Odalisque à l'Esclave” in mind when he set the two figures against these crimson and blue harmonies. The foreground figure is a direct quotation from the painting, which was owned by Paxton’s friend and fellow artist Carroll S. Tyson. However, instead of suggesting exotic eroticism like Ingres, Paxton appears more interested in the formal possibilities of the nude and the relationships of flesh tones on maroon, blue and white draperies. Here, Paxton pays meticulous attention to the effects of light as well as flesh and fabric, hence charging the two nudes with tactile and supple qualities. The result is “one of the finest of all Paxton's nudes” (Art and Archeology, 1931), an opinion with which the public concurred, voting the painting the Popular Prize at the Corcoran Biennial in 1931.