John White Alexander


Benoni Irwin (1840-1896), John W. Alexander President of the Fellowcraft Club, 1891. Oil on canvas. Graphic Arts GA 2006.02630

Written in brown paint on the verso of this canvas is the identification, “Portrait of John W. Alexander, President of The Fellowcraft Club, painted for and presented to the Club by Benoni Irwin April 1891.” John White Alexander (1856-1915) was an American portrait painter who began his career as an apprentice for Harper’s Weekly, before moving to Europe to paint.

Although his primary residence after 1881 was New York City, he continued to travel and exhibit in London, Paris, and Rome. Portrait painting became a specialty and the Princeton University Art Museum holds seven painting by Alexander, including a portrait of our former President James McCosh (1811-1894).

Alexander was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, President of the National Society of Mural Painters, and as this painting attests, President of The Fellowcraft Club. This last organization, founded in 1888, was a monthly eating club for writers and illustrators, “two hundred or more men, most of the active ones on the daily papers of this city.” The first president was Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Century Magazine and Alexander was the second.


Unknown artist, Francesca Alexander and her mother, no date. Oil on board. Graphic Arts GA 2006.02618

The graphic arts collection holds another painting with a pencil inscription on the verso: This painting by John Alexander depicts his daughter Francesca and her mother. Francesca was also a painter — MYH had a few of her paintings in watercolor which went to the Princeton Library.” However, John White Alexander married Elizabeth Alexander (no relation) and they had one child, James Waddell Alexander II, who became a mathematician.

The note refers to Esther Frances Alexander (1837-1917) who was known as Fanny and later Francesca. She was an artist and the graphic arts collection includes four of her sketches including a study for a St. Francis; a sketch of St. Christopher; one of Narcissus; and a cityscape of Rome. Francesca was the daughter of the artist Francis Alexander and the authoress Lucia Gray Swett; no relation to John White Alexander. It is hard to say who the actual artist was or if this image is a lifetime portrait of Francesca.