It’s not very often that you come across an artist active in the twentieth century who not only develops from the style and optics of Vermeer, but painted several ‘problem pictures’. Not only that, but he was American: William McGregor Paxton (1869–1941).
He was born in Baltimore, MD, and moved to Newton Corner, MA, when still a child. He started his art training at Cowles Art School in Boston at the age of 18, then studied with Dennis Miller Bunker, a friend of John Singer Sargent. He was one of the American artists who won himself a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he became a pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Paxton married in 1899, his wife both modelling for him and managing his career successfully. He taught at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, but lost many of his paintings in a studio fire in 1904. He was a successful and sought-after portraitist, with two US Presidents among his subjects.
In addition to portraits, Paxton painted domestic interiors with two distinctive features: he adopted what he considered to be the optical system developed by Vermeer, and some aspects of his lighting and style, and he favoured genteel unresolved narratives in the manner of ‘problem pictures’ which were popular between about 1890 and 1910. These are best seen in this small selection of his works.
In the Studio from 1905 is a good demonstration of what he termed Vermeer’s “binocular vision”. His model is in crisp focus, and as the eye wonders further away from her as the optical centre of the painting, edges and details become progressively more blurred. When you look at the folding screen at the left, it’s really quite soft focus, much as had been used in Vermeer’s paintings.
This painting of a woman marvelling at The String of Pearls from 1908 shows this clearly when you study his rendering of the different strings of pearls across its image. Sharpest focus is in the woman’s face and the pearls she is staring at wide-eyed. Those adorning her dress are a bit fuzzier, and those in the reflection and on her lap resemble the defocussed jewellery in some of Vermeer’s paintings.
The following year, Paxton’s Tea Leaves (1909) not only uses this ‘binocular vision’ but lures us to speculate what is going on. Two well-dressed young women are taking tea together. The woman in the blue-trimmed hat seems to be staring into the leaves at the bottom of her cup – a traditional means of fortune-telling – but neither seems to be talking to the other.
Notice the zone of relative sharpness extending from the right shoulder of the woman at the left, across the silver teapot to the hands of the woman in the hat. This contrasts markedly with the much softer blue edge of the screen above them, for instance.
Paxton not only had the advantage of being able to study Vermeer’s paintings – he and his wife travelled in Europe – and understanding of modern optics, but experienced the widespread use of cameras with lenses that had limited depth of field (sometimes erroneously referred to as depth of focus). Objects beyond the depth of field first appear slightly softer, then more blurred, until they can finally lose all form. This has been exploited to produce optical effects in the out-of-focus zone, known most recently as bokeh. And like Vermeer, Paxton was not only exploring depth of field effects, but bokeh in objects such as jewellery. Yet the term bokeh wasn’t used, in Western photography at least, until around 1997.
Paxton’s domestic interiors included not just the posh people, but their servants, here The House Maid also from 1910. She should be dusting with the feather mop tucked under her arm. Instead she’s completely absorbed in reading. The sharpest focus here is in the maid’s left arm and shoulder, rather than the objets d’art on the chess table in the foreground.
The New Necklace (1910) is one of Paxton’s best-known paintings, and perhaps his most intriguing open narrative. A younger woman is sat at a narrow ‘bureau’ writing. She has turned her chair so that she can reach behind and hold out her left hand to receive the new necklace of the title. This is being lowered into her hand by a slightly older woman, in a dark blue-green dress, whose face and eyes are cast down, and her left hand rests against her chin.
Unlike the ‘problem pictures’ which had become so popular at the Royal Academy in London, this story is light and whimsical, not a matter of life and death. But the viewer is still invited to imagine what transaction is taking place in front of that glittery folding screen, and under the watchful eye of the small figurine at the upper left. What hold does the seated woman have over the other?
Most of Paxton’s paintings are of his time, and quite unlike those of Vermeer in their motifs or even composition. Woman with Book from about 1910 is one notable exception, with sunlight cast through the window at the left, a woman (who even looks like one of Vermeer’s models) standing reading a large book, and a painting on the wall behind her. Its optical focus seems to be in the purse which she holds high against her left shoulder. And look at those blurry bright reflections below the arm of the chair in the left foreground.
The Breakfast from 1911 could so easily have been hung alongside some of the great European ‘problem pictures’ of the day. Should it perhaps have been titled Marriage of Convenience?
There appears to be a long gap in Paxton’s domestic interiors from 1911 to The Figurine in 1921. Their narratives seem to have faded away, but his ‘binocular vision’ is just as marked, putting the painted figurine into sharp focus, but making the woman’s face far softer. It’s also intriguing that, late in his career, Paxton turned to paintings of sculpted figures, in just the way that his former teacher Gérôme had done a quarter of a century earlier.
There is one undated open narrative, The Escape, which shows a woman who appears to be trying to let herself out of the house and escape, maybe from the confines of Paxton’s painting too?
Paxton also painted at least one mythological work, Nausicaä, from before 1937. Here he picks the moment of Odysseus’ first appearance before Nausicaä, just before her handmaids scatter in fright. Although the text of the Odyssey doesn’t state that they were nude at this stage, when they were playing ball after lunch, the artist startles us with eight females and one male nude packed into a single canvas. Perhaps it’s just as well this is a small image, for which I apologise.
Paxton was an important figure in the development of painting in North America, co-founder of the Guild of Boston Artists, and a leader of the Boston School of painting. He is also one of relatively few artists to have died when painting his wife: he suffered a heart attack and died in his living room studio in 1941, at the age of seventy-two.
Looking at his paintings now, I think they explain not how Vermeer achieved his optical effects, but more importantly why.
I’m extremely grateful to Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems for drawing my attention to this artist and his wonderful paintings.