Alexander James – Psychological Portraits, Landscapes of the Heart (1890 – 1946)

By Edie Clark
Portrait and landscape artist Alexander James was born in 1890 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under a heavy mantel of intellectual and aristocratic expectations. Alec, as he later came to be called, was the son of William James, the pioneering American psychologist, philosopher and pragmatist, and the nephew of Henry James, the best-selling novelist and darling of the social elite. Early efforts to fit Alec into the Harvard mold failed, both literally – he was turned down for admission to Harvard more than once – and spiritually, as the lifestyle of the Boston Brahman was not quite in him. Alec, who would have been diagnosed with dyslexia were there such a term in those days, was hard to typify, the soul of contradiction. As one friend wrote: “he was the patientest impatient man, the most social recluse, the most respectful iconoclast.”

At an early age, Alec showed an interest in art. In this family of creative genius, it is hard to imagine that Alec’s interest in art could have disappointed his famous father. However, it is known that William James felt greatly discouraged, perhaps even chagrined at his son’s failure to gain access to Harvard, where the ground-breaking psychologist and mystic mingled comfortably with the top minds of the day, including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Nonetheless, William James, who himself had apprenticed to William Morris Hunt in his early years, enrolled Alec at the Boston Museum School. There, Alec studied under Frank Benson and met Abbott Thayer who would direct the course of his life first by encouraging him to come to Dublin, New Hampshire, in the summer to continue his studies.

Alec first arrived in Dublin in 1910, where, at that time, numerous artists were coming together, not altogether by chance but not by plan either. Perhaps it could be called a convergence of spirit. Dublin’s natural beauty as well as its embrace of the artistic spirit called to Alec in the deepest way. Though he would stray far from its small-town hold many times, the village was to become his place in the world, a place where he would not only blossom as an artist and raise his family but also a place where he would bring and nurture other artists, carrying on the bold tradition of Abbott Thayer, for whom he carried both a legacy and a debt.

In art school, Alec met Frederika Paine, of Newport, Rhode Island, the daughter of a naval officer. She held the aristocratic bearing to which he was accustomed but she was also an artist, some say that at the time she was a better artist than he, but for him, she gave up her own art and served him for the rest of their lives together. In Alec, she took on a formidable spirit, a force of nature she allowed to soar. She followed him where his restless spirit took him, the first of those places was to Dublin. They married in 1916 and spent the summer of their first year of marriage in a tent pitched on the high land that belonged to Abbott Thayer, their eyes, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, on Mount Monadnock, the icon that would guide the rest of their lives.

In spite of this bohemian streak, they continued their social calendar, which would always hold a stake in both their hearts, dining with the likes of Henry Cabot Lodge, John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Oliver Wendell Holmes. These associations were to serve them well, in spite of Alec’s lifelong ambivalence.

Soon, they departed for Santa Barbara, California, where Alec was looking to start anew and leave his Cambridge bearings behind. There, he took on portrait commissions. He would later call these portraits “warehouse portraits,” so named for their sameness and for their tendency to end up in storage. But, for the time being, he established a lucrative start in portraiture. There, in that fair climate, came the birth of their first son, Alexander Robertson (known always as Sandy), in 1918. According to their youngest and the sole surviving son, Michael (Micky), their time in California was successful but it did not last long, “Papa soon became dissatisfied with his work there and longed again for the rigors of the New England climate. He felt that this harsher climate would be more conducive to his development as an artist.”

No doubt his mentor’s belief in living outdoors even in winter had some bearing on his decision. Part of the beauty and allure laid to Abbott Thayer was not only his art but his lifestyle, which was more like a religion. It is known that Thayer encouraged them to come home and so, sometime around 1919, Alec and Frederika and their infant son packed up and returned.

After they arrived, they traveled to Dublin to see Thayer. Dublin, they agreed, was a place that they held in their hearts and they wished to live there. On their way back to Cambridge, Alec and Freddie stopped to buy gas. At that time, there was a station at the bottom of the hill, near the bend in the main road. They looked across the street at a formidable brick house, tucked in by big maples trees. The place had the feel of an English manor, a bit of Cambridge, a bit of old New England. “Oh, what a lovely house,” they said to each other. A little lady was sitting in a chair in the front yard. Alec and Freddie walked across the street and asked if she would consider selling and, soon enough, the house, which had been built in 1826, was theirs. In spite of many leavings, this house would remain the anchor of their lives together.

A second son, Danny, was born two years later. Micky, who was born there three years later, recently recalled: “I loved that place growing up. But it wasn’t easy living. The water came from a cistern, I can still hear the way it dripped and there were many things that needed fixing, but they lived there until they died. It was a wonderful place.”

There were no gardens there so Alec and Freddie (as she was known to all) designed elaborate gardens around the house and added mortared stone walls with fashionable brick corners to provide privacy and to give the gardens a European look and feel. They added a garden house, made of brick, like something out of Beatrix Potter. Alec set up his painting studio in a small building behind the house. The light was poor but he carried on in that small space, painting portraits, mostly on commission. For a while, he and Richard Meryman operated a school together and portrait commissions came through the wealthy summer residents who loved the peace and the beauty of the lake and of the mountain.

Though portraits were his stock in trade and although it is portraits that comprise the major portion of his legacy, James also painted landscapes. According to Micky, “All landscapes were painted outside, never in the studio. He was very good with them and they came easily to him. He was free with them. But the portraits, he labored and labored over them.”

Micky recalls his father with admiration, respect, and something of a sense of longing. “He had a lovely sense of humor, a great sense of humor but he wasn’t a natural father and my mother was not a natural mother. They met in art school and they should have remained without children. She was a beautiful painter and he was a good student too. They would have had a lovely life without kids but they had three and that’s the sum of it. Then came the Depression.”

Both Alec and Frederika were used to having servants and hired folks to tend to things for them. Scaling down was not a pleasant thought. These new economic constrictions required creative thinking. They discovered that they could rent their house in Dublin to a family from New York and, with that money, they removed themselves to France where life was much cheaper and they were able to carry on in the manner to which they were accustomed. “The Dublin house,” reports Micky, “became the cash cow. They rented it out to rich folks from New York and went to Europe, which seems contradictory but it was much cheaper there.”

And off they went, in 1929, finding a place to rent in St. Jean de Luz, a fishing port in the southwest corner of France known for its architecture, sandy bay and the unusual quality of the light. Alec and Freddie were shown many places that were for rent but they chose one that had been the home of the Duke of Wellington, the noted military officer and statesman of the nineteenth century. They settled in amidst the carved golden mirrors and an infestation of fleas, for which, they soon discovered, the house was famous. Their neighbors were sardine fishermen and daily excursions to the beach for the boys were routine. They were able to find good help, not only to take care of the boys but also to tend to household needs. At one point, Alec and Freddie traveled together to Madrid where they attended bullfights and visited the Prado Museum where Alec absorbed the work of El Greco and Goya, which, according to Micky, was a life-changing experience for him.

But, after the summer spent in St. Jean, Alec once again grew restless. He felt he needed models for his work and a move to Paris was planned. They pulled up stakes and found a suitable spot, not in Paris but in the suburb of Ville d’Avrey, a place, Frederika noted in her journal, where Corot had painted landscapes. There, also, was a school for boys and penny boats that crossed the Seine to Paris, where Alec found himself a studio for the right rent: nothing. Frederika described the house in Ville d’Avrey as “plain, grey, plastered,” but near an orchard and there were gardens and a raspberry patch in the back yard. But the heating system was faulty and they warmed themselves in front of smokey hearthfires, wrapped in coats and scarves, using as well the liquid fire of the French cognac.

Much of Frederika’s time in France, it seems, was spent engaging servants (her word), an assortment of the good and the bad, each with a story attached – for if nothing else, this was a family of storytellers. Once a reliable governess was found, Frederika was often able to join Alec in his Paris studio. “I grew to love my visits,” she wrote in her journal, “the walk through the narrow, damp brick alley to the dilapidated garden, quiet as the deep country; the talk about the day’s happenings; supper in a cafe, and a good sleep in the gay little hole of a bedroom.” Alec’s studio bedroom, she noted, was papered in the “pink pastoral scenes of Toile de Jouy.”

While Frederika searched for good help, Alec sought the right models. He used the women of Paris for his models and developed a technique that brought out their beauty, their grace and dignity, as well as their vulnerability. He eventually found a steady model in Paris, a “wild girl” named Gaetane, but there were others, especially Sonia, a Romanian whom Alec managed to convince Frederika should return to New Hampshire with them. “She could be model and governess!” he vigorously suggested.

“Alec could sell roller skates in Venice,” Frederika wrote of her giving in to his wishes. The young woman, who apparently resembled Cleopatra, traveled with them on the ship home but her behavior managed to turn Alec off so he did not even want to paint her once they arrived. A Romanian family was found and she apparently found happiness elsewhere.

The James family returned home to Dublin in October of 1930, or so it seems from Frederika’s journal which is dated only sporadically. According to Barry Faulkner’s notes that accompanied James’ posthumous show (displayed in 1947 and 1948, first at the Currier Gallery in Manchester, NH, then to Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, and finally at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.), Alec gave up portrait commissions altogether at this time, “burning his bridges” and going “out into the desert.” In fact, he had challenged his friend Richard Meryman with the charge that those who painted these portraits were “whores.” And the desert, it turned out, was a dilapidated center chimney Cape in the woods of Richmond, New Hampshire. This, for Alexander James, was the transformative place, not only for his art but also for his spirit.

A mere twenty-three miles from Dublin, the even smaller town of Richmond was full of rugged characters with wonderful, expressive faces that inspired Alec. Hard-working farmers and loggers made up most of Richmond’s tiny population. In the area of the town known as the Polecat district, Alec found a 113-acre farm. For the sum of $750 – a small fortune in that time of the Depression – he bought from Ozro Bolles the farm and its 1783 house and, for an extra dollar, the contents of the house – the furniture, dishes, tools and all household items. And he set up housekeeping.

Micky says: “It was abandoned. Grass was growing in the middle of the road and there were chickens living inside the house.” Alec went there, by all accounts, not for the land but for the people, for their faces. Micky adds this observation: “When he went to Prado, it was a kind of religious experience for him, a spiritual awakening. The lights went on and then he began painting psychological portraits instead of the formal ones.”

It was Richmond, where the folks were plain and down to earth, that fired Alec’s imagination and brought to him a kind of happiness he perhaps had never felt. He not only painted these people but he bonded with them and worked with them. To Richmond he took with him the family’s beloved handyman Tony Betz, a skilled carpenter from Peterborough. John Delaney, a mason from Peterborough, came also, to help build a new chimney. It was either Tony or Alec who called the Richmond house “the sweetest place on earth,” Micky can no longer recall which one said it, but it was often said, a benediction that has stuck with the memories of the old house.

Tony and Alec swept off the top of the old barn foundation and there built a new studio for Alec, a rough but comfortable place where he worked happily for many years.

In addition, neighbors Franklin and Ethel Morse, Lorie Howard and friend Gerry Whitcomb helped him rebuild the old farmhouse, laying new sills and setting the building back to rights, rejuvenating the inside as well and warming the kitchen table with their yarns. While they worked, Alec not only worked alongside them but he photographed them, especially Lorie Howard, who lived next door. Lorie was a grizzled fellow with an untrimmed beard and tattered clothes, but his eyes were sharp and intuitive. A carpenter’s pencil always stuck up under the brim of his hat, Lorie was the perfect study for the kind of portraits Alec wanted to create, no longer portraits of the wealthy elite but rather portraits of the common man, the workers, their labors evident in their faces and in their hands. In them, Alec found new beauty. Lorie was not only a fascinating study but he was also a good friend to Alec.

Alec’s friend and fellow artist, Barry Faulkner, wrote about these neighbor subjects of Alec’s: “Stepping into the Richmond house you might find the ‘Embattled Farmer,’ who was a selectman of Richmond, stripped to his long winter underwear, doing the town accounts in the warm kitchen. Several of James’s most striking pictures were painted from this friend whose keen intelligence and innate histrionic talent enabled him to produce the revelation of character for which he sought. . . Henceforth, James’s method of painting varied to match the idiosyncracies of his sitter. Sometimes he painted with a passionate directness that was startling in its intensity, at others with a subtlety and wealth of information reminiscent of his uncle’s best prose-portraits.”

These portraits were the justification for Alec’s time in Richmond. In 1937, James had his first New York show at the Walker Galleries, which was successful enough so that three years later, another show was mounted at the same venue.

Alec took up residence in Richmond by himself. Frederika and the children came out to visit on weekends, a pattern that would hold for the rest of his life. Faulkner described it this way: “On Friday nights when school was over his wife and boys would make the long, rough drive to Richmond, to be welcomed by big dogs, fires of four-foot logs and Alec’s contagious gaiety.”

Richmond was his heart and his home. He made it his own and created there a life and a kind of family with the neighbors, with whom he loved to share meals and enjoy the home-brewed beer that emerged from their cellars. There were others named Capraella and a good summer day with a big pot of spaghetti and a jug of wine enjoyed at an outdoor table, with the big extended family gathered all around, was referred to, in Alec’s photo album, as “a Capraella day in Richmond.” Alec, facing the camera with arms flung open wide and a smile almost as wide, could not look like a happier man.

Alec, it turned out, loved to cook and out in Richmond, he did all the cooking. Micky remembers the beautiful meals his father would prepare when they came to visit. “He’d put things together in a big iron pot and make three-day stews. He made biscuits and he baked bread in the big oven. He did it all. He had a big old iron cookstove that he loved, that he was proud of. It was a simple place. There were no amenities out there, no plumbing, no electricity, just an outdoor privy and wood to heat. It was bare bones.”

After more than ten years, in 1941, Alec had an oil burner installed but even so, this was the beginning of the end of the Richmond years. By then, World War II had begun and at the same time, Alec’s health began to deteriorate. Eventually all three of his sons enlisted, all of them sent to various and dangerous areas of the war. Alec suffered great anxiety over their well-being. In 1942, Alec began to plan a studio behind the Dublin house. With his troublesome health, perhaps he felt it was time to find a comfortable place to paint nearer to home. He employed an architect, Eric Gugler, who designed a building with enormous 20 foot windows to the north and to the west. Faulkner described the venture this way: “In spite of illness James continued to paint and embarked on his last great venture. He built himself the perfect studio. Hitherto he had worked in makeshift studios, now he would have space and light – a plentitude of space and all the light in the universe. He began with the frame of a New England barn which, under the sympathetic hands of his architect, grew into a studio forty feet square, twenty feet to the spring of the rafters and pierced from floor to ceiling with great windows. The proportions were superb, and the room looked, as a visitor once remarked, ‘more like a cathedral than a studio.’ The neighbors were as keenly interested in the studio as the owner and they brought him wide pine boards, huge beams, whatever they had which might contribute to and complete the growing structure. It became a monument of love built by willing hands and by hearts warmed by Alec’s nature and the love and understanding he had given the community.”

It was the perfect studio. Alec moved in. Micky remembers it this way: “The war was on and materials were scarce so the place was primitive but he had this wonderful studio and he started to paint. But it was too much! He was beaten back by all the light. All those great windows and he had to put bamboo blinds over the windows the block out that light. He ended up painting in a little corner of this magnificent studio, killing the light. He loved the building. But it wasn’t good for painting. My mother and he slept out there and they sometimes entertained there but it was never a place for his painting.”

The grand studio was finished in October of 1945. By then he was in desperate health. The long war ended and Alec waited to welcome his boys home. Micky recalls, “He’d suffered from angina for three years. He promised my mother he would live until all the boys came home. Sandy came home first, Danny came next. I was the last one home.” Alexander James died of a heart attack one month later on February 26, 1946.

On the day of Alec’s funeral, everything stopped in the village, no work was performed, all stores were closed. The church was filled to capacity to honor this extraordinary artist, friend and citizen. Those who could not get in were left to stand outside in the snow. He was buried in the village cemetery, looking out across Dublin Lake toward Mount Monadnock. These words are carved on the stone that marks his grave: “Love gave him wings.”

After Alec’s death, Frederika worked to carry his artistic legacy forward. She organized exhibits near and far and held art shows in the great studio. She helped mount a retrospective show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that featured two rooms of his portraits and landscapes. Micky says, “She gave up everything for Papa. He was not easy to live with but she loved him dearly. She believed in his work. Absolutely.”

Alec James also possessed a rare generosity of spirit toward young artists. He mentored as he had been mentored, sharing his knowledge and his passion for work on canvas with a variety of young artists. To be given a chance – he knew that mattered and was willing to offer it to any in whom he saw promise. Most notably, he fostered the talents of the eccentric Russian, Gouri Ivanov-Rinov, the 16-year-old Onni Saari, and his dear friend and contemporary, Albert Quigley who made many frames for Alec’s paintings and who accompanied him on many painting expeditions.

All these young talents, the streets and the models of Paris, the rigors of the wealthy intellectual elite, the slick faces of California, the hills and mountains of the Monadnock region, the rugged faces of Richmond, the confusion of dyslexia, all these things made up the tumultuous landscape of Alexander James’ heart, at times a wilderness, at times a place of peace and beauty. His peripatetic search for the right place, the right face, the perfect studio, and a place to rest his heart perhaps brought him to an early death. But he leaves us these faces, these hills, these images, as well as the work of the artists he nurtured – a substantial legacy.

Taped interviews with Michael (Micky) James, Boston, September 2005 and May 2008
Conversations with various family members
Files from the archives of Michael James, photographs, letters and papers from the Richmond days
French Journal by Frederika Paine James, 1886-1971, written in 1933 about the years 1929-1930
Dublin Historical Society, Dublin NH
Catalog from the Memorial Exhibition, Alexander James, for the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester NH, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. July 1947—January 1948
Photo: Photo of Alexander James courtesy of the James family