A tour de force of eroticism

John White Alexander painted “Repose” in Paris under the influence of Whistler

John White Alexander (1856). Repose, 1895. On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
John White Alexander (1856). Repose, 1895. On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Art museums are filled with pictures of naked men and women, something I personally have no problem with but which I freely concede can create embarrassment and possibly even resentment. (There’s nothing like wandering through the Greek and Roman galleries to remind you you’re no Hercules or Aphrodite.) So it’s refreshing to get a strong, cool blast of sensuality without anyone having exposed any skin.

Full of sinuous curves, rich and mellow coloring, and tautly stretched fabric, “Repose” is one of the sexiest art works I know. Painted by John White Alexander in Paris in 1895, it is drenched in a mood of dusky indolence.

In truth, the painting, which hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is almost too seductive. Missing any grace note of gaucheness to save it from its own shameless resplendence, it is a picture that clearly has designs on you. But give into them, I say. Why not?

Alexander was born in Allegheny, Pa. Orphaned in infancy, he was raised by his grandparents and began his career in 1875 as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. Two years later he went to Europe, like so many American painters of his generation. He studied in Germany and traveled to Italy, where he met James McNeill Whistler, a major influence, and novelist Henry James.

Returning to the United States in 1881, Alexander worked in New York as an illustrator and a successful society portrait painter. But he spent the 1890s in Paris, recognized by then as a star on both sides of the Atlantic.

Like John Singer Sargent, Alexander was heavily influenced by the brisk, dashing brushstrokes of Diego Velazquez and Frans Hals. But he also fell under the spell of Whistler’s emphasis, in his “nocturnes” and “symphonies,” on design and abstract form, and his musical emphasis on mood.

Whistler’s mature work concealed all evidence of his brush. He applied pigment that he diluted in unusually liberal quantities of oil onto chalky, absorbent grounds. Alexander adopted aspects of this technique, tweaking it toward what the art historian Joyce Hill Stoner has called “weavism” — “rubbed-down paint that reveals the weave of the canvas below as part of the overall visual effect.”

Get close to “Repose” and you can see both the weave of the canvas and just how thin and fluid the paint is. Part of the painting’s sensuous effect — its appeal to our sense of touch — comes from the few, brief outbreaks of impasto (paint that stands out from the surface): where the rumpled dress breaks away from the woman’s body at her waist; around the contours of her backside; and even on her teeth.

“Repose” feels like a salute to another painting with the same title — an 1871 portrait of the painter Berthe Morisot by Whistler’s friend Édouard Manet. Like Manet, Alexander deploys stark contrasts of black and white. But he makes of these strong graphic elements something more explicitly designed, edging the image away from realism and toward the poetic suggestiveness of symbolism.

Note the rhymes and half-rhymes that connect the black stripes of the dress and the woman’s contours with the long bow of the slumping sofa back and the circular ornamental pattern at left. Together with the gorgeous color harmonies, it all expresses a sort of dream of wholeness, but a dream that has just enough serpentine flicker and squirm not to sink into anything resolved and boring.

Every long-term relationship should be so lucky.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

A tour de force of eroticism

John White Alexander painted “Repose” in Paris under the influence of Whistler

John White Alexander (1856). Repose, 1895. On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
John White Alexander (1856). Repose, 1895. On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Art museums are filled with pictures of naked men and women, something I personally have no problem with but which I freely concede can create embarrassment and possibly even resentment. (There’s nothing like wandering through the Greek and Roman galleries to remind you you’re no Hercules or Aphrodite.) So it’s refreshing to get a strong, cool blast of sensuality without anyone having exposed any skin.

Full of sinuous curves, rich and mellow coloring, and tautly stretched fabric, “Repose” is one of the sexiest art works I know. Painted by John White Alexander in Paris in 1895, it is drenched in a mood of dusky indolence.

In truth, the painting, which hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is almost too seductive. Missing any grace note of gaucheness to save it from its own shameless resplendence, it is a picture that clearly has designs on you. But give into them, I say. Why not?

Alexander was born in Allegheny, Pa. Orphaned in infancy, he was raised by his grandparents and began his career in 1875 as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. Two years later he went to Europe, like so many American painters of his generation. He studied in Germany and traveled to Italy, where he met James McNeill Whistler, a major influence, and novelist Henry James.

Returning to the United States in 1881, Alexander worked in New York as an illustrator and a successful society portrait painter. But he spent the 1890s in Paris, recognized by then as a star on both sides of the Atlantic.

Like John Singer Sargent, Alexander was heavily influenced by the brisk, dashing brushstrokes of Diego Velazquez and Frans Hals. But he also fell under the spell of Whistler’s emphasis, in his “nocturnes” and “symphonies,” on design and abstract form, and his musical emphasis on mood.

Whistler’s mature work concealed all evidence of his brush. He applied pigment that he diluted in unusually liberal quantities of oil onto chalky, absorbent grounds. Alexander adopted aspects of this technique, tweaking it toward what the art historian Joyce Hill Stoner has called “weavism” — “rubbed-down paint that reveals the weave of the canvas below as part of the overall visual effect.”

Get close to “Repose” and you can see both the weave of the canvas and just how thin and fluid the paint is. Part of the painting’s sensuous effect — its appeal to our sense of touch — comes from the few, brief outbreaks of impasto (paint that stands out from the surface): where the rumpled dress breaks away from the woman’s body at her waist; around the contours of her backside; and even on her teeth.

“Repose” feels like a salute to another painting with the same title — an 1871 portrait of the painter Berthe Morisot by Whistler’s friend Édouard Manet. Like Manet, Alexander deploys stark contrasts of black and white. But he makes of these strong graphic elements something more explicitly designed, edging the image away from realism and toward the poetic suggestiveness of symbolism.

Note the rhymes and half-rhymes that connect the black stripes of the dress and the woman’s contours with the long bow of the slumping sofa back and the circular ornamental pattern at left. Together with the gorgeous color harmonies, it all expresses a sort of dream of wholeness, but a dream that has just enough serpentine flicker and squirm not to sink into anything resolved and boring.

Every long-term relationship should be so lucky.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.