Among the many fine paintings of nudes in William McGregor Paxton's oeuvre, there is one that stands out, not because of its excellence per se, but because of how much it differs from the rest of his more recognized works. Painted in 1915, Paxton's Nude (above), when it was first exhibited, prompted the critic for the Boston Herald to declare, "Boston is the figure painter's last stand, and William M. Paxton is one of the comparatively limited number of artists who do the figure as if its every articulation and suspiration were worthy of reverence"² (May 1915). And the Boston Transcript said of the piece that it was "one of the most beautiful nude figures ever painted in America"³ (May 20, 1915). But despite the fact that the painting displays the visual acuity and mastery of color for which Paxton was renowned, it has never completely fit within the rest of Paxton's output - it lacks the finish which is characteristic of the artist's works.
The curious aspect of this mid-career picture is that it remained unfinished. Paxton's students consistently make this observation, and the critics, in an ironic twist of opinion, lamented that the nude lacked Paxton's customary polish. Though the modeling of the flesh tones has been carefully developed, the build-up of the paint layers is clearly less than complete.⁴
Some have argued that Paxton's "occasional flirtation with looser brushwork convinced him that this nude was sufficiently realized,"⁵ and point to the artist's signature and the painting's inclusion in three exhibits prior to its sale to the Museum of Fine Arts as proof that the work was completed to the artist's satisfaction. But perhaps this conclusion, which was included in the catalog for the 1978-79 retrospective of Paxton's paintings, is one based on too little information.
|William McGregor Paxton|
According to Massachusetts artist Thomas Dunlay, the truth behind the painting is that it was left intentionally as an incomplete painting. "The MFA Boston came to Paxton's studio and asked him if the museum could purchase this painting in an unfinished state, as a teaching example for the museum school," says Dunlay, a proud member of the Boston painting tradition. A student of R.H. Ives Gammell, Dunlay was told the story of the painting by his mentor, who had in turn learned the facts from his teacher, Paxton himself.
But what of the exhibits in which Nude 1915 was included? Maybe too much is made of these too. All three exhibits took place in Boston, and were all organized by The Guild of Boston Artists, which Paxton had helped to found just a year earlier. These were not museum exhibitions, but small showings in a then-young gallery owned and operated by a half-dozen of artists of which Paxton was a member.
And as for the signature? Who wouldn't sign a painting that was entering a museum collection?
|Glow of Gold, Gleam of Pearl, 1906|
oil on canvas
75¾ X 35⅜ in.
Indianapolis Museum of Art (gift of Robert Douglas Hunter)
Paxton's consistent use of models and frequent studies of the nude must have made him a reliable character witness. In a newspaper interview headlined "Boston Artists Say Most Models are Upright Girls," Paxton explained the working relationship between artist and the model. Acknowledging that "they compare in virtues with other people of the city," Paxton emphasized that "One gets to be about as conscious of nudity as-as-well as of a horse with or without a blanket over him."⁶ (Boston Herald, September 3, 1911).