John White Alexander, best known in both his day and ours for his elegant, evocative portraits of women, achieved international prominence in the 1890s. During his residence in Paris from 1891 to 1901 he was ranked with Edwin Austin Abbey, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler as a leading American expatriate painter. His circle of friends included such eminent artistic and literary figures as Whistler, August Rodin, Stéphane Mallarmé, Octave Mirbeau, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James. Following his return to New York, he enjoyed great success as a fashionable portraitist and served as president of the National Academy of Design from 1909 until his death.
Alexander was also closely associated with Carnegie Institute. He had grown up in Allegheny City, now part of Pittsburgh, and since childhood had been a close friend of the Institute's first director of fine arts, John W. Beatty. In 1897 he presided over the Carnegie International's Paris advisory committee and several years later executed a major mural project for the Institute, an allegory of Andrew Carnegie's philosophy of industry and democracy entitled Apotheosis of Pittsburgh (1905-15). Carnegie Institute honored Beatty's friend the year after his death with a traveling memorial exhibition of his work.
He began with Harper's Weekly in 1875, but he left this position two years later to study at the Royal Academy in Munich. After a few months there he became one of the "Duveneck Boys," a group of American students (among them his old friend Beatty) who worked with the expatriate painter Frank Duveneck at Polling, Bavaria. Alexander traveled with the Duveneck group to Italy, where he first met Whistler and James, then set up a studio in New York in 1881 and resumed his career as an illustrator. Though he undertook a variety of assignments, including views of New Orleans for Harper's Weekly in 1881 and Irish landscapes and genre scenes for The Century in 1886, his strong suit, in which he had already made great strides as a painter, was portraiture. His portraits, published in The Century between 1886 and 1893, were primarily of literary men such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, John Burroughs, and the historian George Bancroft. John Beatty, in his introductory essay for the catalogue of the 1916 memorial exhibition, praised these drawings as "masterpieces of simple and direct delineation of character."