Alexander, who lived in Paris during the 1890s, achieved international success with his studies of female figures gracefully posed in elegant interiors. In this example, the provocative facial expression and supple curves reflect the contemporary French taste for sensual images of women as well as the undulating linear rhythms of Art Nouveau. With its model decoratively attired in a sweep of white fabric, “Repose” was lampooned in a French magazine as a portrayal of Loïe Fuller (1862–1928), the American dancer famous for manipulating swirling folds of silk in her performances at the Folies Bergère in Paris.
This stunning painting by 19th century American artist John White Alexander — who focused on paintings of well-attired young women in luxurious settings — combines the fluid brushwork of fin-de-siécle portrait masters like John Singer Sargent, Cecilia Beaux and William Merritt Chase, with an Art Nouveau compositional sensibility.
The sweeping movement of the gown, the woman’s languorous pose, and the curved forms of the divan and pillows become swirling design elements. Combined with Alexander’s subtly rich color and mastery of value, they lead your eye inexorably through the composition — grabbing your attention with the bright folds of the gown in the foreground, leading you back through the darker area of the woman’s torso and the shadows that envelop it, to the highlight of her gently lit face and forearm — drawing you back into the painting almost like a well-composed landscape.
There are only a few passages in the painting with hard edges, notably the edge of the sleeve in front of the young woman’s mouth — accenting the bottom of her lip; the key folds of her gown where it arcs along the back of her legs, bunches under her hip and just reaches the floor — emphasizing the flow of movement in the composition; and the edges of shadows in the decorative fabrics behind her.