Julian Alden Weir

American, 1852 - 1919
In this painting, Weir depicted his subject seated in what several critics of the era described as a marble chair. Her loose-fitting dress of light-weight diaphanous folds is classically inspired. Weir rendered the fabric in a painterly manner, applying his pigment in translucent layers and leaving evidence of his brushwork present on the surface. His approach diverges from smooth surfaces that were the standard academic approach of the day, as Weir would have been taught to produce by Jean Léon Gérôme, his teacher. The neckline is dropped, falling to reveal the subject’s left shoulder and her white porcelain-like skin. Her right elbow rests on the arm of the chair, while her right hand is positioned against her head in a gesture of thought. The figure does not appear to lean against her hand. Instead, with her neck arched and her head turned slightly to the right, she gazes upward in an otherworldly direction. Her left hand rests over the edge of a kithara, an instrument in the lyre family consisting of seven strings and a wooden sounding box at its base. On the right arm of the chair is an image shown, as if carved in relief, of a standing figure holding a sketchy version of a kithara; the subject was identified by several critics of the era as the Greek god Apollo. A headband contains the woman’s full red hair. This aspect of the subject brings to mind the red tresses in the paintings of women created by the English Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but Weir’s subject has a more serious and less erotic quality than Rossetti’s. The background of the painting is dark yet glowing. One critic described it as “transparent and mysterious,” while noting that “the pearly figure grows out of it [and] is not projected on it.” In the upper right, an x-shape is visible, which gives the background the sense that it is a place rather than strictly a backdrop. This is further suggested in an engraving after the painting that was printed in 1888, which reveals a background that appears to be a wall of rock, in which grooves are visible. It is unclear whether Weir himself created the engraving, but that it dates from 1888 suggests that he would have been aware of it.

That Weir perceived his Muse of Music as a work of critical importance in his oeuvre is demonstrated by his decision to exhibit it at the fourth annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists, held in March-April of 1881. At this show, it was displayed with the title of Music. He showed it again at the Brooklyn Art Association in 1881, with the title The Muse of Music, and at the Boston Art Club in 1882, with the title of Music.

The painting received widespread coverage in the press. Several of the critics observed Weir’s flowing, robust touch and observed that Weir had painted the image with the “synthetic rush” he gave to his pencils, referencing the evidence of his refined yet evident brushwork. Weir chose to show his more conservative works at the National Academy of Design, reserving his more modern ones for exhibitions of the Society of American Artists. His Muse of Music fits his criteria for the society, as it reflects the influence of the novel approach of the American artists who had studied in Munich in the 1870s, including Weir’s close friends, John Henry Twachtman and William Merritt Chase. Other critics noticed that Weir had expressed a “high ideal” in his “magnificent goddess,” while remarking that his subject demonstrated a quality of liveliness in the “pout” of her nose and lips, which gave her life. In this respect, Weir answered a dilemma that faced many painters of female figures in the era, namely the question of how to depict an idealized subject so that it did not appear to be a lifeless statue, but instead was represented in a way that expressed the subject’s vitality and inner spirit. One critic, in fact, felt that Weir had sought too much, in attempting to “express the inexpressible.”
Weir was born on August 30, 1852, in West Point, N.Y., and died on December 8, 1919, in New York City. He was in Windham and Branchville, 1882-1918; and in Cos Cob, 1892-93.

Julian Alden Weir was part of a distinguished family of artists, a founding member of The Ten American Painters, a president of the National Academy of Design, and a president and trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He traveled widely in Europe but concluded that "Europe palls on me. For some there is no place like home.' He spent winters in New York City, but home was also Connecticut, where he spent many months of his life and where he found the inspiration for much of his art. "Here shall we rest and call content our home" was the epigram painted over the front door of one of his country houses. He was unusual in that he maintained two homes in this state - one at Branchville in the southwest, the other at Windham Center in the east.

Weir was a son of Robert W. Weir, noted artist and instructor of art at the military academy at West Point, and his brother was the artist John Ferguson Weir, who taught at the School of Fine Arts at Yale University from 1869¬1913. He studied with his father and then, in the late 1860s and early 1870s, at the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1873 he went to Paris and worked under Gerome at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and became friends with Jules Bastien-Lepage. He describes days in Paris that regularly included eight hours of drawing from a model, three hours of painting in the studio, and sometimes a lecture on perspective. Little wonder that he was appalled, when he first saw Impressionist work in 1877, at its lack of concern for drawing and form.

Weir returned to America in 1877 but made several more trips abroad, including one in 1881, where he painted in Holland with his brother John, Bastien-Lepage, and John Twachtman. In 1882 he fell in love with Anna Dwight Baker, whose family had homes both in New York City and in Windham Center, Connecticut, and his visits to her country home mark the beginning of his association with this state. Their marriage took place in 1883, the list of wedding ushers ranging from artists like William Merritt Chase to architect Stanford White to Elliott Roosevelt, younger brother of Theodore. Weir made a home for his bride in Branchville, near Ridgefield, where he had acquired some hundred and fifty acres from the art collector, Erwin Davis, in exchange for an Old Master painting. Through the years Weir enlarged and improved the house and built a fishing pond. Though Weir had stayed at the Holley House in Cos Cob before his marriage and taught in Cos Cob later, he was never closely associated with any art colony. (He visited Old Lyme only for a day or two.) But he entertained so many artist friends that he experienced much of the fellowship and stimulation that art colonies provided their members.

Anna Weir died in February, 1892, leaving Weir with three little daughters to raise. In 1893, he married Anna's sister, Ella Baker (Twachtman was best man), and thus continued his association with Windham. Weir inherited the property there, and then he had two Connecticut homes and two country studios. Several of the artists who visited him in Branchville, such as Childe Hassam, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and John Singer Sargent, also visited Windham. Emil Carlsen and his family were frequent guests there.

In 1892 and 1893 Weir taught summer classes with Twachtman at Cos Cob, and for four years, beginning with the summer of 1897, he held summer art classes at Branchville. From his return to America until 1898, he taught at the Cooper Union and at the Art Students League, for a total of about twenty years.

In 1897, with Hassam and Twachtman, Weir seceded from the Society of American Artists and founded The Ten American Painters. His own career was distinguished, and he was an artist who succeeded both in portraiture and in the Impressionist landscapes he had begun to do by the 1890s. Several prominent artists considered him their best friend and looked to him for advice (some, like Ryder, also for needed sustenance). Twachtman once wrote from Paris that he was taking Weir's advice and working hard at life drawing; Carlsen, often gently admonished by Weir for drawing too much, occasionally was able to achieve a looseness (as in Cherry Blossoms, cat. 4, illus. p. 12) that surpassed what Weir himself could do.

Weir's youngest daughter remembers that the family used to divide each summer fairly evenly between Branchville and Windham. The artist sometimes traveled between the two places by train, sometimes by horse. Weir's letters reveal he also visited one place or the other at additional times of year. Both places were working farms, with the help of hired hands, and Windham, at least, had dairy cattle and an apple orchard. Weir, who developed heart disease, spent the last summer and fall of his life at Windham. In October, when he was too weak to walk, he was carried outside by farmhands to a hammock back of the house, where he lay for hours near his fragrant grapevines, looking past oaks and elms toward Obweebetuck, the mountain he had painted several times. Dorothy Weir Young, the daughter who published his letters, wrote that she often heard him say as he lay there, "What a beautiful world it is.' He died in New York City in December, 1919, and is buried in the Windham Center cemetery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art held a major memorial exhibition in 1924.

Further reading:
Baur, John 1.H. Leaders of American Impressionism: Mary Cassatt, Childe, John II.
Twachtman, J. Alden Weir. Exh. cat., The Brooklyn Museum, 1937.
Clark, Eliot. "The Work of J. Alden Weir.' Art in America, 8 (Aug. 1920), 232-42.
Phillips, Duncan. Julian Alden Mir: An Appreciation of His Life and [Berks. Phillips Publications Number One. N.Y.: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1922. Includes essays by Emil Carlsen, Royal Cortissoz, Childe Hassam, and J. 13. Millet.
Young, Dorothy Weir. The Lye and Letters of J. Alden Weir. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

Biography courtesy of Roughton Galleries, www.antiquesandfineart.com/roughton
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