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John White Alexander was born in 1856 in Allegheny City, a Pennsylvania municipality subsequently absorbed by Pittsburgh. Orphaned in infancy, he was raised by his grand-parents and was later married to Elizabeth Alexander, with whom he had one child.

Alexander left school at the age of twelve to work as a telegraph boy in Pittsburgh. His evident talent attracted the support of one of his employers, who subsequently was appointed his guardian upon the death of his grand-parents. At the age of 18, he joined the office of Harper’s Weekly in New York, where he was promoted to apprentice illustrator under staff artists such as Edwin A Abbey. Following a three-year apprenticeship, Alexander travelled to Europe to begin formal training, enrolling first in the Royal Art Academy of Munich and then travelling on to Polling, Bavaria. In Polling Alexander met Frank Duveneck, with whom he travelled to Venice, where John had the good fortune to encounter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, an acquaintance that developed into a warm and lifelong friendship.

In 1881 Alexander returned to New York, and quickly achieved notable success as a portraitist, numbering among his sitters Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Burroughs, Walt Whitman, Henry G. Marquand and R. A. L. Stevenson. His first exhibition in the Paris Salon took place in 1893 and was followed by his election to the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts. In 1901 he was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and in 1902 became a member of the National Academy of Design. He was also elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was awarded gold medals at the Paris Exposition Universelle (1900) and the World’s Fair at St. Louis (1904).

Alexander’s work is housed in numerous prestigious museums and institutes across the United States and in Europe, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Butler Institute, and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Notable commissions include Apotheosis of Pittsburgh, a cycle of murals for the entrance hall of the Art Museum of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg, completed 1905-7.

In Europe, Art is not a luxury for the exclusive enjoyment of the rich. It is a possession and a vital part of life of even the poorest and humblest citizen

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