Elizabeth Okie Paxton
Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1877-1971) was an American painter, married to another artist William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941). The Paxtons were part of the Boston School (painting), a prominent group of artists known for works of beautiful interiors, landscapes, and portraits of their wealthy patrons. Her paintings were widely exhibited and sold well, although she chose to subordinate her career to support her husband's.
Okie Paxton was born in Providence, Rhode Island, but lived her adult life in Boston and nearby Newton, Massachusetts. Educated at home by governesses, she was the daughter of a Boston pulmonary specialist Dr. Howard Okie and Elizabeth Vaughn and had one sister Adele. In her teens, Okie Paxton studied painting at the Cowles Art School, where her instructor Joseph DeCamp introduced the sixteen year old to another student William McGregor Paxton, age twenty-four. She also studied with McGregor Paxton as a student during his brief tenure teaching at the Cowles Art School. As a great beauty, she served as his muse before and during their marriage, modeling for many of his works. The couple had no children, instead focusing their creative energy on their work.
Okie Paxton was praised throughout her career (see below) for her use of light, texture, and color. Early on, she created a series of provocative bedroom scenes. Rather than show pristine interiors typical of the Boston School, Okie Paxton depicted sensual, messy environments, often without figures, indicating a modern sensibility and sexuality of the occupants. With this approach, Okie Paxton more resembled the modernism practiced in New York, rather than the more traditional Boston School. At least one work from this series was used in a Wamsutta sheet advertisement, indicating the general appeal of her imagery.
Throughout her marriage, Okie Paxton continued to paint, exhibit, and serve as a model for her husband's paintings. She shifted her subject matter to highly naturalistic and polished still life paintings, in the Trompe l'oeil, or trick the eye, manner. Her work was inspired by the seventeenth-century Dutch Golden Age painting and nineteenth-century American Trompe l'oeil precedents. She developed a recognizable style that suggested a human presence not literally visible. She created this immediacy with repeated themes, such as the hastily dropped knife and the partly pealed fruit, the discarded workcloth, and off-kilter utensil or vessel.
By shifting from interior scenes to still life works, Okie Paxton avoided competing with her husband's subjects. Still life painting was also less well-regarded on the academic hierarchy of fine art than portraiture and interiors such as those created by her husband. Okie Paxton actively promoted her husband's career, both during and after his lifetime. His work is the more well-known of the two artists and is widely represented in museum collections. Okie Paxton continued to paint and exhibit after her husband's death, as well as meticulously manage his business affairs until 1970, shortly before her death.
Okie Paxton exhibited annually at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia between 1924 and 1938. She showed in six Corcoran Gallery of Art biennials between 1912-1941 and ten exhibitions at the National Academy Museum and School. She also exhibited at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and the 1939 New York World's Fair. Her resume includes showings for several years each with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Guild of Boston Artists, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Toledo Museum of Art, The North Shore Art Association, the Jordan Marsh Gallery, and the Boston Art Club. In addition, she was awarded numerous prizes, including the Pan-Pacific Exposition Silver Medal, 1915, the Ann Vaughan Hyatt (later Anna Hyatt Huntington) gold medal at the American Artists Professional League, New York, and the National Gold Medal at the Council of American Artists' Societies, New York, 1964.
Her works are held in three public collections: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale, WA; and the Concord Art Association, Concord, MA. Because her works sold quickly to private collectors when exhibited, she is not well represented in public collections.
“Art lovers who like superb painting will be impressed with the works of Mrs. Elizabeth Paxton, widow of the renowned portrait painter. Her still lifes and landscapes are of a high caliber, with a veritable ‘old master’ technique; done with a skill and charm far above the average painter of today.” --Barbara Walker, “Inside Boston Broadcast” April 25, 1943
Okie Paxton “has long been recognized as a remarkable still life painter. Indeed, she has evolved a personal type of still life with qualities unique in the history of the genre, a very individual taste in color and composition, coupled with a freshness and truth of statement that is in a class by itself. There is no doubt in my mind that her best pictures are among the few painted in this mid-century which will be prized a hundred years form now.” --R.H. Ives Gammell, artist and writer on art, from letter to the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine, January 24, 1964
“Known for her exquisite renderings of household objects and for her subtle palette, Paxton was one of the city’s most accomplished painters. This sunlit interior (of The Breakfast Tray) is one of her finest works; Paxton elevates a typical Boston School interior to a new level of beauty and mystery.” -Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, February 4, 2000
“She has set forth a dainty little breakfast…All these things are painted with so much delicacy and loving care, they are so pretty in themselves, and they are so well related together, that it is a pleasure to look at them. It is a long time since we have seen a better piece of still life work.”—WHD Transcript of 1907 Boston Evening Transcript critic
Regarding acquisition of The White Coffee Pot, “Throughout my interest in promoting good painting, sometimes—alas, all too often—what little I can do is done despite my personal judgment of the quality of the material given us to work with. In the case of your picture, however, there are no mental reservations. I am delighted with it at every point and take real pride in adding it to our permanent collection.”—Clifford R. Dolph, Director of the Maryhill Museum of Art, letter dated November 17, 1952
- Fielding, Mantle (1986). Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of America Painters, Sculptors & Engravers. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo.
- Hirshler, Erica E. (2001). A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston, 1870-1940. Boston: Museum of Fine ARts Publications.
- Paxton, William McGregor; Paxton, Elizabeth Okie. "William Paxton Papers, 1886-1971". Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
- Wamsutta Percale Sheets & Pillow Cases advertisement (May 1930). "Bed, bed, delicious bed". House & Garden.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art (1991). The Biennial Exhibition Record of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1907-1967. Madison, CT: Sound View Press.
- National Academy of Design (U.S.) (1990). The Annual Exhibition Record of the National Academy of Design, 1901-1950. Madison, CT: Sound View Press.
This article sourced from Elizabeth Okie Paxton and The Breakfast Tray: The Modernity of a New Woman Artist, an unpublished thesis by Rena Tobey, copyright 2013.