Windham County Transcript, 17 Dec. 1903
Anthony Allround’s Column
How many in Killingly remember the late Francis Alexander, the artist? He was a native of this town and as a barefooted youngster spent his boyhood days around Alexanders Lake, Attawaugan and that section. He was born in the house where Newton Phillips now lives which was the Alexander homestead. He spent his Killingly days there and in the red house just south, now known as Oak Bluff Cottage. Many of the older people in the town can remember when the walls of the sitting-room in the house where Mr. Phillips now lives and the walls of the northeast room in Oak Bluff Cottage were covered with Francis Alexander’s paintings. The following sketch from the “Proceedings of the Worcester Society of Antiquity,” January-February, 1901, will interest readers of the Transcript:
By Mr. B. A. Leonard
In Wm. Dunlap’s History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (2 volumes, 1834) is some account of Francis Alexander, the artist, with a communication from him, giving an interesting history of his early life, struggles, successes, etc.
He says he was born in Killingly, Conn., Feb. 3d, 1800--his father a farmer of moderate circumstances, he then (1834) being 77, and mother 76--and his early life was spent upon the farm. “Went hundreds of times to church, in warm weather, barefoot, three miles. From the age of 8 up to 20 I labored almost incessantly the eight warm months of the year, upon my father’s farm.
“The other four months of the year I went to a country district school until I was 17. My 18th and 19th winters kept school (in the same district where I had been one of the scholars previously); received $40 the first winter, $44 the second. Painted a fish at this time, which received much praise. Went to New York to learn to paint.”
A Mr. McKay in Warren Street, an elderly gentleman, was kind to him and introduced him to Alexander Robertson, then secretary to the Academy of Fine Arts. Mr. Robertson received him into his school and he stayed five or six weeks, when his money gave out and he returned home. Commenced painting on the walls of one of the rooms in his father’s house, etc.; then a portrait, which his mother praised, etc.
Then painted the portrait of a nephew three years old, at one standing. The first was painted upon the lid of an old chest and astonished the neighbors, etc. He next painted the portrait of a nephew six years old, “showing his white rows of teeth,” etc. “These two were painted on pieces of board I picked up. Were called excellent likenesses. A Mr. Mason offered $5 to paint a little miss full length (he was my first patron). Then was offered by the mother $1 a day to paint the rest of the family--one-half dozen of them; received $13 for thirteen days! My fame had now traveled seven miles.
“I was invited to Thompson to paint several families; received $3 a head and my board. As soon as I had earned $50 or $60, I returned to New York for instructions in portrait painting. The old gent, Mr. McKay, gave me Mr. Stuart’s mode of setting the palette, and Col. Trumbull lent me two heads to copy, and treated me with much kindness. Also, Waldo and Jewett. After copying the above-named portraits and one or two more, I was obliged to go back to Connecticut, my funds being exhausted. On my return I had the boldness to ask $8 a portrait and received it! Mrs. Gen. Jas. B. Mason of Providence sent for me to paint her family, promising me $15 a portrait. Labored for her and among her friends with success, etc. Mrs. Mason died while I remained in Providence, when I lost one of my most valuable friends. I have met with many friends since I took up painting, but among them all, I remember no one who was so zealous, active and untiring in my behalf as Mrs. Mason, nor any one to whom I am half so much indebted for my somewhat successful career, as to her.
“I painted two years or more in Providence and received constant employ, and at from $15 to $25 for my portraits. I afterward came to Boston, bringing a painting of two sisters with me, which I carried to Mr. Stuart for his opinion. He called them very clever--that they reminded him of Gainsborough’s pictures; that I lacked many things that might be acquired by practice and study, but that I had that which not be acquired. He invited me to come to Boston and set up as a portrait painter, so after going home and making the necessary preparations, I returned and commenced painting, where I remained in the full tide of successful experiment until I set sail for Italy on the 23d of October 1831. In Boston I received $40 for the head and shoulders, 25x30 canvas, and more, according to the size. Two years afterward I received $50 and $75 for the Kit-cat size.
“I sailed for Genoa, saw the fine paintings there; went to Florence, stayed there five or six weeks; renewed my acquaintance with Mr. Thos. Cole, went with him to Rome, roomed with him there three months; then we went to Naples together, visited Herculaneum, Pompeii and Passtum, and returned to Rome again in company. While in Rome I painted the portrait of Miss Harriet Douglass of New York. Sir Walter Scott being there at the time and an acquaintance of hers, he came with Miss Douglass in her carriage to my studio, where he remained nearly an hour, conversing all the while in a most familiar manner. I had painted an original Magdalen; it was standing on one side of the studio at the time, and Sir Walter moved his chair up within six feet of it; there he sat looking at it for some minutes without speaking. I was all impatient to know what he would say. He turned away with the laconic remark, “She’s been forgiven.”
“I returned to Florence, stayed seven months; returned to Rome the following winter and stayed three months more; returned again to Florence; visited Bologna, Pisa and Leghorn, thence to Paris; stayed there twenty days; thence to London, there ten days; left in the London packet for New York, on the 24th of August. After visiting my friends a month or two, I took my old room again here in Boston (Colombian Hall), where I have commenced painting with success; received $100 for portraits; have not fixed upon prices yet for more than busts, choosing to recommend myself first, knowing that the good people of our country are willing to pay according to merit.
“Mr. Cole can perhaps give you some information about your humble servant, if you desire more. When I was a farmer, I used to go three miles before sunrise to reap for a bushel of rye per day and return at night. Oh! had you seen me then, wending my way to my labors, shoeless, and clad in trousers and shirt of tow, with my sickle on my shoulder; as you are a painter, you might have given me a few cents to sit for my picture, but you would not have taken any notes for biography. I have written upon a large sheet, and compactly, hoping to have plenty of room, but I might add so much more.
Yours truly, Francis Alexander.
He married the only daughter of Col. Samuel Swett, of Boston, Lucia Gray, whose mother was a daughter of William Gray. See New England Historical & Genealogical Register, Vol. XX1, 1867, page 374.
He died in Florence, Italy, March 27, 1880. Miss Larned, in History of Windham County, Conn., pages 542-3, Vol. 11, speaks of him.
Windham County Transcript, 24 Dec. 1903
Literary Salad—A column in the Transcript
Aunt Judith was much interested in the story of Francis Alexander, “Uncle Frank,” as she has so often heard him called by his relatives. In her childhood he was living in Boston, a successful artist, but later his home was in Italy, where he died. She remembers hearing of his boarding at Kingsbury’s Hotel for a while one summer with his wife and child. Her only personal recollection of him is when he was attending his mother’s funeral at the old homestead, as he stood with bowed head beside her coffin, holding his little girl, Florence, by her hand. He wore a tall hat and in her memory of him bore a great resemblance to his brother, Col. Wm. Alexander. The child wore a broad brimmed hat and very short skirts and was anxious to climb some stones near a wall, but the father held her with a firm clasp.
Some years after Mr. Alexander’s niece married Aunt Judith’s uncle, and she began to hear of him as Uncle Frank. She remembers the pretty wedding dress he sent, a soft gray, with white leaves on it, and the dozen heavy silver tablespoons which he sent for the home furnishing. Also the heavy silk long shawl of red and black with its deep fringe, which called forth her youthful admiration.
She also remembers the pictures--his early efforts--some of which stood on the floor, leaning against the wall in the old house. There was one of “Priest Atkins” of North Killingly, in ruffles and knee breeches, and one of a young girl who was considered a beauty in her day. She afterwards became Mrs. Blackmar, and died here a few years since with her daughter, Mrs. Ellen Cooper. And was there not among them the picture of a naked child, hung with its face toward the wall?
The family continued its residence in Italy, but the daughter, Florence, visited this country and brought with her a wonderful book of pictures which with the descriptive lettering had been done with her own hand in the fashion of the old monks in their cells. A description of it appeared in the papers at the time. It is said to have been purchased with a large sum by the younger Agassiz. There are relatives now living who could corroborate or disprove this story. It is a vague memory with Aunt Judith. Cannot some one tell us more about it?