Tuesday, February 7, 2017

18C American Women - Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772) & his slightly dangerous life

Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772) Self Portrait c 1747

Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772) was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, the son of Catholic portrait painter & engraver John Alexander (1690-1765) and the great grandson of George Jameson (c.1587-1644), whom Horace Walpole called "the Vandyke of Scotland."

1745-50s Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772.) Portrait of a Jacobite Lady.

Alexander was so staunchly committed to the Jacobite cause, that he had to flee Scotland for participating in the 1745 Rising. After the disasterous Jacobite defeat at Culloden, he sought refuge in nurturing, sympathetic, artistic Rome between 1747-1751. He carried with him a letter of introduction to the Jacobite court declaring that he was "a lad of genius in painting."

1770 Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772). Margaret Stiles Manning.

From that point on, Alexander studied art & painted portraits of exiled Catholic leaders including "Bonnie" Prince Charles Edward Stuart. He continued studing in Livorno & Paris in 1751-52, before returning to London to live in a house he would soon inherit from architect James Gibbs (1674-1754), who was also a Catholic born in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Cosmo Alexander left London for the Netherlands a decade later and then sailed for America in 1766, after the death of his father. In the Atlantic colonies he focused on connecting with the Scottish community, moving from town to town in search of commissions. Records show that he joined the St. Andrew's Society, a charitable group organized to assist fellow Scots, in both New York & Philadelphia, where he paused to paint.

1770 Attributed to Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772). Girl with a Lamb.

He also painted in Boston & New Jersey. Colonial governor William Franklin (loyalist son of Benjamin Franklin) wrote in his correspondence that Alexander lived for several weeks in the governor's mansion in Burlington, New Jersey, painting and receiving patrons there.

1770 Attributed to Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772). Girl with a Squirrel.

Colonial Governor Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's son, mentioned Alexander's frail condition in one of his letters to England, "He was last year deprived of the use of his limbs by a fit of sickness, but is since recovered & got to work again."

Alexander met his greatest portrait success in Newport, Rhode Island, where one young man remembered he was "of delicate health and prepossessing manners" and that he "associated almost exclusively with the gentlemen from Scotland."  In Newport, Alexander met 14-year-old Gilbert Stuart (1754-1828), who was the son of a Scottish immigrant snuff millwright also thought to be a Jacobite. Bright young Stuart had already painted the famous portrait Dr. Hunter's Spaniels, which hangs today in the Hunter House Mansion in Newport, when he was 12-years-old.

Fellow Jacobite exile Dr. William Hunter, who owned the spaniels in Newport, convinced Alexander to take young Stuart as his apprentice. The pair traveled south in 1771, visiting Williamsburg & Charleston, before departing together for Edinburgh, where Alexander died suddenly the next year on August 25, 1772. Attempting briefly and without success to earn a living as a painter, Gilbert Stuart returned to Newport in 1773.

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). Self Portrait

The first portrait in this posting is from Scotland. In the spring of 2003, the Drambuie Liqueur Company sent its Jacobite art collection on tour to the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. Among the paintings attributed to Alexander was Portrait of a Jacobite Lady, showing a woman in a tartan riding habit holding the Jacobite symbol, the white rose.

During the 1745 Rebellion when Bonnie Prince Charlie tried to wrest back the British throne from the Hanoverian dynasty, he arrived in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh to great fanfare. Many women donned tartan dresses & Jacobite symbols. The Prince thanked one of the most enthusiastic Edinburgh families supporting the Jacobite cause, the MacKinnons, by giving them the secret recipe for the after-dinner whisky liqueur called Drambuie. The MacKinnon family ran a company producing the spirit for over 250 years.

This painting, Portrait of a Jacobite Lady, demonstrates how art can be used to express a political belief. After the 1745 uprising, the British government made it illegal to be a Jacobite. Subjects in the Scottish Highland region (the area where most of the prince's supporters lived) were forbidden to carry weapons or wear tartans (the plaid fabric representing their family). Obviously, supporting someone to overthrow the ruler was against the law; and if a subject were discovered to be a Jacobite, the sentence would be death. Jacobites had to express their support of the Stuart family in secret or leave Scotland, as Cosmo Alexander did.