Killingly Journal Online, First Online Edition, 12/97

FRANCIS ALEXANDER

FAMOUS PORTRAIT ARTIST

By Marion D. Chollar, Chairman Historical Research for the Killingly Tercentenary Committee 1935)

 

The story of a farmer's son brought up to work on the farm, but ambitious to achieve success as an artist, is repeated in the story of Francis (Frank) Alexander. He was a native son of Killingly, born to Nell and Esther Smith Alexander on February 3, 1800.

 

As a boy he was always "picturin' out sunthin'," ornamenting barn doors and walls with chalk-drawn birds and fanciful sketches, while his mates were playing ball. The tints of freshly caught fish fascinated him and he delighted in imitating them as nearly as he could. Encouraged by praise for these and other "nature studies," he travelled to New York "to learn to paint."

 

Mr. Prescott Hall, a lawyer in Pomfret, gave him letters to his brother, Mr. Charles Hall, who received him very kindly, took him to galleries of paintings and recommended him to instructors. Some time passed before he succeeded in finding willing and competent teachers, but he continued his practice and ventured an experiment in portrait painting. Rude pictures painted on old chest-lids astonished everyone by vividness of representation. His fame soon traveled to Thompson, where he was engaged to paint the portraits of families, receiving "three dollars a head and his board." With the money thus earned he again sped to New York for further instruction. Colonel Trumbull and his fellow-countyman, Samuel Waldo, gave him counsel and encouragement. Portraits painted after his return, for the extravagant price of eight dollars, were taken to Providence and greatly admired. These early efforts were indeed characterized by a life-likeness that he never afterward surpassed. Through the kindness of Mrs. James B. Mason, Mr. Alexander obtained access to some of the best families in Providence, and her untiring efforts in his behalf were ever remembered by him with affectionate gratitude. He was in Providence two years painting steadily. He was 23 and very popular. In Boston, Gilbert Stuart received him cordially, pronouncedhis pictures "very clever, having that which may not be acquired." Fastidious Boston confirmed this verdict. He painted many portraits of prominent Bostonians between 1825 and 1831, his prices now between $40 and $75 according to size. His fine personal appearance and pleasing manners gave him entrance to society. He was described as "having flashing eyes and a long white beard."

 

Frank went abroad on an extended tour of Italy in 1831 from which he returned with renewed enthusiasm for his profession. He was married on the 9th of May, 1836, in the Park Street Church in Boston to Lucia Gray Swett, a woman of beauty, wealth, and good family whom he had admired in Rome. She was the daughter of Colonel Samuel Swett of Boston and Cambridge, a writer on Maritime affairs, and of Lucia Gray, daughter of William Gray, a Boston merchant. The Alexanders went to live on West Cedar Street in a house opposite No. 12.

 

While Charles Dickens was on a visit in Boston, Mr. Alexander painted his portrait. A crowd of people would be waiting at the appointed hour at his hotel and along the sidewalks to see Mr. Dickens pass. At the ante room of the studio, he found a large number of personal friends of the artist awaiting the honor of an introduction. The crowd would wait until the sitting was over and would see him back again to the Tremont Hotel. This was repeated each morning until the picture was completed. That portrait, formerly owned by Chas. T. Fields, is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.; that of Prudence Crandall, painted in 1838, now hangs in the Library of Cornell University; and one of Daniel Webster is owned by Dartmouth College.

 

Mr. Alexander's daughter, Francesca, owed her artistic gift to her father. He also trained and guided her in drawing and inspired her passion for art and delight in her work. She was not only a painter of fame but wrote half a dozen books dealing with European travel and art. Her father died March 27, 1880, at the age of 80 in Florence, Italy. Her mother was 105 when she died in Florence.
 

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Ref: A Hidden Servant by Constance Grosvenor Alexander, Cambridge Harvard Press 1927

Killingly's Place in the History of Connecticut by Marion D. Chollar, 1935

History of Windham County, Connecticut by Ellen D. Larned, Volume II 1760-1880, The Pequot Press, 1976

 

 

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Killingly Journal Online, The Killingly Historical Society
First Online Edition, 12/97