Azalea (Portrait of Helen Abbe Howson)
This portrait’s title—Azalea—is ambiguous. It may refer to the flowers the sitter contemplates or to her own delicate beauty or character. In the Victorian “language of flowers” azaleas stood for temperance. The asymmetry of the branches and the cropping of the composition reveal Alexander’s admiration for Japanese art and design. In fact, Gilded Age garden magazines praised azaleas and noted the origins of this particular variety in Japan. Alexander painted the moodily ethereal subject a few years after he befriended James Abbott McNeil Whistler and was influenced by that artist’s tone-on-tone painterly style.