One of my passions centers on resuscitating the careers of mostly-forgotten American women artists. I plunged in with Elizabeth Okie Paxton and her marvelous c1910 painting The Breakfast Tray, the subject of my thesis.
You can read more about Okie Paxton on the Wikipedia page I published, as well as on the cover of the Summer 2014 edition of “Art Times Journal,” an article which focuses on this provocative painting.
Below is an earlier essay, in anticipation of a 2013 talk at the New Britain Museum of American Art.
Woman with Book by William McGregor Paxton, currently hanging in the New Britain Museum of American Art Impressionist Gallery, was painted the same year as his wife Elizabeth Okie Paxton made The Breakfast Tray. The sensibilities of the two paintings could not be more different. Her provocative work, along with this very modern marriage, have been the inspiration for my current research and thesis.
To tease you further, I cannot show you an image of The Breakfast Tray here. It resides in a private collection, and I do not have permission to “publish” it on this page.
What I can share is that with The Breakfast Tray, Elizabeth Paxton invites us into a world—feminine, messy, sensual, and believable. It is full of personality. We dig into it trying to learn more about a woman who apparently was not shy, but left little record of who she was and what she cared about—so we get to do the work of getting to know her.
Paxton worked within a very traditional school of artists called the Boston School that included her husband. With her meticulous, lovely kitchen still life paintings, Paxton easily fit in the Boston School’s aesthetic, with their focus on beauty, harmony, light, color, clarity, and representations of the everyday luxurious world of Boston’s elite. She painted these still life works throughout her career, finding a ready market, so that very few of her paintings are available for public viewing in a museum.
Early in her career, she gave us The Breakfast Tray, a very daring work. It represents an interior, a favored subject by the Boston School, but it is casually disordered, middle class, and blatantly sexual. It palpates with an intimacy that makes the viewer a part of what has just happened and what will happen next.
We know that Paxton was about thirty-three years old and married when she painted The Breakfast Tray. Are we witnessing a post-coital scene with neither the artist nor her husband William Paxton still present? Is this a place where she could retreat to be on her own, in this feminized space, a place where she did not have to keep up appearances or be put-together? The intrigue of the scene and its refusal to give up any definitive answers makes us even more intrigued.
Our protagonist is a woman of the world, of her time, of her place. She lives in a city, one like Boston, that may have its ties to the old century, but also is finding its way through rapid industrialization, mass immigration, and sweeping technological innovations. A new youth culture embraces change as hope for a future very different from their parent’s world.
The implied presence of The Breakfast Tray is a New Woman. She is educated and the beneficiary of improved health care. She advocates for women’s right to vote, to work outside the home, to go to the theater unaccompanied, and to buy objects she uses to create an intimate space all her own, just as we see in The Breakfast Tray.
But hers is not a world without men. She is married, a companionate marriage that unselfishly promotes her husband’s career, even as she satisfies her own creative urge. She has a visual voice. She has no children. Her life is devoted to art—his and hers. They love and respect each other.
Could she have been more well-known had she not married? Had she not married, would she have had access to influential people and teachings that propelled her own development? Unanswerable questions again confound us.
What we are left with are a few paintings in known locations, with a stand out, The Breakfast Tray. This painting is so powerful, so personal, and so different from most of her body of work. With still life paintings that suggest order, clarity, comfort, and even opulence, Paxton produced pleasurable, appealing work. But The Breakfast Tray makes her a painter of note.
Coming so early in her productive career, we have to wonder, what if? Ultimately, “what if” is more frustrating than learning “what is.” “What is” is the opportunity to get to know Paxton better, to bring her works out of the private sphere and into the public domain. This is a task I joyfully take on and hope you’ll spread the word.