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 James Madison Alden  (1834 - 1922)

About: James Madison Alden
 

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Lived/Active: California/Florida/Massachusetts      Known for: topographic landscape, survey sketches-history

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BIOGRAPHY for James Alden
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Birth
1834 (Roxbury, Massachusetts)
 
Death
1922 (Orlando, Florida)

Lived/Active
California/Florida/Massachusetts

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topographic landscape, survey sketches-history

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Regarded as one of the most highly accomplished of the expedition survey artists, James Madison Alden did numerous drawings, opaque and transparent watercolors. A large body of his work exists, and it is possible to see a style evolving from tight renderings to more stylized works where he simplifies land contours into flowing lines.

From 1854-1857, he served with the Pacific Coast Survey, commanded by his uncle, James Madison (1810-1877) and painted numerous watercolors from Mare Island to Santa Barbara, traveling up and down the West Coast. He recorded scenes, working from the ship, and also traveled to inland areas such as the Sierras and Yosemite.

He served in the Civil War and later lived in Annapolis and Washington DC

Source:
Harold and Peggy Samuels, "Artists of the American West"
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"

Biography from American Eagle Fine Art:
James Madison Alden was born in Boxborough, Massachusetts on September 26, 1834.  Both of his parents were Bostonians, and he was the seventh generation in the direct male line from John Alden of the Mayflower.  He attended Elliott Grammar School in Boston, graduating with honors in 1849.  Then he attended English High School in Boston where he first studied art, and graduated in 1852.

Alden's uncle, James Alden, Jr., was a naval officer who had served in the U.S. Navy's first round-the-world cruise and had a distinguished record in the Mexican war.  In the 1850's, he was attached to the U.S. Coastal Survey.  When James Madison, Alden's father, died in 1853, the boys’ uncle proposed that young Alden join the Navy and serve with the Coastal Survey.  Alden accepted but first underwent instruction in Washington in cartographic drawing.  Although it was stressed that the results of his work would be for scientific rather than artistic use, works of artistic merit would also be needed because it was believed that Congress would publish the Coastal Surveys and would want pleasing pictorial accompaniment.  It was the custom then to publish maps and charts with picturesque vignettes.  In Washington he also studied with Thomas Seir Cummings, a founding member of the National Academy of Design.  Then he left to join his uncle in San Francisco.

During 1854, Alden served on a ship which surveyed the Pacific Coast of the Oregon and Washington territories, and he painted scenes of such places as Astoria, Washington territory and Victoria, British Columbia. Early the next year he painted scenes around San Francisco Bay.  Late in 1855, he visited Southern California and painted various coastal spots.  In 1856, he painted scenes in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Early in 1857 he again worked near San Francisco. Then he returned to the Pacific Northwest while awaiting an appointment, which came in October as official artist to the Northwestern Boundary Commission, which was to survey the 49th parallel previously agreed to by the United States and Great Britain as their boundary.  In 1858 Alden painted various California scenes before departing on his northern cruise. After the cruise he again worked near San Francisco. In the spring of 1859 he made a private trip to the Yosemite Valley and did watercolors of many of its natural wonders.  He resumed his boundary work in the summer.  In 1860 he painted scenes along the 49th parallel from the Pacific coast to the Continental Divide in the Rockies. It was a very arduous trip, plagued by Indians and by food shortages.

Alden was ordered back to Washington where he arrived in the spring of 1861. He continued to work for the Boundary Commission, but the Civil War prevented publication of either the West Coast survey or the surveys of the Northwestern Boundary Commission.  Alden did enlist in Cassious Marcellias Clay's battalion for the defense of the capitol.  Late in 1862, Alden joined the Navy as secretary to rear admiral David Porter, commander of the Mississippi squadron.  He joined Porter at Cairo, Illinois and was at the siege of Vicksburg, where Porter shared the victory with Grant.  Alden accompanied Porter to Hampton Roads, Virginia in 1864 when Porter was named to command the Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  Art was purely secondary in Alden's life then, but Endicott and Company of New York published a lithograph of his Bombardment of Fort Fisher, which he witnessed.  Made an Acting Master, Alden accompanied Porter to City Point, Virginia where he was introduced to President Lincoln a week before his assassination.

At wars end, Alden was given five months leave and was discharged at the end of 1865. But in July, 1866, Porter asked him to resume his duties as secretary with the rank of Lieutenant.  Alden agreed, and from 1866 to 1870 lived in Annapolis, Maryland, while Porter was superintendent of the Naval Academy.  In 1870 he went with Porter to Washington where Porter was named Admiral of the Navy, succeeding Farragus.  The peacetime duties of the office were few, and Porter spent his time dictating books to his secretary, including works of fiction.  In 1875 Alden went to Europe and visited England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Switzerland and Italy. He produced many watercolors during this tour.

After his return to Washington, Alden spent many hours painting in Rock Creek Park. In 1877, he inherited the fortune his uncle had made from prize money during the Civil War.  He had married Charlotte Elizabeth Bowie in 1867, and had three children by her, only one of whom survived.  In 1890, four years after his wife died, he married Elizabeth Hewlett, daughter of an English clergyman.  Admiral Porter died in 1891, and Alden and his wife retired to Oak Knoll, near Orlando, Florida, where he cultivated orchards, and spent much time painting.  In 1915, at age 81, he gave up painting due to poor eyesight.  He died on May 10, 1922, at age 88.

Alden left at least 676 finished watercolors of places in British Columbia, Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Europe and the East Coast of the United States from Maine to Florida.  He painted near Fletcher, North Carolina, where some of his relatives lived. Although his oeuvre shows a wide range of colors, he preferred in any given painting to use many gradations of a few colors.  He was in awe of nature, but even in Rocky Mountain scenes have nothing of the bombast of Bierstadt.

His medium of watercolor tended to understate rather than exaggerate, and placidity is the prevailing mood in his work.  Because of his survey training, Alden avoided romanticism and luminism, creating landscapes that were accurate yet economical in the illusion of detail.  Few human figures are to be seen in his numerous landscapes, but the one portrait he is known to have done is very competent, so the omission of people seems to have been by choice rather than lack of talent.  Although Alden was a working artist for years, he was not really a member of the art profession. He never exhibited and he did not belong to any art organization.  Only in his retirement did he sell any of his works, and then only a few.


Reference: Franz Stenzel, James Madison Alden, Yankee Artist of the Pacific Coast, 1854-1860 (Ft. Worth, Tex: Amon Carter Museum, 1975)

Biography from Braarud Fine Art:
Born into a Boxborough, Massachusetts family tracing its descent from American pilgrims, James Madison Alden was interested in drawing from an early age. His uncle James Alden, Jr., an amateur watercolorist and naval officer on the famous 1838-1841 Wilkes U.S. Exploring Expedition, was a decisive influence on the young boy, who would follow that daring and successful uncle into service with the United States Coast Survey.

As an official artist of the U.S. Coast Survey and the United States- Canadian Boundary Survey, James Madison Alden prepared outstanding sketches and watercolors from 1854 to 1861. During this period, he depicted much of the West coast from San Diego to Canada, including many of the West's most dramatic natural wonders.

Alden served in the Union Navy in the U.S. Civil War, with Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, and he continued a successful career as Porter's secretary from the close of the war until 1891.

Franz Stenzel's 1965 catalog for the Amon Carter Museum, "James Madison Alden, Yankee Artist of the Pacific Coast, 1854-1860" documents in some detail the artist's life and travels, reproducing almost one hundred of his more than three-hundred known watercolors of the period.

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