(1834 - 1922)
James Madison Alden was active/lived in California, Florida, Massachusetts. James Alden is known for topographic landscape, survey sketches-history.
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.
Biography from American Eagle Fine Art
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
Harold and Peggy Samuels, "Artists of the American West"
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
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.
Biography from Braarud Fine Art
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
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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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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