The women in Paxton's finely detailed interiors, from dowagers and schoolgirls to servants, helped define idealized female roles for upper-class New Englanders at the turn of the century. Calm, introspective, and bathed in quiet light, Paxton's figures provide a striking contrast to the working-class female subjects of New York's Ashcan School. Whereas the well-to-do Boston women read, drink tea, and regard fine things in their quiet homes (while their servants quietly keep house), New York women are seen promenading down bustling streets, flirting openly, and readily catching the eye of passing strangers. Both, however, demand the attention of the viewer: Paxton's women project a compelling but reserved, sensual languor; Ashcan women are depicted as open and engaging.
As an image maker, Paxton was keenly aware of the social conventions of upper-class Boston, even though he was raised in less privileged circumstances. The son of a suburban caterer, he attended the Cowles Art School on scholarship before making the pilgrimage to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts (with Gérôme) and the Académie Julian. Like so many of his Boston School colleagues, Paxton was able to use his artistic ability and finely tuned social antennae to achieve a prominence in New England cultural circles that belies his middle-class origins.
William H. Truettner and Roger B. Stein, editors, with contributions by Dona Brown, Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Judith K. Maxwell, Stephen Nissenbaum, Bruce Robertson, Roger B. Stein, and William H. Truettner Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory (Washington, D.C.; New Haven, Conn; and London: National Museum of American Art with Yale University Press, 1999)