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Though born in England and first appearing on stage as a dancer in Ireland, Duff was thirty and living in New York when this painting was completed.Largely forgotten now, it has been argued that Duff should rightly be considered the first First Lady of the American Stage, having received her theatrical training solely in America.Elliot left Syracuse to live in New York City in order to become a respected artist around 1830, only to return to Syracuse six months later.Undeterred, he continued working as a portraitist and by 1845 had been declared the best American portraitist since Gilbert Stuart.Alexander preferred to use a coarsely woven canvas that created a matte effect giving tonal unity to the composition.
Remembering that actors in the nineteenth century were not accorded the high social status in America that they enjoy today, Miss Duff would have been eager to present herself as a reputable lady of society. She appears to be wearing a scholar's cap, and the high, starched, lace collar is not in keeping with contemporaneous fashions.
This painting predates Alexander's travels in Europe, where he would study the great monuments of art and refine his technique.
Though produced early in his career in an almost naïf style, Alexander’s likeness captures the vivacious nature of the actress as she looks out of the canvas with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks.
John White Alexander agreed with those artists of the late nineteenth century who advocated, "art for art's sake." When he returned to America in 1881, he settled in New York where he found support for his style.
He painted a number of famous people; his portrait of Walt Whitman now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.