Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

19 June 2023

The Art and Life of Francesca Alexander

Jacqueline Marie Musacchio is Professor of Art at Wellesley College, USA; she was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.  

In early 2020 I received word that I had been awarded an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship. I was thrilled, but knew I couldn’t take it any time soon. Travel was all but impossible, the British Library was closed, and my research, on a book project tentatively entitled At Home Abroad: Anne Whitney and American Women Artists in Late Nineteenth-Century Italy, was necessarily stalled. My book is predicated on the fact that, in the late nineteenth century, increasingly regular and affordable steamships and railways brought Americans to and around Europe, and these journeys had a profound influence on how Americans understood, created, and lived with art. Many of these travelers were aspiring women artists seeking freedom from social constrictions as well as the training and contact with art that they could not get at home.

As 2020 turned to 2021, the pandemic continued but vaccines arrived. Refocusing on this project, I realized my book was really two books. A planned chapter on the American artist, author, and philanthropist Esther Frances Alexander (1837-1917), better known as Francesca, the name given to her by John Ruskin, seemed out of place with my other case studies. I decided to turn that chapter into a monograph, now under contract with Lund Humphries with the working title The Art and Life of Francesca Alexander. This is what I researched when I finally took up my Fellowship in spring 2022.

Though not well known today, Francesca Alexander was a celebrity in her time and her story is a compelling narrative at the intersection of art, literature, and history, set in pre-Civil War United States, pre- and post-Risorgimento Italy, and Victorian England. She had no formal training, but her artistic style was indebted to the Renaissance, and to the summers she spent in the Italian countryside. Although she made a number of paintings, her preferred medium was pen and ink. She sold her work, gave it away, and occasionally took commissions, never seeking out an audience but relying on those who came to her. Unusually for an Anglo-American in Italy, she engaged with a large number of Italians during her long residence there, from 1853 to her death in 1917. She and her parents supported Italian independence and they knew prominent figures like the politician Gino Capponi and General Giuseppe Garibaldi; they enjoyed formal balls at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. But the Alexanders were also close to many Italians from the lower social classes who lived in Florence and the surrounding countryside, as well as further afield in the Apennines and the Veneto region, where they spent their summers. Francesca employed these Italians as models, and transcribed and translated their songs and stories. She was deeply charitable and devoted much of her time, as well as the money she earned from selling her art and other funds she solicited from wealthy friends, to assist them.

Her fame resonated on both sides of the Atlantic. American artists, including Thomas Ball, Henry Roderick Newman, and Joseph Lindon Smith, and English artists, including William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton, and George Frederick Watts, praised her work and American poets James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier wrote poems about her. This fame only increased after she and her mother (her father had died in 1880) met John Ruskin during his final visit to Florence in 1882. They began a lengthy correspondence; Ruskin shepherded three of Francesca’s manuscripts to publication and celebrated her in his lectures, even comparing her nature studies to those by Leonardo da Vinci.

My analysis of Francesca Alexander establishes her place in artistic and intellectual circles in Florence as well as the United States and England, demonstrating her wide network and contemporary appeal. In addition to Francesca’s own art, publications, and correspondence, my sources include unpublished letters and diaries by her contemporaries and references in guidebooks, magazines, and newspapers. In fact, some of the most valuable resources, for both of my book projects, are the British Library’s collection of Anglo-American newspapers published in Europe. These newspapers were available via subscription for English-language speakers on an extended residence abroad, as well as in hotels, banks, and reading rooms for more itinerant travelers. They provided a wealth of gossip and advertisements with information on the available goods and services that made life in Italy much like life at home. They also regularly published the names and addresses of Anglo-American residents and travelers to facilitate socializing. The Alexanders appeared only infrequently in these lists, and only after they moved to an apartment in the Hotel Bonciani near the church of Santa Maria Novella [see Fig. 1, below].

A newspaper column detailing residents in an Italian hotel.
Fig. 1: Detail from Italian Gazette, 26 January 1895, p. 12. British Library shelfmark: MFM.MF845.

But people knew how to find them; after the Alexanders met Ruskin, and he began to publish her work, she became a true celebrity, a sight to be seen like Florence’s churches and museums. Newspaper articles and advertisements provided updates on her publications and shared information – sometimes erroneously – about her life [Fig. 2, below].

A page of printed text.
Fig. 2: Detail from 'Letter from Florence' in Roman News: A Weekly Review of Politics, Archaeology, Fine Arts, Literature and Society, 28 March 1883, p. 4.  British Library Shelfmark: NEWS3415.

Francesca’s most popular book, the one referred to in the article in Fig. 2, was her Roadside Songs of Tuscany (1884-5), a compilation of songs and poems known primarily through oral tradition, which she compiled, translated, and illustrated. Ruskin purchased the manuscript from Francesca with great excitement, believing it had the potential to educate readers about Italy and Italians – patronizing as he was about both, and critical about Catholicism – and he was charmed by what he considered Francesca’s innocence and truth to nature. Nevertheless, [see Fig. 3, below], he made considerable editorial interventions before publishing this manuscript, first in ten installments and then in book form. Yet Francesca did not mind these interventions; indeed, her interest in these publications was limited to the funds they brought in to help her with her charitable endeavors.

Page proofs for a book; a mix of text and hand-written comments.
Fig. 3: Page proofs with notes by John Ruskin from Francesca Alexander, Roadside Songs of Tuscany. Orpington: George Allen, 1884-85. British Library shelfmark: C.66.g.2. See pp.24-25 for this image.

Francesca spent the rest of her life in Florence and although her later years were difficult – she was increasingly blind and became essentially housebound – many of her friends and admirers continued to visit until her death of bronchial pneumonia at age 79 on 20 January 1917. The next day a notice appeared, in Italian, in the Florentine newspaper La Nazione, announcing her death and inviting friends to attend services at her home and then at the Allori cemetery on 23 January [see Fig. 4, below].

An Italian newspaper column detailing the death of Francesca Alexander.
Fig. 4: Death notice in La Nazione (Florence), 22 January 1917. British Library shelfmark: MFM.MF836.

A second notice, this time in English, was printed in the 23 January edition with the same information. The bilingual announcements, which would have alerted Italians and Anglo-Americans to her death, indicate Francesca’s unusual position in both communities. Her many years in Florence, and her artistic and charitable activities, provide an excellent example of an American woman leading a rewarding life in Italy during this era.