Although best known today as an American Impressionist, Julian Alden Weir had a long and varied career. He received his earliest artistic education from his father Robert Weir (1803-1889) who was a professor of drawing at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for forty-four years. Young Weir was born there on 30 August 1852. Weir's elder brother, John Ferguson Weir (1841-1926), was also an artist and served as Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Yale University. As a young man Julian studied at the National Academy of Design for three years. In 1873 he traveled to France where he entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts and worked under Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904). It was about this time, partly in gratitude to Mrs. Bradford Alden, the family friend who sponsored his trip, that the artist began to use only his first initial rather than his given name Julian.
Through his European travels, particularly to Holland and Spain, Weir was able to study the paintings of Frans Hals and Diego Velasquez. Among French painters, one who had one of the strongest influences on the artist was the naturalist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), who became a close friend of the American. Given Weir's inclination toward the accepted masters and his essentially conservative training, it is not surprising that he reacted negatively upon his first viewing of French avant-garde painting at the Impressionist exhibition of 1877.
That year Weir returned to the United States. Settling in New York, he became a member of the newly established Society of American Artists, but continued to exhibit at the National Academy of Design. Teaching, portrait commissions, and still-life subjects provided his income. He maintained his ties in Europe, making several trips there and exhibiting at the Paris Salons of 1881, 1882, and 1883. In the spring of 1883 he married Anna Dwight Baker and the couple honeymooned in Europe until September. Upon their return they divided their time between New York City and two Connecticut towns, Branchville, where Weir had recently acquired a 150 acre farm, and Windham, home of Anna Weir's parents.
At Branchville, Weir was host to numbers of artists, among them his closest friend John Twachtman, as well as Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Theodore Robinson, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. In the late 1880s Weir developed an interest in pastels and etchings, often working alongside Twachtman and reflecting that artist's lightness of touch. Weir, whose work had become increasingly daring after his initial stay in Europe, absorbed many aspects of Impressionism from his American colleagues and eventually exhibited with that group of them known as The Ten. When he had his first important one-man show in 1891, Weir was described by one critic as "the first among American to use Impressionistic methods and licenses successfully." Two years later, when he and Twachtman held their joint exhibition at the American Art Association, their works were shown adjacent to and compared with those of French Impressionists, Claude Monet and Paul Besnard. Weir's style, however, would vacillate greatly throughout the years and his underlying training in figure drawing, which helped to establish his reputation with celebrated paintings such as Idle Hours (1888, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), often reasserted itself in his later works.
By 1900 Weir was widely known and respected. That year he won a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Four years later he won medals for both painting and engraving at the Saint Louis exposition. A retrospective exhibition of his work circulated to Boston, New York, Buffalo, and Cincinnati in 1911-1912 and he was elected president of the National Academy of Design in 1915. Weir died 8 December 1919 in New York City. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Young, Dorothy Weir. The Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir. New Haven, 1960.
Burke, Doreen Bolger. J. Alden Weir: An American Impressionist. Newark, Delaware, 1983.
Cummings, Hildegard, Helen Fusscas, and Susan G. Larkin. J. Alden Weir: A Place of His Own. Exh. cat. The William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1991.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 227.