The son of a farmer, Francis Alexander was born in Killingly, Connecticut, on February 3, 1800. During the winters of his eighteenth and nineteenth years he earned a small sum teaching in the local school and at the age of twenty used it to seek instruction in New York City. He studied for several weeks with Alexander Robertson, but was forced to return home for lack of funds. After executing a number of commissions locally, he made a second visit to New York, at which time he copied paintings by John Trumbull and studied the arrangement of colors on Gilbert Stuart's palette. Alexander painted many portraits on his return to Connecticut, two of which were sent to Providence and resulted in an introduction to Mrs. James B. Mason, his future friend and patron in that city.
Alexander lived in Providence in 1823-1824 and apparently had settled in Boston by 1825. In that city he sought the advice of Gilbert Stuart, who offered him encouragement. Alexander was also associated with the Pendleton lithographic firm, where he made some of the earliest portraits in stone, according to Harry T. Peters.
Between 1825 and 1831 Alexander's portraits commanded increasingly higher prices. By the time he left Boston for his European tour of 1830-1831, he had already painted such famous sitters as Noah Webster and President Andrew Johnson.
Most of Alexander's time abroad was spent in Italy and included several months in Rome during which he lived with Thomas Cole. It was in Florence in 1832 that Alexander met Lucia Swett, whom he married four years later.
Upon his return to Boston in 1833, Alexander exhibited thirty-nine of his works at the Harding Gallery and was for a time quite successful. He was made an honorary member of the National Academy of Design in 1840 and in 1842 painted Charles Dickens during the author's American tour. In the later 1840s and 1850s, however, his commissions began to decline. Perhaps because of this, or for health reasons, or for the musical education of his daughter, Francesca, Alexander and his family left for Europe in 1853. Except for a brief visit to America in 1868-1869 the rest of their lives were spent in Italy, where Alexander abandoned portraiture and became a collector of early Italian paintings. He died in Rome on March 27, 1880. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Dunlap, William. A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. 2 vols. 1834. Reprint. New York, 1969: 2:426-433.
Peters, Harry T. America on Stone. Garden City, New York, 1931: 74.
Pierce, Catherine W. "Francis Alexander." Old Time New England 44 (October-December 1953): 29-46.
Pierce, Catharine W. "Further Notes on Francis Alexander." Old Time New England 56 (October-December 1965): 35-44.
Chotner, Deborah, with contributions by Julie Aronson, Sarah D. Cash, and Laurie Weitzenkorn. American Naive Paintings. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 1.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 3.