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Flexner, James Thomas

Date born:   1908

Place Born:  New York, NY

Date died: 2003

Place died:  

Journalist and writer on early American art.  Flexner was the son of Simon Flexner, a sixth-grade dropout who became a self-taught microbiologist, pathologist, director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York and discoverer of a cure for spinal meningitis..  His mother was Helen Thomas [Flexner], a professor of English at Bryn Mawr whose sister was president of the College, and who, through various cousins' marriages, was related to the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Bernard Berenson (q.v.). It was Berenson who inspired Flexner's interest in art history at an early age.  Flexner graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1929 and joined the New York Herald Tribune as a reporter.  He moved to the New York City Department of Health as an executive secretary in 1931.  But the next year he quit to devote full energies to writing.  Although untrained in art history, he gravitated to art subjects as part of his interest in writing about American history.  In 1939 he published his America's Old Masters, a book about colonial artists. A 1946 article on the American colonial artist Robert Feke in the Art Bulletin helped launch the brief but important art-historical career of Waldron P. Belknap, Jr. (q.v.). The following year he began his History of American Painting series with the first volume, First Flowers of Our Wilderness. In 1950 he married Beatrice Hudson (d. 1998) a professional singer. Other popular biographies of American artists followed, including Gilbert Stuart. Called upon to write the popular Time-Life volume on Winslow Homer, he consulted Homer experts Bowdoin College scholar Philip C. Beam (q.v.) to assist him. He completed his history of American art in three volumes in 1962. Flexner began a popular biographical series on George Washington in the mid-1960s. Art historiographically, he helped publicize the nineteenth-century art historian Henry Tuckermann (q.v.) in a 1969 article on that author's Book of Artists. His concluding volume in his Washington series, 1972, won the National Book Award for biography and a special Pulitzer Prize citation. This became a single-volume book, Washington: The Indispensable Man in 1974. He died at his New York home at age 95.

Flexner admitted he wrote for a mass audience. "I do wish to communicate," he said, "that separates me from most scholars." In his 1996 autobiography, Maverick's Progress, he voiced his suspicions that academia never accepted him because he lacked a doctorate. Reviewers applauded his style. His books were usually well researched and brought important basic information about American art history to a wider audience..

Home Country:   United States

Sources:  Flexner, James Thomas.  Maverick's Progress:  An Autobiography.  New York : Fordham University Press, 1996; [obituary:] Bernstein, Adam. "James Flexner Dies, Washington Biographer" Washington Post February 17, 2003, p. B4.

HBibliography:  America's Old Masters:  First Artists of the New World.  New York: The Viking Press, 1939; "Robert Feke, active ca 1741-ca 1750." The Art Bulletin 28 (September 1946): 197-202; History of American Painting, vol. 1,  First Flowers of Our Wilderness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947, vol. 2, The Light of Distant Skies, 1760-1835. New York: Harcourt, Brace 1954, vol. 3, That Wilder Image; the Painting of America's Native School from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer. Boston: Little, Brown 1962; John Singleton Copley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948; Gilbert Stuart: a Great Life in Brief. New York: Knopf, 1955; Paintings on the Century's Walls; an Address Delivered at the Monthly Meeting of the Century Association on March 7, 1963. New York: Century Association, 1963; A Short History of American Painting. Boston:  Houghton Mifflin 1950;  The World of Winslow Homer, 1836-1910.  New York: Time, Inc. 1966;   "Tuckerman's Book of the Artists." The American Art Journal 1 no. 2 (Fall 1969): 53-7; The Double Adventure of John Singleton Copley, First Major Painter of the New World.  Boston: Little, Brown 1969; Nineteenth Century American Painting. New York: Putnam 1970.