Born as Esther Frances Alexander, 27 February 1837, Boston, Massachusetts; died 21 January 1917, Florence, Italy
Daughter of Frances and Lucia Gray Swett Alexander
Francesca Alexander was the daughter of a portrait painter who was a member of the Boston intellectual and cultural elite. After moving to Florence in 1853, the family became hosts to many eminent visitors including Sarah Orne Jewett and James Russell Lowell (who wrote a sonnet to Francesca). Alexander was educated at home, and principally by herself; in art, for example, she was not given lessons so that her talent might develop in its own direction. Nor was she allowed to play freely with other children or to read uncensored books. Her mother, who died at the age of 102, dominated Alexander throughout her entire life.
Alexander first sold her drawings to earn money for works of charity. She began to set down the life stories of the Italian peasants who served as her models, and also to collect from them the traditional songs and legends of their villages. Inspired by medieval manuscripts, Alexander created a large folio volume of traditional songs with her own English translations, embellished by pen-and-ink drawings and elaborate full-page illustrations.
The aging John Ruskin, visiting Italy in 1882, was entranced by Alexander's art, her charity, and her religious faith; he bought her work and arranged for its publication, praised her in his lectures, and wrote to her reams of the sort of precious letter with which Ruskin favored young women. Alexander's major work was edited by Ruskin and published in ten parts in 1884-85 as Roadside Songs of Tuscany. In this version the book is as much Ruskin's as Alexander's; he added introductions, moral homilies, footnotes, and quotations from Alexander's letters about the people who modeled for the illustrations. Improved photographic processes made possible a new edition, in 1897, entitled Tuscan Songs, which reproduces the integrated text and illustration of Alexander's manuscript and omits the Ruskin material. The verse is poor-people's poetry: obvious, simple, repetitive. Alexander was sincerely interested in folklore and oral tradition, and respected the piety which often represented Christ as a character in a contemporary village drama.
The Story of Ida (1883) is a narration of the rather commonplace, unhappy love experience of a young woman who posed for Alexander. Though Alexander tried to reproduce reality without exaggeration or sentimentality, Ida's piety, her submission, and her long decline give the book a texture indistinguishable from religious tracts. Christ's Folk in the Apennine (1888) was put together by Ruskin, who selected passages from Alexander's letters that told stories about her peasant acquaintances. After her sight had failed too much for drawing, Alexander published one book independent of Ruskin: The Hidden Servants (1900), a collection of longer traditional legends retold in English verse. The style is not so simple as her prose; archaic diction, commonplace imagery, and the extra words required to fill out conventional meters create rather tedious poetry.
Alexander is remembered primarily because of the letters Ruskin wrote to her, and Ruskin scholars now consider his infatuation with Alexander to have been one of the embarrassing symptoms of the great mind in its decline. Alexander's one important work is, however, of value for preserving verbally and pictorially details of folklore and rural life from a time now gone.
Alexander, C. G., Francesca Alexandra, A "Hidden Servant" (1927). Alexander, F. Francesca Alexander: Drawings from Roadside Songs of Tuscany (1981). Ruskin, J., "Francesca's Book" in Works, Cook, E. T., and A. Wedderburn, eds. (Vol. 32, 1907). Swett, L. G., John Ruskin's Letters to Francesca and Memoirs of the Alexanders (1931).
Dial (16 March 1898). The Magazine of Art (1895).