Arthur Dexter was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1830, the fourth son of the influential lawyer and politician Franklin Dexter (1793-1857) and his wife Catherine Elizabeth Prescott (1799-1891). He attended Boston Latin School as a child and graduated from Harvard College in 1851. His studies continued in the architectural studio of Hector Lefuel (1810-1880) at the L’École des Beaux Arts in Paris. In 1855, he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar and entered his family’s law practice at 9 Court Square in Boston. He argued cases with Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (1835-1915) and John Quincy Adams (1833-1894) and dabbled briefly in Republican and progressive politics. In January of 1858, he enlisted in the New England Guard before joining the National Guard where he achieved the rank of Captain. He was honorably discharged from the Guard in March of 1860.
Independently wealthy, Arthur Dexter spent much of the 1860s and 1870s in Europe where he devoted himself to the study of the fine arts and belles-lettres. His profession was often cited as “art amateur” and his drawings and paintings were admired by contemporaries. He evinced an interest in photography as early as 1860 and, although it is unknown how or where he acquired his photographic skills, the Four Nineteenth-Century Albums with Photographs by Arthur Dexter attest to his accomplishments in the medium. In these albums, Dexter used his camera to record the ruins and architectural glories of Italy and Egypt as well as an occasional moonlit landscape. But he had a particular affinity for portraiture. Time and again, he documented the appearance of his friends and families, posing them in their environments or in more formal stances. His interest in portraiture as an artistic medium is evident in his photographs of local Italian models, dressed in native costumes; these were clearly intended to be the photographic equivalent of genre paintings. Dexter continued the practice of photography well into the 1890s as can be seen in his published portraits of Henry Jacob Bigelow (1818-1890) and Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894).
While in Rome and Paris, Dexter participated in the social life of the American expatriate circle and his name appears in the reminiscences of Henry James (1843-1916), Edith Wharton (1862-1937), William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), Thomas Adolphus Trollope (1810-1892), and others. His brilliance, learning, and connoisseurship were often remarked upon, and, in William Wetmore Story and His Friends, Henry James wrote that Dexter was one of a “small, select company of the bachelors of Boston, a group. . . almost romantic in their rarity.”
Upon his return to the United States, Dexter parlayed his knowledge of the arts into a series of articles on literary and artistic matters for various publications. Perhaps the best known of these is his chapter on “The Fine Arts in Boston” which appeared in Justin Winsor’s The Memorial History of Boston (1880-81). His facility with languages resulted in the translation of Heinrich Heine's Life Told in his Own Words (1893). His artistic leanings were not limited to the erudite, however. A passion for the theater led him to both sides of the stage. Boston theater reviews frequently noted his presence in the front row on opening nights, and his own acting skills were not inconsiderable. The Boston Herald (December 21, 1890) observed that Dexter was an “amateur of extended reputation. He has played many times, and always like an artist.”
In the 1880s and 1890s, Dexter was a prominent member of Boston society. As a man of means, he belonged to the Somerset Club, the Myopia Club, and other gentlemen’s associations. However, he was also involved in numerous artistic and charitable organizations, including the St. Botolph’s Club, the Boston Society of Decorative Arts, the Hospital Newspaper Society, and, most extensively, the Farm School for Indigent Boys. Upon his death in January of 1897, the Boston Daily Advertiser made much of his brilliance and “genius,” concluding that “he was, indeed, a man of high mental polish, rare cultivation, and excellent conversation.”
Curator of Prints & Photographs