Born in Marietta, Georgia, Alexander John Drysdale was the only son of an ordained Episcopal priest whose ministry required frequent moves to parishes in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. In 1883, he accepted the call to become dean of Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans, and was later elected a bishop. Alexander, thirteen years old when the family settled in New Orleans, began his art studies under the instruction of Ida C. Haskell, a California-born artist who was on the faculty of the recently established Southern Art Union. The local academy had been founded by several leading artists, including Andres Molinary, William Henry Buck, Marshall J. Smith, and Paul Poincy. As early as 1889, Drysdale exhibited at the Artists’ Association of New Orleans, earning a reputation as a painter of “landscape scenes of the highest order.” All the while—and especially after the unexpected death of his father—Drysdale worked as a bookkeeper and banker to support his widowed mother and sisters. Buoyed by his success in local exhibitions, Drysdale, now thirty-one years old, left Louisiana in 1901 to pursue advanced art studies in New York City.
Enrolling at the Art Students League, Drysdale took classes from esteemed artists—including Charles Courtney Curran and Frank Vincent DuMond—and was exposed to the Impressionist aesthetic of William Merritt Chase. During his three years in New York, he continued to submit work to exhibitions in New Orleans. He also befriended fellow pupil Helen Turner, whose career would far eclipse his own. Drysdale returned to New Orleans in 1903 and opened a studio, initially advertising himself as a portrait painter, though landscapes remained his subject of choice. In 1909, he was awarded a gold medal by the Artists’ Association, securing his place in the local art scene.
Drysdale’s personal expression as an artist springs from his creation of a highly idiosyncratic medium. He thinned oil paints with kerosene to create a wash—not unlike watercolor—which he applied to a very porous artist board. In a tactic that surely increased his productivity, he employed not only a brush, but also used cotton balls dipped in the color wash as a tool for daubing pigment onto the surface. Kerosene has a rapid evaporation factor which, combined with the viscosity of its petroleum base, gave these works precisely that moist and humid glow he sought to express the light and environment of the Louisiana bayous. Having developed and perfected this trademark technique, Drysdale was prolific. Some accounts estimate that he created ten thousand works of art over the course of his career, paintings once described as “misty blue and green landscapes seen through tears or soft rainfall.”