An Appreciation: Cecilia Beaux
Portrait painting by American artists flourished in the second half of the 19th century. Artists such as John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, William Merritt Chase and Thomas Eakins produced paintings that combined elements of traditional portrait with new approaches to art. In the front rank of these artists was Cecilia Beaux, who overcame the Victorian prejudice against women to be recognized as a great portrait artist.
Cecilia Beaux was born in Philadelphia on May 1, 1855. Her father was a French silk merchant and her mother, the daughter of a prominent New York businessman, was a teacher Due to complications from childbirth, her mother died a few days after Cecilia was born. Her father was devastated by his wife's death and returned to France with only occasional visits to the United States.
As a result, Cecilia and her older sister were raised by her maternal relatives. At first, the children were in the care of their grandmother who instructed the children to be certain to complete any task they set out to do, instilling a sense of determination in the girls.
Later Aunt Emily took charge. She had married mining engineer William Biddle. The couple were interested in the arts and culture, particularly music. Uncle Willie also arranged for the young girls to see the private art collections of some of his business acquaintances thus providing a cultural foundation.
At age 16, Cecilia began to take art lessons from another relative, Catherine Ann Drinker. Drinker was a successful artist with her own studio and became the first part-time woman instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She also studied with painter Francis Adolf Van der Wielen.
By the time she was 18, Beaux was able to succeed to Drinker's post as a drawing instructor at Miss Stanton's School in Philadelphia. At the same time, Beaux undertook a number of other jobs in order to make a living. Although her family was socially well-connected, it was not wealthy. Among the work Beaux undertook was making drawings of fossils for a project sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey. Beaux found that this work gave her "a pain in the solar plexus."
Beaux enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1876. Thomas Eakins was the controversial director of the Academy at the time. Beaux admired Eakins' art but steered clear of him out of a “curious instinct for self-preservation.” Instead, she studied under the more acceptable Christian Schussele. Beaux's work earned several prizes while at the Academy.
There are at least two reasons why Beaux choose to take a low profile. First, Victorian prejudice made it difficult enough for a woman to succeed as an artist and becoming involved in controversy would only add to the burden. Second, while Beaux had good social connections to Philadelphia's elite, unlike her contemporary Mary Cassatt, Beaux was not independently wealthy and so could not afford to offend clients or potential clients.
After leaving the Academy, Beaux studied privately with William Sartain. She also worked as as a porcelain painter. As with scientific illustration, she found that she has the ability to do this work but disliked it intensely.
She then rented a studio along with several other women artists. In 1884, she had her first major success with a portrait of her sister and her nephew entitled “The Last Days of Infancy,” which eventually was exhibited not just in Philadelphia but in New York and in Paris. This work launched Beaux on her career as a portrait painter and she received numerous commissions from Philadelphia's elite.
At age 32, Beaux was past the time when young women of her class were expected to marry. She had several serious suitors. However, she decided that she would devote herself to art and not marry. Instead, she set off on a 19-month journey to further her art education in Europe.
Women could not enroll as students in the leading art school in Paris, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and so Beaux studied at the Academy Julian, which had been set up a few years before as an alternative. Although the Impressionists were leading a revolution in art in Paris, Beaux elected to keep out of the controversy and studied under traditional academicians.
This does not mean that Beaux was uninfluenced by the new art of her time. “The Last Days of Infancy” reflects the contemporary work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In addition, on a painting trip to Brittany, Beaux experimented with the plein air landscape techniques of the Impressionists. Although she decided to stay with portrait painting, her technique and her palette changed to incorporate elements of the Impressionist approach. As a result, some of her subsequent works have been compared to those of portrait painters who were more openly influenced by the Impressionists such as John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase.
Returning to Philadelphia, Beaux's practice continued to grow with numerous portrait commissions. At the same time, Beaux won prizes for her work , not only in Philadelphia but in New York, Paris at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
In 1895, she became the first woman full-time instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It was a position she would hold for the next 20 years.
While maintaining her connection to Philadelphia, she moved to New York City in 1898. Around the same time, she began spending the summers in Green Alley in Gloucester, Massachusetts. These moves enabled her to draw on a much larger client base for her portraits.
In the new century, her sitters included the famous as well as the wealthy. She painted First Lady Edith Roosevelt and sketched her husband Theodore; she did a portrait of France's wartime leader Georges Clemenceau and British naval hero Sir David Beatty.
At the same time, the art world was changing. Modernism had come to America. Some of her contemporaries such as Childe Hassam, opposed the new art. Once again, however, Beaux refrained from getting involved in controversy despite the fact that some of the studies that she produced for her portraits have a very loose, almost abstract quality.
Beaux had always been highly productive, turning out numerous portraits each year. However, in 1924 while walking in Paris, she fell and broke her hip. After the accident, Beaux's production rapidly dwindled and never recovered. However, she was able to pen her autobiography.
In the 1930s, Beaux received a number of awards recognizing a lifetime of achievement. She received honorary degrees from Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt praised Beaux as "the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world".
Beaux died in 1942 in Gloucester.
Above: One of the portraits Beaux painted of her friend Edith Page.
Below: French premier Georges Clemenceau.
Although often categorized as a traditional realist, Beaux's works can reflect an Impressionist influence. "Sita and Sarita" (above) recalls the work of Mary Cassatt both in its composition and choice of color. The colors in "New England Woman" are reminiscent of those used by Claude Monet and Berthe Morisot.
Works that Beaux did for herself tend to have a looser style than her commission work. Above: "Beach Haven, New Jersey." Below: A study for a self-portrait.
Artist appreciation - Cecilia Beaux