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An exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, aims to present Cecilia Beaux for the great painter she was: one of the most accomplished among men and woman alike.
by Lynne Moss Perricelli
At first glance, Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942) appears to be a woman typical of her time in that her family relationships to a great extent directed the course of her life. However, a look at Beaux’s life shows that, instead of adopting the conventional roles of wife and mother, the artist focused on developing a career and went on to become one of the leading society portraitists of the day. But, as curator Sylvia Yount argues in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition “Cecilia Beaux: American Figure-Painter,” she was never merely a society portraitist. “Beaux’s interest in exploring the line between portraiture and figure painting, at a time when the latter genre was widely regarded as the preeminent mode in American art, underlies her critical reputation. Beaux moved from the specific and personal concerns of portraiture to what was widely interpreted as the general and universal quality of figure painting, capturing cultural tensions and transitions that resonate today.”
The traveling exhibition, which is on view at its final venue at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, February 2 through April 13, surveys the artist’s nearly 40-year career with more than 85 works, many of which have never been viewed publicly. As the show illuminates, Beaux’s family members and friends constituted the majority of her subject matter, and in these pictures she explored the depiction of an individual’s character, as well as the complexities of family relationships. These aesthetic objectives, combined with her skills in painting, allowed her to compete from the outset of her career in the larger arena—with men—for status in artistic circles. Her achievements were widely recognized during her lifetime but were largely forgotten until some 40 years after her death, when the women’s liberation movement revived interest in her career.
Despite her success as a painter, Beaux had a relatively limited formal education in art, studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and privately with William Sartain (1843–1924), whose approach she much preferred to the more clinical one espoused by Thomas Eakins at the academy. Sartain helped her become proficient in painting the figure from life, leading to the completion of the painting that effectively launched her artistic career: Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance. Picturing her sister, Etta, and her nephew, Henry Sandwith Drinker, the painting goes far beyond portraiture to make, as Yount describes it, “a universal statement about a particular stage of childhood and the complex changes that accompany it. Beaux herself considered the intimate arrangement of four hands at the center of the composition to be the painting’s symbolic crux.”
In creating the painting, Beaux first made a small compositional study in oil. She then created the setting in her studio by arranging family heirlooms, the furniture, and clothing to convey the personal feeling she desired. Critics praised the piece when it was shown in 1885 at the American Art Association Prize Fund Exhibition and later at the Pennsylvania Academy’s 1885 annual exhibition, where it won the Mary Smith Prize. The press also lauded the painting, and it so impressed a friend of Beaux’s that she sent it to Paris with the friend for the 1887 Salon. It was accepted and hung, prompting the artist to train at the ateliers in Paris soon after, a lifelong ambition she finally realized at the relatively mature age of 33.
The success of Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance led to many important commissions from the elite of Philadelphia, including two from local churches. Her portrait of the Rev. William Henry Furness—who was the minister at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia and a leader among the intelligentsia of Philadelphia—was greatly admired and helped Beaux gain access to a progressive circle. Her portraits of men during this time were followed by commissions for portraits of other family members, including some of the child portraits for which she became so well known.
One of her most notable child portraits, Harold and Mildred Colton, is her first double portrait, a theme that her archrival Mary Cassatt also explored around this time. In Beaux’s piece, the Colton children appear as self-assured individuals, with confidence far beyond their years. Interestingly, as Yount explains, the presentation is both traditional and innovative. The boy holds a whip, a symbol of masculinity, while the girl holds an apple, a signifier of the female world of nature, yet the mature expressions on the children’s faces reveal their distinctive characters. Like John Singer Sargent’s child portraits, this portrayal suggests the inner lives of children with a lack of sentimentality that is thoroughly modern.
A Little Girl (Fanny Travis Cochran) conveys a similar effect, with an emotional complexity that presages the subject’s future as a militant social activist. In addition, Beaux’s handling of the girl’s clothing recalls James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s series of girls in white dresses, although Beaux clearly chose to emphasize the psychological dimensions of her subject. In Ernesta (Child With Nurse), Beaux also depicted a girl in a white dress but in this piece she chose a more daring composition. Oil and graphite sketches helped her explore the placement of the figures, and like Degas, she cropped the figures in an unconventional format and employed fluid brushwork, evoking a sense of life and movement. Beaux wrote that in this painting she hoped to convey a single truth: “that a child of that age is habitually led by the hand.”
As Yount points out, Cecil Kent Drinker, a portrait of Beaux’s nephew, confirms the observation of critic Leila Mechlin, who wrote that the artist’s portraits of children capture “precisely the right environment to emphasize their [the sitters’] inherent individuality, giving to each a simple dignity which is the badge of innocence and breeding.” The Old Master conventions she employed here are notable, particularly the child’s costume and its miniaturizing effect, highlighting the sitter’s diminutive qualities and innocence. “In the case of the forthright Cecil, however, the work’s charm stems from the tension between his apparently adult attire (particularly the cane) and his four-year-old individuality,” Yount writes.
Beaux was intimately involved with her sister’s family but was childless herself, which makes her remarkable paintings of mothers and their children all the more intriguing. Mother and Daughter shows an unusual closeness between the subjects, as does Mrs. Stedman Buttrick and Son John, which was commissioned to mark the death of a mother in childbirth and parallels the loving feelings of Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance. Considering Beaux’s mother died soon after giving birth to her, and her father was absent as well, the artist likely found such parent-child themes challenging, or at least emotionally charged. Although they are often compared with similar imagery by Mary Cassatt, Beaux’s portraits are radically different in their emphasis on the separate identities of the sitters, even when they are emotionally or compositionally linked. As Nina Auerbach, a co-author of the exhibition catalogue, writes, “Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance creates a world unique to Cecilia Beaux. It is courteous, not terrible, but also not kind. Its people are too wary of each other to be welcoming. Neither benevolent nor cruel, it contains neither union nor abuse; love expresses itself in separation, not in mingling.”
The Dreamer, depicting Beaux’s friend Caroline Kilby Smith, became a favorite of critics, who hailed the subject as a quintessential American girl. Admitted to the 1896 Paris Salon, the painting traveled with five others: Ernesta (Child With Nurse), New England Woman, Sita and Sarita, Cynthia Sherwood, and Reverend Matthew Blackburne Grier. Hung together and at eye level, the paintings were highly praised and earned Beaux’s membership in the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Among the French artists who admired her, the sculptor Paul Bion (1845–1897) wrote to his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens that he viewed Beaux’s contributions as a welcome change from the banality of the other American portraits. “She shows us a side of America free from hurry, retired, and tranquil; and we rest content and meditative in the atmosphere created by her admirable talent,” he wrote. Saint-Gaudens later shared the letter with Beaux as a way of conveying his own appreciation of her work “in language infinitely better than my own.”
A period of experimenting with pastel in the early 1890s helped Beaux to explore a more daring use of color and confirm her belief that portraits should be “color compositions and arrangements.” In Sita and Sarita she challenged herself to portray the colors in whites, employing the shimmering accents of an Impressionist palette. Although, like other Beaux portraits, Sita and Sarita recalls Whistler’s white pictures, Beaux only used Whistler’s concept as a point of departure, inventing her own idea of how best to depict the sitter, both visually and emotionally. Around this time she opened a studio on Washington Square, in New York City, where she would be more centrally located for the commissions that came her way from all over the East Coast. Despite her residence in New York, she maintained a close relationship with her hometown of Philadelphia, and especially with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she taught until 1915.
As her career advanced, Beaux became more selective in her subjects, focusing on suffragists, educators, and various enlightened socialites. “In these works, Beaux expressed ideas of female kinship in visual terms, making statements through art rather than wearing political labels,” writes Yount. In this way she expressed her respect for women who were engaged in current issues. Eliza S. Turner is a fine example.
Beaux stopped painting in the mid-1920s after she fractured her hip and her eyesight declined as a result of cataracts. As a kind of proof of her international reputation, in 1924 the Uffizi asked her to submit a self-portrait, an honor bestowed on only three other Americans: William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck, and John Singer Sargent. Around this time she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in addition to receiving the Chi Omega Medal and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal. In all of these honors and awards, she was continually praised as among the finest woman painters, and as Yount explains, “it was … her professionalism and personality more than her considerable talents that appeared to ensure (and thus ultimately to obscure) her legacy.” Indeed it seemed Beaux was so well liked by her subjects and colleagues that everyone was eager to give her the recognition she so deserved. Perhaps with this exhibition her work will stand on its own terms, which is no doubt what Beaux wanted all along.
A former editor of American Artist, Lynne Moss Perricelli is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.
Cecilia Beaux: American Figure Painter
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, will host the final venue of the exhibition from February 2 through April 13. A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, which was the primary resource for this article, accompanies the show. For more information on the exhibition or the catalogue, visit www.pafa.org.