Monday, December 5, 2016

1855-1942: Cecilia Beaux, American

Cecilia Beaux, c. 1888
Cecilia Beaux was the most famous and accomplished woman artist in America in the 19th century and one of the most successful society portrait artists of her era, the late 19th and early 20th century. She painted prominent writers, politicians and artists. Her paintings were widely exhibited in the U.S., and Paris and London as well.

Cecilia's work was influenced by the French Impressionists, but it didn't diverge far from the somber realism she was taught at the art academies of Philadelphia and Paris. She was about 10 years younger than Mary Cassatt, and she didn't get to Paris until after the peak of the Impressionist movement.

The pre-eminent American portrait artist of the day was John Singer Sargent, one year younger, who traveled between the capitals of Europe painting portraits of the elite of the social and the cultural world. Cecilia's work was always compared with his, and his was judged superior. However much she might chafe at this, Cecilia realized that to be compared with an internationally acclaimed artist enhanced her own stature.

Cecilia was also an important art educator—the first woman to have a regular teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, an important art school which still exists in Philadelphia and sponsors an excellent museum of art by its famous alumni.

As a woman, she was the first artist to deliberately reject marriage and family in favor of pursuing her career as a total commitment, and to make a point about this choice. She was an independent professional who was as much at home in Europe as America. She had an active social life, including male admirers.

Cecilia's background was cultured but not wealthy. The villain in her life was her father, Jean Adolphe Beaux, a silk manufacturer from France. When Cecilia's mother died, 12 days after Cecilia's birth, her father abandoned her and her sister to the care of her grandmother and her maiden aunts. Fortunately, they were remarkably progressive women and provided the girls with a cultivated upbringing.

The hero in Cecilia's life was an uncle. When she was 5, her Aunt Emily married, and Emily's husband settled in the family home and helped to raise Cecilia and her sister. Cecilia said he was like a father to her.

Cecilia was educated at home and for two years at a Philadelphia finishing school. When she graduated, the family decided that she must have proper artistic instruction, so her uncle arranged for her to study with her cousin, Catharine Ann Drinker, a noted artist and writer.

By the age of 18, Cecilia was earning her living through technical drawings and china painting.

When she was 21, in 1876, she began attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which at the time was under the influence of Thomas Eakins, one of the greatest painters of the 19th century.

She opened a studio in Philadelphia in 1883. Her first major work, a full-length portrait of her sister and nephew entitled Last Days of Infancy was exhibited at the Paris Salon, as well as the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

By the age of 32, Cecilia was a highly successful painter. Nevertheless, she traveled to Europe and spent a couple of years there studying under leading artists, including William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a major artist in the academic style.

Cecilia hit her stride when she returned to Philadelphia, age 35. She earned a reputation as one of the city's best portrait artists and achieved considerable success, including membership in the National Academy of Design.

At age 40, in 1895, she became a regular instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, her alma mater. She taught classes in portraiture there for the next 20 years, until 1915.

In 1896 she exhibited six portraits at the Paris Salon and was elected to a prestigious art society.

In 1900 Cecilia moved to New York, where she received a series of important commissions, including portraits of the wives of President Theodore Roosevelt and industrialist Andrew Carnegie, plus World War I leaders, including Georges Clémenceau.

Her success enabled Cecilia to build a summer home and studio in Gloucester, MA. By 1906 she was living in Maine year around, surrounded by wealthy friends and neighbors, and well-tended by staff.

Between 1910 and 1915, ages 55-65, she painted almost 25 percent of her lifetime output and received a steady stream of honors.

Her reputation peaked in her 70s (the 1930s), when she received several major awards, had two retrospective exhibitions, and published her autobiography.

Example of Thomas Eakins:

Thomas Eakins
Portrait of Amelia van Buren, c. 1891

Example of  Cecilia's rival, John Singer Sargent:

In Cecilia's era, John Singer Sargent was the most celebrated portrait artist. He was the man to beat, and Cecilia was frank about her competitive feelings. Here's an example of his work.

John Singer Sargent
Édouard-and-Marie-Louise-Pailleron, 1881

Our photos of Cecilia's art:

Ethel Page, 1884
Photo by Dan L. Smith

The painting below is considered Cecilia's first major work. It was exhibited at the Paris Salon.

The Last Days of Infancy, 1885
Pennsylvania Academy / Jan's photo, 2012

The picture above seems to be a variation on one of the most famous paintings in history, shown below. It was not unusual for painters to imitate paintings that had already been accepted by the Paris Salon, if the artist was also aiming for acceptance.

James McNeill Whistler
Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871
Orsay / Internet

Ernesta (Child with Nurse), 1894
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2012

New England Woman, 1895
Pennsylvania Academy / Jan's photo, 2012

Dorothea and Francesca, 1898
Chicago / Jan's photo, 2010

Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker), 1898
Smithsonian / Jan's photo, 2010

Dorothy Perkins, undated
Butler Institute
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Internet Examples of Cecilia's work:

Harold and Mildred Colton, 1887

Sita and Sarita, 1893

Dorothea and Francesca,  1898
Chicago / Internet

Mother and Daughter, 1898

The painting below is in the grand manner: a full-length portrait of a woman wearing an evening gown. It comes the closest to competing directly with Sargent.

Mrs. Larz Anderson, 1901

Below is a similar painting by Sargent.

John Singer Sargent
Mrs. Ralph Curtis, 1898

Cecilia Beaux
Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and her Daughter Ethel, 1902
Private Collection

After the Meeting, 1914

Georges Clemenceau, 1920
Smithsonian American Art /

It was a great honor for the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to invite Cecilia to submit a self-portrait for their collection of artist self-portraits. Shown below.

Self-portrait, 1925 (age 70)
Uffizi / Internet

Dressing Dolls, 1928 (artist age 73)
Private collection /