Less than a century ago, Cecilia Beaux (1855‱942) was generally considered the best American woman artist. Later, she was routinely rated one of the country’s greatest women of the first half of the Twentieth Century. In 1933, she was hailed by Eleanor Roosevelt as “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world.” Nowadays, however, little is heard or seen of her work.
Because Beaux painted upper-class portraits in an academic, international style that fell out of favor, and because she has been overshadowed by fellow female artist Mary Cassatt †enduringly popular in part because of her links to French Impressionism †the reputation of this superb painter has declined precipitously in the last half-century.
A comprehensive exhibition, “Cecilia Beaux, American Figure Painter,” comprising 85 paintings and works on paper, goes a long way toward restoring Beaux’s standing. The exhibition is curated by Sylvia Yount and is on view at the Tacoma Art Museum through January 6.
Beaux worked diligently to create more than 300 portraits, which hang today in important museums or are treasured possessions of private collectors. Her canvases, often double, full-length likenesses of socially or professionally prominent figures or of children and mothers, are characterized by fluid brushstrokes, sensuous colors, dynamic use of texture and pattern and insights into sitters. The current exhibition documents that when Beaux was at the top of her game, she ranks with the best portraitists America has produced. Renewed interest in neglected American artists, and in Beaux as a reflection of her culture and a role model for female artists, has begun to revive appreciation for her achievements.
Beaux was born and brought up in Philadelphia. When her mother died shortly after her birth and her father returned to his native France, she was raised by maternal relatives in genteel, cultivated surroundings.
She studied art privately and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she avoided classes taught by the controversial Thomas Eakins, but adopted his sober realism. Her first major painting, “Les derniers jours d’enfance (The Last Days of Infancy),” 1885, was well received when exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1887 and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This sensitive portrayal of her sister holding her small son in her lap is reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler’s celebrated likeness of his mother, while its somber tones recall Eakins.
Other early Beaux likenesses of children drew favorable attention, including a pastel and watercolor depiction of a winsome “Edward James Drifton Coxe,” 1884; and an oil of a prim “A Little Girl (Fanny Travis Cochran),” 1887. Cochran, who went on to become a prominent social activist, recalled that the painter “was not only very pretty, but lovely in every way.”
Beaux’s first double portrait, “Harold and Mildred Colton,” 1887, showed two self-assured young descendants of Philadelphia artistic titan Charles Willson Peale. “In its realism and psychological resonance, ‘Harold and Mildred Colton’ stands alongside some of Sargent’s contemporary portrayals of children, particularly ‘The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,'” writes Yount in the exhibition catalog.
In 1888, to polish her credentials and enhance her skills, Beaux studied at ateliers in Paris. Rudolphe Julian of the Academie Julian thought her pictures were too “grave” and “darkened,” and advised her “to gain a greater vivacity †and resonance †and brilliancy,” counsel she took to heart.
Beaux was not attracted to Impressionism or the work of the French avant-garde, but to copying Old Masters at the Louvre and, generally, firsthand exposure to painters such as Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens and Velazquez, who inspired the grand-manner portraits for which she is best known.
Acting on Julian’s advice, Beaux’s palette brightened and her brushwork became more expressive during a summer of plein air painting at the American art colony in Concarneau, as exemplified by a canvas of two pink-cheeked Breton peasant women in traditional dress, “Twilight Confidences,” and a portrait of debonair American expatriate artist Alexander Harrison, both dating to 1888. Harrison, admiring Beaux’s interest in studying models up close and from uncommon angles, said “she put brains into her work.”
“By the end of her first year in Europe,” writes Yount in the exhibition catalog, “Beaux had set her sights on a career as a painter of ‘heads.'” “People do seem to me more interesting than anything else in the world,” Beaux wrote home.
During a visit to England in 1889, she created a sensitive pastel portrait of Lady Darwin, a friend from Philadelphia, and other members of the Darwin family.
Returning from France later that year, Beaux established herself as a portrait painter in Philadelphia and, ten years later, opened a studio in New York. She carried out commissions from all along the East Coast, particularly, and continued to exhibit in international venues to much acclaim. One writer gushed about the “spontaneity&ervous swing&elf-confidence and quite exhilarating fluency” of her art.
Some of her best work involved sizable likenesses of young nieces and nephews, such as “Cecil Kent Drinker,” 1894, and “Dorothea and Francesca (The Dancing Lesson),” 1898.
A highlight of the exhibition is “Ernesta (Child with Nurse),” 1894, measuring roughly 50 by 38 inches, which depicts Beaux’s favorite niece holding the hand of the barely visible “Nurse Mattie.” The high-keyed palette, expressive brushwork and careful cropping that focuses attention on the endearing youngster enchanted viewers then and now.
Throughout her career, Beaux’s emphatic yet unsentimental mother-and-child portraits recorded special bonds †or aloofness, in the case of “Mrs Alexander Sedgwick and Daughter Christina,” 1902 †in suave, harmonious compositions.
A strikingly handsome, clean cut, strong-featured woman of medium height, with light brown hair, Beaux was articulate, witty, well-informed and self-confident. Stylishly dressed, she looked and acted like a lady, spurning the eccentric clothing and bohemian lifestyles of some of her artistic contemporaries. She was at home with affluent patrons, and they with her.
Beaux was constantly surrounded by male admirers, including several with marriage in mind. But early on she concluded †like Cassatt †that married life and a career as a full-time painter were incompatible, and she avoided lasting attachments.
Vintage photographs and self-portraits in 1894 (painted for admission to the National Academy of Design) and 1925 (commissioned by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy) document that Beaux kept her youthful good looks into her 70s. She was one of the few Americans, and the first US woman, to have her likeness in the Uffizi.
Works commissioned by the nation’s social and cultural elite made Beaux a celebrity in her own right. She painted portraits of her sophisticated friend, Richard Watson Gilder (1903), a poet and magazine editor, and his salon-hostess wife, Helena de Kay Gilder (1911) in mourning for her husband. The Gilders introduced Beaux to wealthy patrons and the intelligentsia of the day, and commissioned insightful graphite portraits of Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt that are distinguished for their economy of line and perceptive character.
Beaux took time from lucrative portrait painting to serve on juries at major museums, and for two decades taught at the Pennsylvania Academy, where she was the first full-time woman instructor †and much admired. Harrison Morris, director of the Pennsylvania Academy, recalled that “There was& sort of halo about her and her work; she was liked so well, she was so rarely talented, so unaffected, so simple, so winning and, if I may say it, so beautiful, that everybody was eager to give her the praise which she so richly deserved.”
Determined to do things her way, Beaux evolved a mature style that was a kind of modified, bravura Impressionism along the lines of William Merritt Chase and Sargent. Some aspects of composition, pattern and flatness of perspectives were influenced by Whistler, while her tone of gravity was akin to Eakins.
In her prime, Beaux’s work was often compared †favorably †with that of Sargent, the leading portraitist of his era. “No grand manner portraitist, except&⁓argent, could depict the shimmering of silk, or the laciness of lace, with more brio” than Beaux, according to Paul Richard, one-time art critic of The Washington Post .
Much of her reputation was built on her knowing likenesses of genteel, upper-class men and women from the East Coast, posed amid the splendors of their residences, such as “Mr and Mrs Anson Phelps Stokes,” 1898. Beaux’s monumental (83 by 44 inches) double portrait of a Philadelphia social debut, “Mother and Daughter,” 1898, which earned many honors, reflects her familiarity with family rituals of the wealthy elite. Such works suggest, writes Yount, “commonalities between artist and sitter †a shared concern with ideals of beauty, intelligence and social privilege.”
Beaux’s striking “New England Woman,” 1895, shows her beloved second cousin sitting serenely in the bedroom of her colonial Connecticut home. Its white motif is “a response to the aesthetic challenge of [James McNeill] Whistler’s [white-themed] art,” says Yount.
Some of Beaux’s finest portraits were of successful businessmen and bankers, and solemn clergymen, like “The Reverend Matthew Blackburne Grier,” 1892. In a departure from her usual somber portrayals of such men in dark suits, Beaux utilized fluid brushstrokes, creamy colors, an imaginative pose and perceptive insights in depicting her brother-in-law in “Man with a Cat,” 1898. Henry Sturgis Drinker, a forceful, patrician lawyer and later president of Lehigh University, had proposed to Beaux before marrying her sister.
The play of light and dark, strong brushwork and charming composition of “The Dreamer” and “Sita and Sarita,” both 1893, showing contemplative, enigmatic young women, made them among Beaux’s most compelling and best-known paintings. A New York art critic wrote of the latter, “I don’t see how even Mr Sargent could paint a portrait with more distinction.”
From 1906 until her death in 1942, Beaux divided her time between New York and Gloucester, Mass. Her expansive waterfront home on Eastern Point, “Green Alley,” offered a relaxed place to paint and entertain visitors. A broken hip in 1924 that never healed properly gradually ended Beaux’s painting career. In 1930, her memoir, Background with Figures , was published. When she died at her beloved “Green Alley,” she was 87.
Fiercely independent, ambitious, tough-minded, gifted and totally committed to her work, Beaux resented being referred to constantly as a woman painter. “They don’t write about men painters,” she grumbled. Throughout her long career she held to the credo that “Success is sexless.”
Around the turn of the Twentieth Century, the wise and generous Chase declared that Beaux was “not only the greatest living woman painter, but the best that has ever lived.” While that may represent a bit of hyperbole, the current exhibition demonstrates that Cecilia Beaux deserves recognition not only as the finest American woman painter who made her career in that country, but as a painter of the first rank, period.
After closing in Tacoma, “Cecilia Beaux, American Figure Painter” will conclude its tour at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, February 2⁁pril 13, 2008.
The 195-page exhibition catalog, with 169 color illustrations and 40 black and white photographs, contains essays by Yount and art historians Nina Auerbach, Mark Bockrath and Kevin Sharp. It is published by the High Museum with the University of California Press and sells for $45 (hardcover).
The Tacoma Art Museum is at 1701 Pacific Avenue. For information, 253-272-4258 or www.tacomaartmuseum.org