Sunday, April 5, 2015

WOMEN ARTISTS: Cecilia Beaux

One of the leading portrait painters in America, by the time she was 30, is the featured artist for April, in my Woman Artist Series --


Self Portrait, 1894, oil, 25x20

Here are 10 things to know about Cecilia Beaux, along with 10 examples of her work and a few images of Cecilia, too:

1.  Born in Philadelphia in 1855, Cecilia Beaux was raised by her grandmother and aunts, after her mother's early death, only 12 days after her birth.  

She was the youngest daughter of Jean Adolphe Beaux, a silk manufacturer, originally from Provence, France, and teacher Cecilia Kent Leavitt.  Her mother's sudden death hit her father so hard that he left Cecilia and her 3-year old sister with their grandmother and returned to France for two years.

Encouraged to pursue her interest in art, she took her first art lessons at the age of 16.  She studied with several local painters and later went to the school run by Dutch painter Frances Van der Wielen, for two years.  She participated in her first group exhibitions during the late 1870's.  Beaux's paintings won awards and enthusiastic reviews from the start.

A Little Girl (Fanny Travis Cochran), 1887, oil, 36 x 29

2.  Early in her art career, Cecilia earned money by painting china, before turning to portraiture, often using family members and friends as her subject matter.  In these paintings, she explored the individual's character, as well as the complexities of family relationships.

She also attended portrait classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts -- but, decided against the painter, Thomas Eakins, as a teacher.  Instead, she studied privately with William Sartain, whose approach she preferred over Eakins'.  Sartain helped her become proficient in painting the figure from life.

Cecilia Beaux

Harold and Mildred Colton, 1887, oil, 55x41

3.  "The Last Days of Infancy", painted in 1885, was the painting that effectively launched her artistic career.  This double portrait, picturing her sister, Etta, and her nephew, Henry Drinker, goes far beyond portraiture.  It makes a universal statement about a particular stage of childhood.  Cecilia considered the arrangement of four hands at the center of the composition to be the painting's symbolic crux.

Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance (The Last Days of Infancy), 1885, oil, 46x54

Beaux's painting was inspired by Whistler, and won the Mary Smith Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  It was also accepted for the Paris Salon in 1887 -- and sealed her reputation as an artist of international standing.

4.  In 1888, Cecilia traveled to Paris to study, becoming acquainted with the Impressionist movement while there.  She first submitted work to the Paris Salon in 1883, and then five years later, she began a self-financed 2-year stay in the City of Light (1888-90).  She had a successful showing at the 1889 Salon.

It was in Paris that she made a firm decision to become a portraitist.  In a letter to her Uncle Will, she wrote, "People seem to interest me more than anything in the world, and that's the reason for my success".

Lady Darwin (Maud DuPuy), 1889, pastel, 19x13

5.  Beaux returned to the United States in 1891, settling in New York.  She soon became a much sought-after portraitist, whose sitters included many prominent politicians, writers, and artists -- including George Clemenceau, Teddy Roosevelt, his wife Edith, and his daughter.  

In 1892, Beaux was invited to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts -- a rare honor for a woman.  She traveled widely, lectured often, and published her autobiography in 1930.

Man with the Cat, Portrait of Henry Sturgis Drinker (one of her best-known works.)

6.  Cecilia Beaux combined new ideas and techniques learned from the Impressionists in Paris, with her own style of portraiture.  Beaux's expressive brushwork, rich palette, effective use of relaxed poses for her sitters, caused her work to be compared frequently with the portraits of John Singer Sargent.  Her fusion of the French style with her own distinctively American taste became her signature style.

Sita and Sarita, 1893, oil, 37x25

7.  Three of her most outstanding works are The Dreamer, 1984, Dorothea & Francesca, 1898, and Sita & Sarita, 1893. 

The Dreamer is a portrait of her friend, Caroline Kilby Smith.  Generally, her sitters are in unconventional poses -- as in this painting.  The sitter, Caroline, looks absentmindedly at the viewer.  A critic described this painting as an "odd work of unsimple simplicity".

The Dreamer, 1893, oil, 33x25

One of her loveliest portraits, Dorothea & Francesca, is not only inventive in its composition, but also illustrates Beaux's skillful handling of pale colors.

Dorothea & Francesca, 1898, oil

8.  Cecilia Beaux was a strong-willed, independent woman her whole life.  She never married, choosing instead to focus on her art.  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 portraitists of the day.

9.  Another side of Beaux's art is shown in the painting, After the Meeting, 1914.  Here, the artist's friend, Dorothy Gilder, gestures animatedly -- her white gloved hands making a stark contrast against the dark wall and the floral-patterned chair.  

This painting has the lively, intimate quality of a candid photograph that catches the subject in mid-action.

10.  Beaux's art received widespread recognition during her lifetime.  In 1924, the Uffizi in Florence, Italy, asked her to submit a self-portrait -- an honor bestowed on only three other Americans.  

Cecilia Beaux died in Gloucester, Mass, at the venerable age of 87 -- after a nearly 40-year career.

Mother and Daughter, 1898, oil, 83x44


  1. So interesting and wow stunning paintings thank you for sharing this great piece of art history:)

  2. I'm loving this series on women artists!

  3. Relaxed poses telling small stories - that's what I like most! Fantastic!