OUT OF THE BACKGROUND: CECILIA BEAUX AND THE ART OF PORTRAITURE
By Tara Leigh Tappert
In 1935, when Cecilia Beaux was eighty years old, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a prestigious New York City arts and literary institution, mounted the largest retrospective of her work ever held during her lifetime. Following the November opening, Beaux was described by Henry McBride, a progressive young art critic for the New York Sun, as an artist who had come of age in an era that "was altogether agreeable while it lasted," and noted that her work had "a serenity that now seems remote and foreign." McBride believed Beaux was an excellent role model for women interested in careers in the arts. He commented that even women artists "cut a social figure" in the 1890s, and that the "public then was just as interested in art and artists as it is at present in the cinema and in cinema queens." McBride considered Beaux "the Georgia O'Keeffe of [her] period."
Such comparisons regularly occurred throughout Cecilia Beaux's life. Born in Philadelphia in the mid-1850s, shortly before the first rumblings of the Civil War, Beaux's career came to fruition in New York and Massachusetts in the 1900s, under the reforming influences of Progressivism and the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Her life ended at her summer home and studio in 1942, less than a year after America had entered the Second World War. Beaux's art career spanned seven decades, and during her lifetime she witnessed a fascination with various artistic movements -- from Realism, Impressionism, Aestheticism, and the American Renaissance, to the Ash Can School, and Modernism, including Post Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism.
Beaux's own work ranged from her early decorative arts productions -- lithographic drawings, china paintings, and portrait sketches from photographs, to full-scale international style, grand-manner portraits. Commingling the styles of Realism, Impressionism, Aestheticism, the American Renaissance, and eighteenth-century English grand-manner portraiture, Beaux pursued an aesthetic ideal that not only displayed artistic and technical accomplishment, but that also explored the genteel social roles open to upper-class men, women and children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In images filled with symbols of status, glamour, and high-minded character, Beaux captured on canvas the qualities of refinement that she saw in her sitters.
Always modest about her success, Beaux was, nevertheless, one of the most highly-sought after American portrait painters at the turn of the century. She achieved the eminence that she did because she took the portrait medium, an art form traditionally acceptable for women to practice, and exploited it to the fullest. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, a time when the formal society portrait was in particularly high demand in America, Beaux painted sumptuous portraits and then exhibited them in national and international exhibitions, where they were well received, well reviewed, and awarded numerous prizes.
Art critics found her work to be equal to her artistic predecessors and contemporaries. As early as the 1880s, her portraits were compared to those of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Thomas Sully, with later correlations to the work of John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, Édouard Manet, and Franz Hals, among others. By the 1890s, William Merritt Chase had described her as "the greatest woman painter that had ever lived.... She is a painter as Valasquez [sic] and Rembrandt were, and like them, she infuses the subtle quality of life into her work."
While such accolades continued throughout her career, by the 1910s Beaux's aesthetic vision began to be challenged. A spoof of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase was credited to Becelia Ceaux at the 1914 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts students' caricature exhibition. In the early 1920s Beaux also had a telling conversation with Gertrude Stein. Standing before a painting that looked to her like "odd splashes of color stuck about," Stein described it as "realism...a still life group." Astonished, Beaux realized that there was nothing more to be said.
Even though her art style was considered passé by the end of the 1920s, her professional standing as America's representative artistic woman had become preeminent. One reviewer wrote: Miss Beaux as an American painter in America has no rivals at all -- we mean woman painter -- in that broader field, the world has only one rival, Miss Mary Cassatt. But where Miss Cassatt lives there is -- or was -- Mademoiselle Berthe Morisot, and where Miss Beaux lives there is in the way of a rival -- of a real rival -- absolutely nobody. Indeed Miss Beaux is as if she were an anarchist, beneath a blood red flag, surrounded by a society of women painters who, while admiring her bravery, dares neither to approach nor to vie with her. She is very big then, in her isolation -- almost an oasis in a desert.
Selected as among America's twelve greatest women, by the National League of Women Voters in 1922 and by Good Housekeeping in 1931, Beaux was seen as a woman who was "highly educated, progressive, devoted to the ideals of the new womanhood [and] giving her life to serious work earnestly performed." When she was presented a gold medal in 1926 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters -- their highest award for achievement in the fine arts -- Beaux hinted in her acceptance speech at the high personal and professional standards to which she adhered. We are a company seeking an Ideal. The Ideal, wherever we find it, is always just out of reach, and devotion to it involves pursuit. It also presupposes analysis and criticism; but bold as may be its flight, it springs from the very core of things, and it might have for [a] motto -- "Strength at the centre. Flexibility at the circumference". 
Beaux's pursuit of the ideal was well-rooted in her childhood. Essentially orphaned at birth -- her mother died twelve days after she was born from childbirth complications and her despairing father fled to his family in France -- Beaux was raised by her maternal grandmother and aunts who demanded a standard of perfection in every task that she and her older sister Aimeé Ernesta undertook. This training prepared Cecilia Beaux for her art career, while Aimeé Ernesta -- who chose a traditional and convention existence -- applied the same skills to the care of her husband and six children.
The different life choices of the two Beaux sisters are illustrated in the numerous paintings that Cecilia made of Aimeé Ernesta's family. Ranging from Les dernier jours d'enfance (1883 - 1885), a sentimental image of her sister and first-born nephew, to such technically brilliant and psychologically interesting portrayals as Man with a Cat (1898), a painting of her brother-in-law Henry Sturgis Drinker, and Ernesta (1914), a picture of her niece Ernesta Drinker, Beaux documented the virtues of family life while at the same time displaying her virtuosity with a brush. Beaux's experiences creating these paintings (and others), and her adventures exhibiting them throughout the world provided the narrative for the autobiography that she wrote after she broke her hip in 1924, at the age of sixty-nine.
Background with Figures, an appealing reminiscence of the life and times of a bygone era, was published by Houghton Mifflin in time for the Christmas rush in 1930. Beaux had been documenting the events of her life since her girlhood in Philadelphia. She made scrapbooks of her artistic accomplishments, kept diaries and journals, and saved numerous letters from her family and friends, drawing upon this material to tell her story. Beaux wrote a picturesque account, using beautiful and poetic language. Her childhood memories glistened with a patina of sentimentality, and the high points of her art career gleamed with romantic idealism.
Background with Figures was a beautiful but veiled presentation of the life and career of Cecilia Beaux, and it remained the main source of information about the artist for the next forty years. In 1970, Little, Brown and Company published Family Portrait, a biography by her youngest niece Catherine Drinker Bowen that revealed yet another side to this charming and dynamic woman. For Bowen, her Aunt Cecilia possessed a self-absorption that was both attracting and repelling, bringing to mind Nietzsche's remark about "the artist's egotism, which shines like brass and will not be denied." These two women, who both had extraordinary artistic talents and equally successful careers, at best had a distant, sparring relationship. The Cecilia Beaux that Catherine Drinker Bowen knew was remarkably different from the warm and vivacious woman portrayed in Background with Figures.
Beaux never embraced her gifted niece or even acknowledged her literary successes. She kept Catherine at a distance, allowing the young writer to admire her indomitable spirit only from afar. Yet Catherine, more than anyone else in Cecilia Beaux's family, understood the passion that it took for a woman to choose a life as a working artist. She also knew that Beaux viewed her art career as a sacred calling, and that her aunt had distinguished herself professionally, in part because she had sacrificed marriage and family for her career. For Beaux to have acknowledged Catherine's literary accomplishments, achieved within the context of a marriage with two children, would have meant that she was able to recognize more than one path for the creative, professional woman. Unfortunately, she never could. Catherine made Beaux uneasy.
Coming of age in the Victorian era meant that Cecilia's life choices were much more limited than were Catherine's. During her lifetime it was almost impossible for a woman to successfully combine a marriage and a career. Beaux believed that she could never be a traditional wife and mother and also a practicing artist, and therefore she never tried. She never challenged the norm, but instead, simply worked at fitting herself as best she could to the standards imposed on women who decided to have careers, comforting herself with the popularly held notion that creativity in women was rare and that she was especially called to be an artist.
Yet Beaux never really settled her ambivalence regarding her womanly side. Even though she was considered one of America's most distinguished portrait painters, there was always a restlessness about her; she seemed constantly to be looking for something more. As early as 1888, the American artist T. Alexander Harrison noted that Beaux was always trying to "reconcile the impossible." More than likely, the conflict that she was continually trying to resolve involved her strong feelings of attraction and affection for men, and her resolute decision to live as a celibate and unmarried acolyte at the feet of a demanding artistic muse. Beaux was charming, beautiful, and desirable, and her decision was not without its consequences.
Beaux remained single for both personal and professional reasons. Since her mother had died from her birth, Beaux never wanted to risk her own life that way. She also knew that she could never marry if she was to succeed at the highest professional level. Marriage, for women, demanded another kind of focus. Unfortunately, having made these choices, Beaux discovered that, in the polarized public and private spheres in which the Victorian man and woman functioned, there was no real place for an alluring single woman who was also a respected professional. Attractive and passionate career women threatened the status quo. Women who chose careers were simply not allowed to also express a womanly allure; their work was to have preempted such desires. Beaux thought this was ridiculous and as a result spent her life advocating the position that women need not be "unsexed" because they had chosen a profession instead of marriage, and indeed, she did not deny herself the pleasures of a rich personal life.
Beaux explored the varying roles that she believed defined American upper-class men and women and embedded them in the portraits that she painted. Her pictures provide a glimpse of genteel life in America, but also suggest Beaux's struggle to create a place for herself within the world that she portrayed. In many of her portraits of upper-class women, there is a curious sense that Beaux is an outside observer painting the womanly roles that she herself could only dream of. Her somber and serious portraits of career-dedicated women reflect a sense of identification, but also a little sadness. Even though Beaux wished otherwise, for a woman to achieve professional status during her lifetime, tremendous strength and personal sacrifice was required, and the concession shows in these paintings. Since Beaux always wanted to have it both ways the frustrating tensions between her personal and professional choices make her life especially interesting.
Beaux had a career filled with adventures and successes enjoyed by few other women artists of her generation. She taught portraiture at the Pennsylvania Academy from 1895 to 1916, and was the first woman employed there on a full-time basis. In 1896 she went to Paris with the Richard Watson Gilder family (he was editor of the New York arts and literary magazine, The Century) and saw six of her paintings, including the enchanting Sita and Sarita, in the Salon exhibition at the Champs de Mars. The praise showered upon this painting escalated her reputation to an international level. Six years later, in 1902 she went to Washington, D.C., to paint a portrait of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Daughter Ethel. She so charmed the President while executing the painting that she was often asked to visit the White House throughout the Roosevelt administration. Green Alley, her Gloucester, Massachusetts, summer home and studio, was built in 1905, and the social life of Eastern Point both amused and sustained her. For the rest of her life, from May to November, Beaux lived and painted at Green Alley. She was also one of eight American artists commissioned to paint portraits of various war heroes at the conclusion of the First World War. Beaux traveled to Paris and London in 1919 and 1920 to complete the commissions for Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, Admiral Lord David Beatty, and Premier Georges Clemenceau.
While the glorious moments of Cecilia Beaux's life were recorded in Background with Figures, other moments of self doubt and despair, including the conflicting tensions between her personal and professional existences, were all carefully hidden away. To be a woman and an artist at the dawn of the twentieth century involved so much more than painting. Catherine Drinker Bowen noted that the stigma attached to being a "woman artist" was something that her aunt had battled with and overcome.
But Beaux never really did win the battle. If she had she would have revealed her personal struggles and artistic decisions in Background with Figures. Instead, as the title of her autobiography suggests, the episodes of her personal life were submerged into the background leaving the career that she forged and the portraits that she painted as all that really mattered. The seamless idealism of Background with Figures cloaked the realities of her life and made it impossible for the next generation of artistic women to understand the forces that propelled her to become an artist and to make the difficult decision to live a celibate and unmarried existence.
Still, Cecilia Beaux has left us with a poignant legacy.
Her finely painted portraits are fresh and beautiful and tell us a great
deal about the American upper-class world at the turn of the century; and
Beaux herself is utterly captivating. To understand her is to unlock many
of the conflicting issues that single professional women had to face in
the dawning new century. Her life and career, with both its joyous successes
and despairing strains, suggest how difficult it was for an enchantingly
sensuous woman who was well regarded professionally to create a comfortable
place for herself in the world.
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