Eleanor Roosevelt called her in 1933 “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world.” William Merritt Chase believed her to be “not only the greatest living woman painter, but the best that has ever lived.” Today, only specialists in American art know much of Cecilia Beaux, subject of the first full retrospective of her work in more than thirty years at the PAFA. Cecilia Beaux: American Figure Painter looks back at this forgotten, yet significant artist in the history of American portraiture as well as women’s art, asking not only why she was significant, but also why she has become forgotten, while the reputations of contemporaries such as John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt never faded.
Sylvia Yount, former curator at the PAFA and now at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, curated the exhibition and edited the catalogue. Her essay, titled “Family Pictures,” provides a look back at the era that Beaux worked in and presents a fascinating portrait of the portraitist. Beaux began her studies at the PAFA, choosing to study under William Sartain rather than the controversial instructor Thomas Eakins. “A curious instinct of self-preservation kept me outside the magic circle” of Eakins’ influence, Beaux wrote. “I watched him from behind staircases, and corners.” Sartain was a life-long friend of Eakins and studied beside him in Paris, so their styles were quite similar. Beaux’s first big splash in painting, The Last Days of Infancy (above), has an Eakins-esque quality via Sartain, but also, as Yount shows, is an “imaginative response” to Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, better known as Whistler's Mother. In The Last Days of Infancy, Beaux paints her sister Etta with her first-born nephew Harry at three years of age. By titling it The Last Days of Infancy, Yount writes, Beaux “encourage[d] viewers to interpret the work not simply as a personal, family image but as a universal statement about a particular stage of childhood and the complex changes that accompany it.”
This universal appeal comes with a complex psychological dynamic between mother and child. Whereas her contemporary Mary Cassatt depicted mothers and children in intimate and even pseudo-erotic ways, Beaux’s pair seem strangely disconnected. As Nina Auerbach in her essay “The Queen Stands Alone” writes, “Neither benevolent nor cruel, it contains neither union nor abuse; love expresses itself in separation, not in mingling. Even Beaux’s children connect only warily.” As beautiful as Beaux’s portraits can be, it is this sense of coldness and separation verging on unexpressed anxiety that prevents the viewer from engaging with the subject. Yount describes Beaux’s personality as complex: “a demanding, domineering woman who both loved and manipulated her family; a warm, engaging friend who craved social interaction but cultivated a lonely and aloof independence; a romantic soul who rejected courtship and marriage.” Perhaps Beaux kept her distance from the equally enigmatic Eakins because she sensed a similar soul.
Cecilia Beaux, A Little Girl (Fanny Travis Cochran), 1887. Oil on canvas, 36 x 29-3/16 inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, gift of Fanny Travis Cochran, 1955.12
Beaux entered the art world as the portrait took hold of the American imagination. In “Cecilia Beaux and the Rise of American Portraiture in the 1890s,” Kevin Sharp traces how Sargent’s portrait tours of the United States in the 1880s and 1890s stoked the flames of a national mania for portraiture. Thanks to Sargent and Manet, the portrait evolved from a document commemorating the subject into a window into the subject’s soul, animated by “narrative twists of genre painting.” The Last Days of Infancy falls under this category of genre/portraiture, as does A Little Girl (Fanny Travis Cochran) (above). “The artist was always drawn to engaging children who, like herself at their age, promised to become trail-blazing adults,” Yount writes. In the direct stare of young Fanny you can almost see the militant social activist she would become, fighting for the rights of factory workers suffering under deplorable conditions. With an almost inhuman lack of sentimentality, Beaux shows the power and potential of the developing young mind and spirit.
Cecilia Beaux, Mother and Daughter (Mrs. Clement Acton Griscom, 1850-1925, and Frances C. Griscom, 1879-1974), 1898. Oil on canvas, 83 x 44 in. Gift of Frances C. Griscom, 1950.15
Beaux achieved her greatest success, both financially and critically, from grand portraits of high society, such as Mother and Daughter (above), the dual portrait of Mrs. Clement Acton Griscom and her daughter Frances. These two women, bedecked in furs and finery, represent the same social class that Beaux belonged to. She was one of them—a powerful tool in obtaining commissions. But even as she painted that class, it was dying out. Beaux documents the actual passing of her era in such works. Auerbach perceives these two women as being “as distant from each other as they are from us. Their bodies are close together, but their flat eyes look in different directions, preventing unity.” Beaux shared this same stoic disconnect in her own life and art, disdaining modern art trends and expressing “a revulsion from cubism” and the other modern art movements that were supplanting portraiture. As the times and the prevailing tastes of those times shifted, Beaux remained entrenched in her ways and beliefs, allowing the parade to slip past her, all at the cost of becoming nearly forgotten.
Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (Mrs. Jedediah H. Richards), 1895. Oil on canvas, 43 x 24 1/4 in. Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1896.1.
The longer that you look at the works of Cecilia Beaux, the more you learn to appreciate her skills. New England Woman (Mrs. Jedediah H. Richards) (above), with its bravura show of lavender, blue, pink, and green in building up the subtleties of the woman’s white dress, stands up to anything done by Whistler and Sargent (a friend and mentor to Beaux) in the same vein. Behind that amazing technique, a psychological depth arises that Sargent and Whistler rarely attempt. Like the figures in portraits by Eakins, the people in Beaux’s paintings are “incessantly themselves, never devolving into types,” as Auerbach argues. That psychological aspect provides the one modernist touch to Beaux’s work that makes her seem stunningly contemporary despite her commitment of classical realism. The same anomie that plagues Beaux’s subjects, and perhaps plagued Beaux herself as she faced the difficulties of becoming a self-supporting female artist in the early twentieth century, finds a corollary in much modern portraiture. The separation anxiety Beaux and her generation felt as the world they knew slipped from their fingers finds a strange partner in our own uncertain, anxious world today.
[Many thanks to the PAFA for providing me with a review copy of Cecilia Beaux: American Figure Painter and for the images from the exhibition.]