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« Architecture and Urbanism Buzz | Main | Buck Owens »

March 25, 2006

Cecilia Beaux: The Almost-Sargent

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The rediscovery of late-19th century artists continues.

One of the latest instances is a well-illustrated new (2005) biography of portraitist Cecilia Beaux by Alice A. Carter. This book is the basis of what follows.

Beaux's father was a Frenchman who married into a Philadelphia family situated on the fringes of that city's deeply-rooted Society.

For example, her uncle (by marriage) was William Foster Biddle. Although he was a Biddle, he wasn't one of The Biddles -- a slightly different branch of the family.

One of Cecilia's nieces was Catherine Drinker Bowen, the author (Drinkers are another old Philadelphia family). Cecilia did not consider Catherine attractive enough to be the subject of any of her con amore family paintings. Instead, Cecilia favored Catherine's charismatic sister Ernesta Drinker, and in return was hated by Catherine.

Cecilia was born in 1855, died in 1942, and lied about her age for much of her life. She even wrote an autobiography that included no dates whatsoever. She played this game -- and usually got away with it -- because she was attractive and aged more slowly than average. Snapshots taken of her in her fifties show little sign of sag around the chin and neck, usually the first places where aging shows in women.

He birth was marked by the death of her mother days later. Her father was not too successful in business and eventually returned to France, leaving what was left of his family in Philadelphia. Family members had to scramble to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, but at least the family had practice, thanks to difficulties experienced by previous generations.

Cecilia discovered art when a teenager and received some training. She practiced various kinds of commercial art including dish-painting and highly detailed scientific drawings of bones and seashells. By this point, she was both meticulous and driven to succeed as an artist though it was a while later that she decided that portraiture was her métier.

She took up oils and developed such competence that her "Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance" (see below) was a prizewinner that launched her career. After saving enough money, she went to France early in 1888 to study art at the Académie Julian, returning a year and a half later. She had paintings accepted by the Salon while in France and after she returned to Philadelphia.

During the 1890s Beaux established herself as a major portrait artist. By the end of the decade the well-known painter William Merritt Chase was able to state "Miss Beaux is not only the greatest woman painter [of modern times], but the best that has ever lived."

Her career flourished in the early part of the 20th century, at which time she built a house near the shore in Gloucester, Massachusetts. However, she had no interest in the new kinds of painting revealed to Americans at the famous Armory Show of 1913, believing that such art was simply a fad.

In 1924 while visiting Paris, Cecilia fell and broke her hip. She never recovered, being unable to walk unaided. In her last years she lost most of her sight. Arthritic problems further reduced her ability to paint. She had essentially given up art by 1930. I find it saddening to think that if she had been born 40 or 50 years later, medical advances would have made her afflictions easier to bear.

Gallery


Self-portrait - 1894.jpg
Self-Portrait, 1894.

Derniers 2.jpg
"Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance" 1883-85.
This was Beaux's prize-winning painting that launched her career.

Study of Two Breton Women - 1888.jpg
"Study of Two Breton Women, Concarneau, France" 1888.
Painted while on summer break from art classes in Paris.

The Dreamer - 1894.jpg
"The Dreamer" 1894.
Portrait of Caroline Kilby Smith. It won prizes at exhibits, but took more than 20 years to sell.

Man with a Cat - 1898.jpg
"Man with a Cat" 1898."
Portrait of Henry Sturgis Drinker.

Sita and Sarita - 1893-94.jpg
"Sita and Sarita" 1893-94."
Portrait of Sarah Allibone Leavitt, also known as "Young Woman with Cat." Probably Beaux's most famous painting, it is in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Commentary

Although her formal training was haphazard, Cecilia Beaux succeeded through native ability, determination and a disposition for perfectionism.

Having decided to focus on portraiture, her range was necessarily limited, giving us even more reason to take Chase's quote above with the dose of salt it clearly deserves. Moreover, she was not at all an innovator, a decisive failing in the eyes of most 20th century art critics and historians.

Nevertheless, Beaux was very good indeed at what she did. Not the equal of John Singer Sargent (who was!?!), she came pretty close to his level. I find that I like much of what she did and now will be on the lookout for opportunities to see her work in person.

It's a good thing that her rediscovery is continuing to gain steam.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at March 25, 2006




Comments

Thanks for the info on Ms. Beaux. She's kind of danced around the edges of my knowledge of American painting for years. Somehow it's a bit depressing to realize that an artist of such evident talent has managed not to get more securely written into the record, even given the absurd neglect of American painting in most art history. It makes me wonder exactly when (if ever) art history will stop being just an exercise in boosterism for the tastes of various collectors and become something more generally descriptive. Maybe what we need is an American version of a book like Bernard Berenson's Pictures of the Italian Renaissance, which attempted an unusually complete survey rather than simply illustrating a simplified literary narrative.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 26, 2006 2:56 PM



I particularly like that man with the wild mustache and the very relaxed yellow cat. It would be a wonderful painting to live with, which is more the point to me than gallery shows.

Speaking as an author struggling to get published an analytical and historically embedded bio of an artist (yes, my ex-husband), I'm finding that it's nearly impossible to stop "being an exercise in boosterism." That is only kind of writing about contemporary or Western realism that publishers and agents will accept. If one goes beyond a promotional catalogue, there is uproar. I went to academic presses, thinking they would be more objective, but many of them are in debt to the major institutions and galleries whose holdings are evidently too valuable to criticize. One "expert referee" forbade me to say that Bob Scriver was narcissistic because it undercut his artistic destiny. I'd say it was one of the qualities that made him ABLE to assert his "destiny."

People are terrified to leave the status quo, which is why I'm delighted to read Donald's side trails and can only hope others will read and write in the same way. It just appears that we'll have to settle for self-publishing. Although I'm looking at a "Letter of Agreement" with the U of Calgary Press. They ask me to list all instances in the book of "libel or felonious conduct." I assume they are afraid of litigation over plagiarism or invention, but maybe they are also worrying that my aesthetic judgment might offend someone. If so, the enterprise is doomed.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 26, 2006 4:22 PM



I came back to say that realistic, or at least representational, sculpture has followed quite a different path than the same category of painting. The National Sculpture Society publishes a wonderful magazine about representational sculpture of all kinds. The present editor chooses a theme and presents articles that address it: humor, women, whatever. Often there are remarkable insights and comparisons. I don't know of an art magazine that does the same thing with painting, but if others DO know, I'd be grateful to be told about it.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 26, 2006 4:42 PM



Donald, your timing is exquisite. I am currently recording "Of Human Bondage" by W. S. Maugham, and I am in those chapters that deal with Philip Carey's attempt to become an artist in Paris. These are precisely the years that Maugham was describing, and I have no doubt that the studio scenes in the book are perfectly matched to the style of bohemian artist these paintings represent. If you haven't read this book, you've missed a great one. Loved the article.

Charlton Griffin

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on March 26, 2006 5:27 PM



Mr. Pittenger:

Not that I've got anything against J. S. Sargent, far from it, but I do scratch my head a bit when people claim he stands head and shoulders above the crowd. As a portrait artist, I'd say his contemporaries Degas, Cassat, Zorn, Serov and Sorolla are certainly his equals and on certain days his superiors (in a variety of different ways.) To say nothing of Van Dyke or Hals or Velasquez or Raphael...!

He does paint a darn nice watercolor, I'll give you that...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 26, 2006 7:25 PM



Thanks for this, Donald. I'd seen a handful of Cecilia Beaux's paintings -- there are a bunch of really nice ones at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts -- and liked them. And I'd always wanted to learn more about her. Obviously a remarkable woman and a remarkable talent. It's nice to learn too that she's received a full-scale bio. About time. Did you enjoy the book? I see that two Amazon reader-reviewers both liked it. (A nice line from one of them: "her painting style is similar to that of her contemporaries, Like John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. In my opinion she is as good an artist as them and adds an emotional touch that her male counterparts often lacked." Seems about right.)

This is probably a little sly 'n' devilish of me. But I wonder if she hasn't been as well known as she ought to be in recent years partly because of feminism. The '70s feminists often hated to admit that any women prior to 1970 had accomplished anything worldly -- they seemed to want to feel that worldly accomplishment for women prior to '70s feminism was simply impossible. But maybe I'm wrong here.

Anyway, lovely piece, and many thanks for passing along the images too. That was a great era in American art. Too often looked down-on, too, since it didn't "lead to" modern art ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 26, 2006 8:39 PM



Friedrich -- Well, this was a short post and it would have had (even) less punch had I gone into "one hand"-"other hand" academic mode. When I wrote it I was thinking of American artists and if you grant Sargent his courtesy American status (as museums tend to do), then he's tops in the portrait biz. And I should have made that American qualification explicit.

Zorn, Serov and Sorolla were very good at portraits, indeed peers of Sargent or maybe even better. Cassat and Degas I'm not so sure of, but now we're getting into shadings of personal taste.

Yesterday I was looking at both the Sargent and William Merritt Chase depictions of the Spanish dancer called "La Carmencita" and thought Chase handily supassed Sargent on that subject, anyhow.

I suppose I fall for Sargent's technique (facility being a soft spot I've admitted to more than once on this blog), and he seemed to come up a tad short in the character-revelation department more than once. Still, he had clients to please, and deserves a little slack.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 26, 2006 8:48 PM



Let me alert other visitors and Blowhards to the fact that Charlton Griffin, commenting a few comments up from this one, is one of the very, very best audiobook readers ever. Or am I mistaken? Is that you, Charlton?

Assuming I'm right ... I recently loved Charlton's brilliant rendition of this collection of Maugham stories, and I'm hoping to get around to his performance of Xenophon soon.

Charlton brings a lot of class, chops, dignity, and feeling to whatever he reads. He also has an amazing gift for bringing you into contact with multiple layers in the work he's presenting: the words, the sentences, the characters, the story ... And for doing so in the most accessible and enjoyable way imaginable. I encourage audiobook listeners to search out his work -- and I encourage those who haven't yet got the audiobook bug to come to their senses. BTW, as far as I can tell, Charlton isn't just the narrator of these books. He also selects them, produces them, and is owner (part-owner? unsure here) of Audio Connoisseur, the first-class boutique publisher that puts them out. Check out Audio Connoisseur's website. You could be listening to all that great literature, wonderfully presented, as you commute or exercise ...

A quick Google sweep turns up this collection of terrific Amazon reviews by Charlton -- dude, you like Vedanta too? You rock! I also turn up this appreciative and perceptive profile of him. Click on the red "play" button to hear Charlton's voiceover reel.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 26, 2006 8:59 PM



Violet Oakley, her contemporary, compares favorably:

http://www.spruance.phila.k12.pa.us/violetoakley.htm

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 26, 2006 10:01 PM



Check out this forthcoming show of Phila women artists:

http://www.phillyfunguide.com/event.php?id=4448

BTW-Donald-what do you think of Berthe Morisot?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 26, 2006 10:05 PM



Mary -- Interesting tidbit on writing about artists. I've been getting the impression that, for most biographies, if the author can't squeeze in as much sex, psychological dysfunction, misanthropy and whatever other weird 'n' juicy bits can be found, the draft will go sailing back over the transom.

A case in point is Geogia O'Keefe. Stieglitz took lots of photos of Georgia with nary a stitch on. I don't remember having seen them in the past, but now just about every new bio of her is full of skin shots. Why? Some legal thing? The fact she and contemporaries have been dead X years? Apparently pix of Georgia in the buff are considered to be little threat to prices for her paintings.

Leep us posted on your progress.

Charlton-- Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you read this blog.

Michael -- And thank you for your kind words.

I enjoyed the book more than I feared I might. I was afraid it would be a Feminist tract. Instead, it was balanced and kept ideology out of sight. Female art students were indeed treated differently in the late 1800s and the writer simply states the facts without making a big deal out of it. Ditto on Beaux's sex life.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 26, 2006 10:09 PM



One more--don't forget Alice Barber Stephens, from the same period:

http://plasticc.libertynet.org/abstephens.html

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 26, 2006 10:09 PM



Donald, to take your question about Georgia O'K.'s nudes earnestly, I think maybe there's intended to be some appeal to lesbians, maybe the photos are just coming out of copyright so they're cheap, maybe it's that we're tired of 16 year-old blonde bunnies, maybe it's that the feminists have found her and like the defiance of the woman to have done this thing -- though it was very quiet at the time. Maybe it's still curiosity about the May-Dec. relationship between she and Steiglitz. I like the photos -- I find her beautiful. Sometimes she makes me think of early Madonna portraits -- I mean the pop diva, not the religious icon. For a while it was very fashionable to see her through the lens of the young man who cared for her at the end. Some saw this as some kind of sex appeal -- even with her black kimono and severe hair -- and others saw it as a kind of capture -- maybe misuse. She's a great inkblot, as are her paintings.

When abstract expressionism separated from representational (indeed, often journalistic) realism, the two life-styles also separated. The representation (there's a certain amount of reflexivity in this) of Western artists was that they were men of action while those New Yorkers, as anyone would expect, were dissolute bounders -- probably had a lot more money, too! Bob Scriver's parents did their utmost to keep him away from Winold Reiss, the very fine NYC portraitist of Blackfeet and Harlem residents who had a school close to the Scriver summer cabin. And indeed Reiss was a bit bohemian -- one Romeo & Juliet set among his students were missing several days before he noticed.

Taliafero's bio of Charlie Russell shocked many who thought of Charlie as a kind old grandpa, even though around here we all knew that he hung around in bordellos quite a bit. Part of the lack of salt in "Art of the West" or "Southwest Art" comes from this denial of deviation, as though it meant perversion or moral rot. But like Zane Grey, who kept his young female partners quiet but nevertheless recorded every carnal event in his journal as well as photos (Hello! Georgia?), many of these people protest too much. (Zane Grey claimed to hate Mormons because of polygamy but the new TV series about a polygamist family had nothing on him -- except that he didn't bother to marry them.)

Writing about sculpture careers has much more to do with materials than painting does, although much is made of the invention of the oil paint tube. Except for sculptors who cut directly into stone or wood, etc., a person who works in clay or plastilene is dependent on mold-maker and caster. What's interesting about Bob Scriver's work is that his skill AS mold-maker and investment bronze caster is directly related to the value of his products. Now the wheel has turned some more and bronze casting has become so space-age technologically simplified that castings are often at the hobby level -- and so is the art that's cast. One foundryman told me there were a few people who came to him who had done such poor work that he took them aside and counselled them not to waste their money.

Painting doesn't take much money and one doesn't have to endanger oneself. But it takes a lot of vision and skill development, which is harder to get hold of. Still, painting is related to the times -- all those 19th century clothes definitely contribute to the ambiance.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 26, 2006 11:36 PM



Michael, thanks so much for the kind words. You make all the time I spend on audiobook projects all the more worthwhile. Yes, I'm a one man show here at Audio Connoisseur. My wife designs the packaging.

This is my favorite website!

Charlton Griffin

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on March 27, 2006 9:42 AM



These paintings are beautiful, and I agree...seem to have a bit more personality than some of Sargent's, although I love him, too. She's sort of like painting's counterpart of Edith Wharton or Jane Austen in literature. Thanks so much for this.

Posted by: annette on March 27, 2006 10:53 AM



My only objection to her work is the uniformity of her backgrounds. They all, or almost all, seem to be dark brown.

Posted by: ricpic on March 27, 2006 2:10 PM






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