My boss, Linda Wehrli, recently discovered an American portrait painter, Cecilia Beaux while randomly checking posts on Facebook. We were both baffled as to how we had never heard of this remarkable fine artist before! Her work reminded us of John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Mary Cassatt.
In fact, William Merritt Chase (the father of American Impressionist painting) had declared “Miss Beaux is not only the greatest living woman painter but the best that has ever lived. Miss Beaux has done away entirely with the sex [gender] in art.” With that discovery, Linda declared Cecilia Beaux as our next Art History 101 featured artist on the school’s blog. It was a pleasure to research and learn about this accomplished female artist. We hope you enjoy the read.
Here’s a little backstory to start. Cecilia Beaux was an American East Coast artist who lived from 1855–1942. Born in Philadelphia, she lived in New York City and passed away in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
An artist’s childhood can have longterm effects on his or her life and choices. With her mother’s death, just 12 days after her birth, her father returned to France, leaving Beaux and her sister to be raised by relatives. Despite the tragic events, Beaux’s interest in art was encouraged at home and school.
Not able to afford art lessons, Beaux was taken under the wing of her relative, Catherine Ann Drinker, a successful artist with her own studio and increasing clientele. After a year with Drinker, Beaux went on to learn for two years with painter Francis Adolf Van der Wielen, who taught her perspective and drawing from casts during the time that the new Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was under construction.
By the young age of 18, Beaux was quite resourceful, already earning her living through commercial art, teaching, creating lithographs, and painting on China while studying in Philadelphia. My boss was delighted to hear that as she champions artists who bootstrap their own way to success in their field of choice.
Although Beaux was an expert illustrator, deep down she was not passionate about the exactitude demanded of illustrators. She surprisingly did not consider herself an artist at this point! I find that I (and many artists) can relate to this feeling. When can one refer to themselves as a true artist? I don’t think success needs to be a factor; it’s in the soul. 🙂 But I digress…
In 1876, Beaux began attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which at the time was helmed by artist Thomas Eakins. It was there that she won the prestigious Mary Smith Prize in 1885, 1887, 1891, and 1892. This award recognized the best female artists at the Academy. Very cool, especially for that period in history!
Despite her success in Philadelphia, Beaux (like a true artist) felt she still needed to advance her studies. At the age of 32, she left for Paris after turning down several marriage proposals.
She trained at the largest school in Paris, the Académie Julian, receiving weekly critiques from master painters such as Tony Robert-Fleury and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (My boss swooned when learning Beaux studied with her all-time favorite artist, Bougeureau.) Speaking about her teachers, Beaux stated, “I want these men…to know me and recognize that I can do something.” #Idol!
The more I learned about Beaux, the more I discovered how determined and strong-willed she was. Much like how she neglected a career in illustration even though she was talented in the field, she also declined to conform to the Impressionist style of painting of loose brushstrokes and light palettes.
Right when she arrived in Paris, the Impressionists were receiving negative reviews from critiques. Such artists included Degas, Monet, Sisley, Caillebotte, Pissarro, Renoir, and Berthe Morisot. Their art was the antithesis of the formal training Beaux received. However, she did attempt the Impressionist style to some of her landscapes and portraits but with little success. Her time in Europe did affect her palette, though. She returned home with a paler and whiter color scheme, especially while painting female portraits.
Upon returning to Philadelphia in 1889, Beaux continued painting striking portraits of writers, politicians, artists, as well as her sister’s family. Devoting herself entirely to art, she decided not to marry.
Within five years, she created over 40 portraits. Her paintings were exhibited in the US, Paris, and London. Beaux had received many awards, including the Gold Medal at Exposition Universelle, Paris, in 1900, had two retrospective exhibitions, and published her autobiography. To top it all off, in 1933, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt presented Beaux with the Chi Omega fraternity’s gold medal, for “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world.” I couldn’t agree more!
Beaux lived a long, prosperous life as an artist. She passed away on September 17, 1942, at the age of 87. Suffice it to say, Cecilia Beaux has inspired female artists and left a tremendous mark on art history.
We hope this mini Art History lesson inspires you to continue to discover the works of this dedicated artist.
Art History 101 reviews selected artists from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Simply click the FB, Twitter or Pinterest link buttons along the side. Comments appreciated! If there is an artist you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support!
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