OUT OF THE BACKGROUND: CECILIA BEAUX AND THE ART OF PORTRAITURE
By Tara Leigh Tappert
Part V: Recognition
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."
Chapter 13: End of an Era, 1920 - 1942
By the 1920s the conventional grand-manner portrait had begun to give way to portraits with informal interpretations, self-conscious stylizations, and a more frequent use of genre elements. Additionally, the studio portrait photograph, and the ease with which short photographic poses could be integrated into the increasingly frenetic American lifestyle, provided intense competition for the more extended sittings required for the painted portrait. Americans were becoming less interested in taking the time, or affording the expense, of the more leisurely portrait-painting experience.
The 1920s era not only witnessed changing attitudes toward the grand-manner portrait; it also saw increasing fascination with the many emerging modern-art movements. Beaux's conservative response to these artistic transformations aligned both her work and her ideas about art with the traditional and academic. Even before the 1913 Armory show, Beaux had been uncomfortable with modern art; indeed, the direction of the modernists horrified her. She believed that modern art was vulgar, and she critiqued a 1911 exhibition of Max Weber's work at the Photo Secession as "Pseudo-Egyto-Primitive-Hysterico-morbid-cellulal-vanitito-infans masquerado-exudations [sic]." She "pretended to be solemn over it and heard some characteristic talk by devotees. I was a dressed up individual a little to be suspected. Shall go again in old clothes and stand on one leg."
Beaux was especially disgusted with Post-Impressionism and Cubism, considering these artistic expressions to be irritating, violent, exaggerated, and produced by mad idiots. Her opinion of modern art was well known to her students at the Pennsylvania Academy, and in 1914, the year after the Armory show, the Academy's annual Students' Caricature exhibition included a parody of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, entitled Lady Ascending and Descending the Stairs by Becelia Ceaux [Illus. 141]. "The cubist idea of suggesting motion is here worked out in a new way," one critic wrote. "Instead of squares the artist has utilized two pieces of string one red and the other white, by which the figure of the lady moves up and down the stairs. The effect is very realistic."
Beaux sealed her position as a member of the conservative and academic art establishment when she served as a delegate to the International Art Congress, held in Paris at the Sorbonne in the fall of 1921. Cecilia was in Europe for an extended holiday with Rosamond Gilder, when she received a letter from Metropolitan Museum of Art president Robert W. de Forest, appointing her as a delegate to the Congress. The only other American there was a "Miss Abbott of the Met Museum," and it fell to Beaux to speak on behalf of her country. On September 26 in the salle Richelieu at the Sorbonne, before "a theatre full of savants from all parts of the world," Beaux gave a two-minute speech that "created somewhat of a stir" in the art world.
Beaux declared to the Congress that the United States was "too young" to have its own school of art. "America is constantly striving for its own national art," she stated, "and in time it will come, but for many years we shall have to find our chief inspiration in Holland and Italy, and especially in France." Beaux's pronouncements touched an artistic and patriotic nerve, and while she was regarded as one of the country's "leading artists," and a respected "authority on art," some reviewers considered her comments "misleading assertions." The critics argued that "an American accent in painting existed," and that Beaux's own work was "distinctly to the art of our own country and our own time."
Beaux had indeed spoken too broadly. She had been attributing her own views on art -- which were firmly situated within the synthetic traditions of the grand-manner portrait whose sources sprung from the international academic art world -- to American art as a whole. In refusing to recognize an identifiable American artistic heritage, she not only placed too great an emphasis on the fading ideals of France but also exhibited a remarkable lack of understanding of the motivating forces behind the emerging styles of both European and American modernists.
An encounter she had with Gertrude Stein furthered the gap between her and the modernists. She relayed the incident to the students at Bryn Mawr College during a lecture that she gave on color in April 1922, sponsored by the school's Art Club. The artist recalled that Stein had approached her while she was standing before a picture that, to Beaux, "looked like nothing but a map with odd splashes of color stuck about." Gertrude asked her how she liked the picture, to which Cecilia replied that "she understood it was only a sort of translation of an idea." Stein retorted, "This is realism, a still life group," and Beaux realized that there was nothing more to be said.
Beaux's credo of "imaginative insight & design," as applied to the technically dynamic portrait that was a penetrating characterization of the sitter, was becoming passé. The qualities that excited her as she approached the painting of Dean Ada Louise Comstock of Smith College, in 1922, bespoke the style of a passing artistic era [Illus. 142]. Beaux described Ada Comstock in a letter to George Dudley Seymour: I am about to begin a portrait in which I am extremely interested. Dean Comstock of Smith. (Does a female dean have an e?) She looks like a Holbein and I am keen for it. [She has] a large-long face with small eyes, lots of drawing and beautiful white hands.
Presented to the school by the class of 1897, the portrait was the fourth, and final, commission that Beaux received from a seven-sister college, and it was painted the year Comstock had resigned from Smith to assume the presidency of Radcliffe. The air of official portraiture is again in evidence. Dean Comstock is shown in a three-quarter-length standing pose, wearing a black academic robe with three black-velvet stripes on each sleeve. Her gown is open and reveals a low-necked white blouse and scarf and a black skirt with a band of pinkish velvet at her waist. Her right hand rests lightly on a wooden table to her right, and her left hand holds a folded paper. The background is bright green with a narrow section of brown columns in the far left and right.
While Beaux's work was no longer on the artistic cutting edge, there was still sufficient interest in high-style portraiture for her to continue her career. In 1916, when she was sixty-one years old, Cecilia retired from the Pennsylvania Academy, but two years later she began offering biweekly critiques in a private portrait class in New York organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Born in New York City in 1894 and named for the great American suffragist, young Stanton had been studying portraiture with a Russian artist but felt that she was making very little progress, and she had planned to go the Pennsylvania Academy to work with Beaux, only to discover that Beaux was no longer teaching there. In desperation, Stanton wrote Beaux a letter, expressing her disappointment and asking her if she ever took private pupils. Beaux agreed to meet the young woman, telling her that when she had been a young artist, she had wanted to study with William Sartain, and the only way she could bring it about was to take a studio and have a class to which he could come and give instruction. Beaux informed Stanton that she would consider doing the same thing for her, but that she would not give private lessons in her studio.
In 1918 Stanton rented space in the Van Dyck Studios at 939 8th Avenue. She then procured the necessary equipment -- stools, easels, and other things -- to accommodate the class, and found ten students interested in studying with Beaux and willing to afford the cost of $50 a month or $250 for the term. The Portrait Class met from November 1 to May 1 and was an instant success. By the following season, people were writing from California, Texas, and elsewhere with a desire to work with Cecilia Beaux, and for the next ten years, until shortly after her marriage to William H. Blake in March 1927, Elizabeth Cady Stanton supervised The Portrait Class.
The students who came to study with Beaux were markedly different from those who had trained with her at the Pennsylvania Academy. With the exception of a few men -- Herman Kahle, the actor Ivan Simpson, and the portrait painter and illustrator Albert Sterne -- the New York portrait classes were comprised primarily of women. Students ranged from those who developed professional art careers, such as Frances De Forest Stewart, Minetta Good, and Mary Gray, to older artists who were already professionally established, such as the watercolor portraitist Elizabeth Goody Baker. Others were only interested in painting as an avocational activity but were influential in other arts or community-related endeavors. Aileen Osborn Webb started what is now the American Craft Museum in New York City; Julia Bartlett was president of the Women's City Club in New York City; and Ruth Thomas was the secretary of the Newport Art Association. There were also wealthy dilettantes such as Mrs. Jay Gould, Mrs. Kingdon Gould, and Mrs. Newell Tilton, who arrived for their art lessons in chauffeur-driven limousines.
Stanton's Portrait Class provided an opportunity for Beaux to continue teaching, and it also brought her several commissions. Her 1925 - 1926 painting of Mrs. Marcel Kahle (née Julie Bruin), a widowed woman of substantial wealth, was undoubtedly arranged by the Stanton student Herman Kahle, who was probably one of Julie's relatives. Julie Kahle was a portrait-miniature painter, and Beaux portrayed her at her work [Illus. 143]. When the painting was shown in 1930 at the thirty-fourth annual exhibition of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors -- an organization in which both Beaux and Kahle were involved -- a reviewer noted the artist's delight with her subject: Miss Beaux had a sitter wholly to her liking for this canvas, which carries no suggestion of studio visits or the conventions of dress or pose. The artist seems to have made a neighborly call when her friend was at breakfast seated at a table in a sunny window, with a dish of fresh flowers to sweeten the pleasures of appetite. Probably the work was done in quite a different way, but the impression it gives as finished is that it had that intimate, informal beginning, with gratifying results. The portrait is an eminent example of art concealing art.
The Stanton class was just one of Beaux's artistic outlets during the 1920s. Throughout her sixties and early seventies, Beaux continued to lecture, to paint, to exhibit her work, to win awards and prizes, and to see her portraits enter prestigious museum collections. In May 1922 she delivered an address on Gilbert Stuart for a presentation at the New York University Hall of Fame, and in January 1926 she was one of several speakers for the John Singer Sargent tribute organized by Philadelphia's Contemporary Club. Beaux had written a poem in praise of Sargent shortly after his death, which had been published in the Boston Transcript in May 1925. She sent Dorothea and Francesca (1898) to the thirty-fourth annual exhibition of American painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1921, where it won the Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Gold Medal and was purchased for the museum's collection the following year. Beaux also made an agreement in 1921 to send the beautiful and enigmatic Sita and Sarita to the Luxembourg Gallery in Paris. The museum's director, Léonce Benedite, was in the States that March and had asked for the painting. Beaux made a replica of the portrait before she sent it to France, and in 1923 she entered the second version in the Corcoran's ninth biennial, where it was one of several paintings chosen by the museum for purchase.
While Beaux maintained a fully active professional life well into her eighties, an incident occurred, when she was sixty-nine years old that dramatically affected her painting. During the early 1920s, Cecilia regularly traveled to Europe with a variety of young companions, and in 1924 she was touring with a young Boston artist named Aimée Lamb. The women arrived in Italy at the end of April and visited Naples, Sicily, and Venice before making their way to Paris at the end of June. Cecilia and Aimeé were scheduled to return to the States at the beginning of July, but a disastrous accident on June 30 changed her plans.
A forewarning of the mishap was indicated in Cecilia's letter to Thornton Oakley, written while she was still in Venice. Beaux had hoped to rendezvous with the Oakleys in France but wrote that "I am horribly foot weary though I fixed myself out the best I knew." Back in Paris, Cecilia borrowed a pair of shoes from Aimée to help ease her weary feet, but while the two women were walking down the rue St. Honoré, she caught her heel on the pavement, fell on her side, and fractured her hip. Taken to an English clinic, Cecilia was there until the beginning of September but was not allowed to return home until November. The consequences of her accident were only dimly understood when she wrote to Thornton Oakley, "You will know what all this means to your light footed C. B."
Cecilia's accident was a devastating blow, as it crippled her for the rest of her life and caused her to wear a heavy steel brace and walk with a crutch. The fracture significantly impeded her ability to move quickly and easily, and consequently affected her painting methods. One of the first commissions that she received after the accident was from Italy's Royal Minister of Public Instruction, requesting a self-portrait for the prestigious Medici Collection in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Her efforts during 1925 in creating Self-Portrait #4 taught her a new way to paint, and the lessons made it possible for her to complete a few more portraits [Illus. 144].
Since Cecilia was no longer able to quickly dart between the easel and the model, and "make swift appraisals of the picture's perspective from all sides of the studio," she found it necessary to come up with a new approach, which she did with the help of her manservant Natale. He arranged her easel so that it could be moved easily and lightly, and with a long, hooked stick, she learned to push the easel away from her to get "the proper effect" and to then pull it back again to continue painting. It took Beaux nearly a year to complete her self-portrait for the Uffizi, slowly working at it "an hour at a time...twice a week." When it was completed in November 1925, she sent it out into the world with her characteristic flair. It was on display in New York at Knoedler's for a few weeks, and was then exhibited at the Corcoran for a month before traveling to the Uffizi in April 1926.
The request from the Uffizi was a great honor, which had been extended to only a few other Americans. Her self-portrait joined those of Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase, and John Singer Sargent. Yet even more impressive than her recognition as an American artist was the acknowledgment of her standing as a woman in the arts. Beaux was one of the few women artists represented in the collection, entering the rare company of such well-regarded female portrait painters as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
Beaux's solemn seated portrayal of herself, with paints and palette on a table to her right, shows her in "a simple painting frock of henna, against a warm red tapestry-like background." One reviewer considered the characterization "reticent" and "spiritual," suggesting "solitude," "endurance," and "unbreakable resolve." Her interpretation was also more closely associated with her serious portrayals of other professional women than it was with the vivacious young woman she had captured on canvas for the National Academy of Design when she was thirty-nine years old. The artist's last self-portrait, painted in her seventieth year, clearly revealed her belief that her life in the arts had been a sacred calling.
While Beaux's accident slowed her painting production, she, like Alice in Alice in Wonderland -- a story the artist found to be particularly apt -- soon saw another path to follow. Beaux had kept diaries and had written poetry, short essays, and letters since her youth, and when it became clear that she would never freely walk again or easily paint, she began to consider the more sedentary activity of writing, turning her literary talents to the creation of an account of her life. It took nearly four years for her to complete her memoirs. She wrote of her progress to George Seymour in 1929: I have arrived at my 18th year and drawing fossils for scientific (lithography). Nearly 90 pages of TW [typewriting]. I shall now, having reached the romantic period, take a long jump and get ahead.... It is great fun -- doing it, so much that I doubt its value.
At the same time that Beaux was penning the memories of her youth, she also began painting a most unusual picture. Created solely for her own pleasure in 1928 using a young model named Belle Isle, Dressing Dolls became a genre portrait depicting the artist's own childhood [Illus. 145]. As Beaux worked on her autobiography, reminiscences of her girlhood flooded her mind, including her youthful pleasure in sewing and her special doll named Mrs. Charles Wood. Beaux recorded these delightful recollections in Background with Figures and also captured them on canvas in the sentimental Dressing Dolls.
Beaux's autobiographical picture portrays a young girl seated on a patterned couch with a doll at her side and her attention focused on the strip of cloth that she is sewing. The tone of the picture also has a subtle personal dimension, as it was considered "essentially French in feeling," thereby suggesting the artist's own heritage. When the painting was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a reviewer compared it to Sita and Sarita: The color scheme is high keyed, the touch light and sympathetic. As a rule, it has been form and texture by which Miss Beaux has been attracted and to which she has given expression, but in this instance it is color, atmosphere and light. To be sure, in both paintings -- Sita and Sarita and Dressing Dolls -- there is spirit back of the figure, living personality; but detached, mysterious, not quickly to be probed -- a characteristic to be found also in many of this artist's portraits. Like other great painters Miss Beaux sets down on canvas what she sees, and with great discernment, confident that it will tell its own revealing story -- which it does.
The "detached," "mysterious," and "not quickly probed" characteristics attributed to her portraits are also apt descriptions for Background with Figures, Beaux's autobiography, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in time for the Christmas rush in 1930. Beaux had little confidence in the book, writing to Thornton Oakley that she could not "JUDGE it as I do my paintings." She worried that it was "only something that old maids and nice old gentlemen will like...for it will remind them of their own upbringing."
Indeed, Cecilia's assessment of her autobiography was accurate, as it did shed light on a passing era, but it was also like the cryptic Dressing Dolls in that it only sparsely revealed the dimensions of its author's life. Those reviewing the book found her to be "a discreet and even reticent chronicler," and merely "the shadowy form...behind the portraits" that played front stage in her account. Her "candid" but "reserved narrative" of her work and friendships left the reader "wishing she had told more."
The response to Background with Figures was twofold. Some read it as the annals of a passing age, while others were taken by the author's superbly crafted literary effort. Memories were stirred for her own friends and family, with her sister "in tears" whenever she opened it, and her niece Kitty, now a published author herself, struck by the quality of the writing and pronouncing "It is Art -- it is Art -- so real." Loring Holmes Dodd, an English professor from Worcester, Massachusetts, assigned it to his class in Biography and Letters. He found that it gives me that same fine degree of satisfaction that I found in Lorado Taft's History of American Sculpture or Homer Saint Gaudens' life of his father, or Janet Scudder's Modeling My Life or Mrs. French's Memories of a Sculptor's Life, or Otis Skinner's Footlights and Spotlights, or George Arliss's Up the Years from Bloomsbury. These are fascinating and well written books, and so is yours.... I like its high idealism and I like the verve with which you tell your anecdotes. It is a book that reads as though the author had a very good time writing it.
Beaux's book not only brought her pleasure; it also created new opportunities for her. In February 1931, she received a letter from Anna Wetherill Olmsted, assistant director of the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts. Mrs. Olmsted was reading Beaux's book to her mother, Clara Wetherill, a woman who had known Cecilia during her early years in Philadelphia. Anna's note recounted the enjoyment the book had brought the two of them:
After the first chapters, all the old Philadelphia albums were trotted out.... You have made it all live again with your magic pen, and it certainly is not often that an inimitable style in writing goes hand-in-hand with an inimitable style in painting! You see, for years I have admired your work and admired you tremendously from afar, so to speak. I have always wanted to meet you.
Olmsted's wish to meet Beaux developed into a plan to mount an exhibition of her portraits at the Syracuse museum, a small show of sixteen canvases that went on display that May, for a month. The selective retrospective included work from the 1890s through the 1920s, and Beaux's credo -- "Imagination and Insight are the Substance of Good Painting" -- literally came to life on the walls of the museum.
Yet the small Syracuse exhibition was just a precursor to the spectacular retrospective mounted by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the fall of 1935. Jointly organized by Beaux and the Academy's Grace Vanamee, the show -- on view in their grandest gallery -- was the largest during Cecilia's lifetime and was the crowning recognition of her life as a professional artist. Some sixty-one portraits were gathered for the November 14 opening and remained on display until May 1, 1936, the artist's eighty-first birthday.
While the exhibition portrayed the achievements of her lifetime, it was like her autobiography published five years earlier -- a salute to a bygone era. Cecilia's friend George Seymour worried that the show would only be viewed as a nostalgic reminiscence, fearing that Beaux had "'survived her reclame' and that the exhibition will not attract the attention it deserves." In response to Seymour's comments, Royal Cortissoz, the conservative art critic for the New York Herald Tribune and a sympathetic contemporary who had penned the foreword for the exhibition catalogue, wrote a glowing review. He named Beaux as an especially "distinguished figure in American painting, whose rank in the field of portraiture has been established through her possession of singularly admirable traits." Cortissoz described her portraits as "a page from life, as though the sitter had been surprised in an entirely natural attitude rather than forced into one dictated by the artist's routine." Calling her a popular portrait painter rather than a fashionable one, he noted that she was "sincere and spontaneous," as well as a "technician" with "integrity."
Despite Cortissoz's high tribute, the more typical reviewer placed Beaux's work "securely within the academic tradition," regarding her as a mere follower who was "content to paint in the prevailing fashion of her day." The young commentator Henry McBride also began his critique by noting that Beaux had come of age in an artistic era that "was altogether agreeable while it lasted," and by saying that her work had "a serenity that now seems remote and foreign." McBride considered Beaux a role model for women interested in careers in the arts, noting 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." He described her as "the Georgia O'Keeffe of [her] period," and assessed her standing: By way of equipment, Miss Beaux had everything; including at birth the proverbial golden spoon, the correct kind of intelligence, and later on, the correct kind of friends. She was born, too, a student; which helped a lot; for it is conjecturable that public opinion in those days would not have tolerated a lady painter who trod alone the unknown paths. Her design for living conformed in every way to the code. She was interested in the established standards, and in the established people. She had brains enough to paint a brainy person like Richard Watson Gilder in the way any brainy person would like to appear to his contemporaries, but it would never have remotely suggested itself to her mind to show Mr. Gilder up, had there been anything to show up. In other words, though Miss Beaux had brains she was not repellently intellectual, like so many of the ladies who dominate the present scene. The Rebecca Wests, the Muriel Drapers, the Mabel Dodges, had not then been invented.
McBride's assessment made Beaux's personal and professional accomplishments those of a bygone era. His comments were meant to flatter her, but they were also an overt form of discrimination leveled against the more recent generation of young women, who were carving out their own artistic personas in the 1930s. His remarks were no less misogynistic than those of art critic Sadakichi Hartmann, who had written in 1901 that all women artists painted "trifling subjects," and that they imitated men instead of solving new problems for themselves.
Beaux had battled cultural attitudes regarding the creative abilities of women since the earliest years of her career, and had fought to have her work considered on its artistic merits rather than in relation to her gender -- an approach such women of genius as Charlotte Brontë had used before her. In a small way Cecilia had succeeded, as many a reviewer noted that her work spoke for itself. Her position was given even further publicity at the twenty-fifth anniversary dinner for Barnard College, held at the Astor Hotel in April 1915. Beaux was one of several gifted professionals who spoke on the progress made by women toward their "rightful place in the professional, artistic, and scientific fields of this country." Introduced by Dean Gildersleeve, Beaux stated: I very earnestly believe in the value of the text which is there should be no sex in Art.... There should be neither advantage nor disadvantage in being either a man or a woman. I am pointing, I know, to a millennium at least in the woman's view if I predict an hour when the term "Women in Art" will be as strange sounding a topic as the title "Men in Art" would be now.
While Beaux was seeking a societal solution to the status of women in the arts, she also believed that, in spite of cultural prejudices, a woman could succeed professionally if she was talented, hardworking, and determined. Beaux's position was founded on the Darwinian notion that individual ability and strength, rather than societal influence and assistance, were responsible for success; and authors such as Gutzon Borglum, who wrote that "the story of Cecilia Beaux is picturesque, happy in its successful achievement, and notably individual and American," reinforced her stance. In the nature-versus-nurture argument, Beaux's views placed her clearly on the side of nature -- biases with a degree of arrogance, and a lack of awareness that her commercial success was the "nice coincidence" between the kind of work that she produced and "the taste and preoccupations of the time."
For most of her career, Beaux enjoyed a singular position of eminence. Art critics consistently praised her paintings and drawings, and she regarded her numerous feminine firsts as unique accomplishments, personally achieved through natural talent and hard work. Over the years she strengthened her Darwinian argument by adding the accident of heredity to the forces responsible for her achievements. Cecilia first expressed such a belief when she was interviewed in 1911 by Ann O'Hagan for Harper's Bazar. O'Hagan wrote, Miss Beaux would probably explain herself -- her artistic genius, the intellectual clarity of its expression...on the grounds of heredity. Her father was a Provencal and her mother a Puritan of New England. In one strain are the poetry of her nature, her love of color, her imagination; in the other her interest in the hidden things of the soul; in one lie her artistic gifts, and in the other the ability to direct them. Her father bequeathed to her...the imaginative Provencal nature. To all this...was added the New England habit of "doing things."
By the 1920s Beaux had developed an imaginative and often cryptic public persona, one in which she repeatedly explained that her temperament and character, as well as her artistic triumphs, arose from sources beyond herself. She attributed her creative ability and direction to her felicitous Anglo-Franco heredity, and her career and ensuing successes to the generosity of fate and predestination. Beaux frequently stated that she had never chosen her career, had never thought of herself as "an `Artist,'" and never had a "thought of ambition, or any dreams of the future." Indeed, she believed that the artist was born and not made, and was "one of the truly elect," in whom the "power of the Senses [was] raised to the power of Spirit."
These carefully crafted rationalizations gave her the appearance of being unique and exceptional. Beaux fully embraced the idea that she was exceptionally gifted, and this perspective was readily adopted by the many writers who penned articles and essays about her life and work. The extraordinary veneration for her career and accomplishments set her up as the impossible standard by which all other artistic women could be measured, and made her a difficult role model for any woman to imitate. Most creative and ambitious women -- including her niece Kitty, who displayed obvious literary talents -- could only admire her from afar.
Cecilia cherished her position of singular feminine eminence, and in 1922, when the National League of Women Voters asked her to name twelve distinguished American women who had selflessly served humanity -- with Beaux herself as one of them -- she flatly stated, "It is quite impossible for me to make a selection of twelve pre-eminent American women, and I confess I have little sympathy with such methods -- in behalf of my own sex -- of raising the wind." Nine years after the National League of Women Voters' poll, a survey by Good Housekeeping again found Beaux among America's twelve greatest women -- "highly educated, progressive, devoted to the ideals of the new womanhood [and] giving her life to serious work earnestly performed." Even as Beaux tenaciously held to her beliefs regarding the primacy of the uniquely talented individual, either man or woman, she was being swept into a societal role as the representative new woman for the arts.
At the same time that Beaux maintained a series of natural explanations for her success, she also took a valiant stand against awards that emphasized the recipient's gender. She considered her selection as one of America's twelve greatest women by both the National League of Women Voters and Good Housekeeping as rather dubious honors, and when she was asked to attend a dinner sponsored by the American Woman's Association in recognition of "the Achieving Woman," she graciously declined, noting, "I have never counted much on the 'woman' part in what I may have achieved, and don't feel like giving it important emphasis, among my assembled parts."
Despite Beaux's fear of having her accomplishments publicly acknowledged by numerous women's organizations -- an ambivalence associated with her hard-won position and status in the traditional male-dominated American art world -- she was indeed one of many achieving women recognized for her career successes during the 1920s and 1930s. The sacrifice of marriage for career, made by so many women of Beaux's generation, had won them impressive places in the professional, artistic, and scientific fields of the country. Suffrage had been achieved in 1920, and ensuing generations of women were afforded choices and opportunities hard won by the women of Beaux's era. There now were both a need and a desire to pay tribute to the professional contributions of America's turn-of-the-century women.
While the awards that Beaux received from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters were tributes to her professional accomplishments, they were also acknowledgments of her achievements as a woman. The purpose of these two interconnected and conservative organizations -- located on the Audubon Terrace at Morningside Heights in New York, in Venetian Renaissance-style buildings designed by McKim, Mead and White -- was "to foster, assist, and sustain an interest in Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts." The objectives of the two groups were accomplished through exhibitions, scholarly lectures, and the awarding of prizes. The Institute, an offspring of the American Social Sciences Association, was founded in 1898, and soon had a fixed membership of two hundred and fifty qualified authors, artists, and musicians, while the Academy, established in 1904, was a select group of the Institute's fifty best members.
Those founding the Institute and Academy were interested in preserving "the genteel tradition," with such ardent supporters as editor Robert Underwood Johnson advocating the ideals of the American Renaissance. His goals included the establishment of "intellectual leadership through collaborative effort," a recollection of the past through the affirmation of traditional artistic practices, and the acknowledgment of Europe as "the wellspring of American inspiration." The artists and architects sympathetic to the Institute's and Academy's objectives held to ideals of "beauty, dignity, and utility" through work that, "despite its emphasis on tradition, was revolutionary in its preeminence of style and [its] decorative nature."
While Beaux had been a friend or colleague of such Institute and Academy members as Richard Watson Gilder, John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Royal Cortissoz for years, her own affiliation with the two organizations did not officially begin until the mid-1920s, when the membership was forced to accept the undeniable literary, artistic, and musical contributions of women. For three years Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," was the token female member. Elected to the Institute in 1907 at the age of eighty-nine, and elevated to the Academy the following year, Howe was never active or influential. When she died in 1910, another woman was not voted into the Institute until 1926.
Both before and after Howe's perfunctory selection, Institute and Academy members wrestled with the question of admitting women. In 1905, Richard Watson Gilder had written an eloquent plea to Institute President Edmund Clarence Stedman for the admission of women: Permit me to say that I can see no substantial reason why women should not be admitted. Any other view seems to me old fashioned; indeed, quite out of date...Scientific, historical and art associations are now admitting women; women were among the founders and are still among the members of the Society of American Artists, and in matters of art it is growingly the custom to make no distinction. I do not think there is anything in our Constitution to prevent the immediate nomination and election of women for instance, like Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, and Mrs. Wharton among writers, and Cecilia Beaux among artists. I think so far as public opinion goes we would be very much criticized for not admitting women, and their admission would strengthen the movement before the public. At any rate, it seems to me just and in accordance with the modern spirit.
Despite Gilder's heartfelt support, ambiguous language in the constitution kept all women but Julia Ward Howe out of the Institute and Academy. For years the question of feminine membership would be placed before the Council or governing body for discussion, but would be consistently tabled in protest by the conservative majority. Composer Arthur Bird penned a particularly vitriolic opposition: What on earth have or ever will have women to do with science, art and letters (in the highest sense of the words) or are they satisfied to play a very mediocre second fiddle? It is needless to hide the naked fact, conceal the plain truth, that the moment the fair sex drops its skirts, throws aside gentleness, modesty, refinement, all that gentility we know and love so much and don the leathern breeches, shoulder the battle axe, beat the drum, then lackaday to all the poetry of his life, away with the sentiments so expressive in Heine's poem so prettily and cleverly translated by our Longfellow, "The sea hath its pearls" etc.
The well-publicized efforts of such outside forces as the Collegiate Alumnae Association of Bryn Mawr College and the school's president, M. Carey Thomas, influenced and eventually helped change the organization's position. In 1915 the idea of suggesting the election of Cecilia Beaux and Jane Addams to the Institute was discussed by Bryn Mawr's Collegiate Alumnae Association, and in November 1916, with the endorsement of seven thousand college women, Caroline L. Humphrey, president of the association, and M. Carey Thomas, president of the college, sent telegrams with their requests to Academy secretary Robert Underwood Johnson. In a rather rude response, Johnson defended the Institute and Academy, stating that the Collegiate Alumnae "were not as well directed as they might be," since they had made a selection rather than a general request, thereby prejudicing their purpose.
But President Thomas was not one to let the matter pass so easily, and she added fuel to the fire in an attack on the Academy during a lecture she gave at Mount Holyoke College. Thomas compared the single-sex organization "to a set of poodles decorating themselves with blue ribbons," noting that so many of the members were of "far less distinction than the women whom they had excluded such as Cecilia Beaux, Jane Addams, and Edith Wharton." Although Thomas received another furious letter from the president of the Board, by the mid-1920s the Institute's and Academy's stalling tactics were becoming embarrassing for them, and as far as Thomas was concerned, they could "no longer maintain such a ridiculous position as that of excluding all women of genius."
The yearly ceremonial, held at the Academy building on April 23, 1926, attracted one hundred and fifty of the foremost American representatives of art, literature, and music, and the stately afternoon event, presided over by Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University and chancellor of the Academy, had something of a theme to it -- the accomplishments of America's artistic women. While Robert Underwood Johnson unveiled a life-size bronze bas-relief of author William Dean Howells, designed by sculptor Brenda Putnam, the grand gesture of the day was the election of authors Margaret Deland, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Agnes Repplier, and Edith Wharton to the Institute, and the awarding of the Academy's new Howells Medal for fiction to Mary Wilkins Freeman -- the first recipient, and the presentation of the Academy's coveted Gold Medal, the highest award for achievement in the fine arts, to Cecilia Beaux -- the first painter so recognized.
The Academy rarely bestowed its Gold Medal on anyone, and when Cecilia was thus honored, it had only been conferred twice before -- in 1915 to Charles W. Eliot for distinction in letters and in 1923 to Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer for her work as critic and historian. Indeed, the Gold Medal was a tribute only given "to persons whose achievements loom high above those of all others," and it was awarded in recognition of "distinction and greatness sustained over a long period of years." Following a short address that emphasized Beaux's ancestry as an important element in her artistic success, artist Edwin Howland Blashfield presented the medal to her. Cecilia's response highlighted what she considered the Academy's purpose, a mission compatible with her own: 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 receipt of the Academy's lifetime achievement award was the beginning of a fruitful association for her. In 1930 she was elected to the Institute and was elevated to the Academy in 1933 [Illus. 146]. Beaux's election made her the fourth woman, and the second woman artist -- Anna Hyatt Huntington had been voted in the previous year -- to become a member of this exclusive and distinguished group, and she was one of the few women in attendance at the Academy's Stedman centenary dinner and annual meeting on November 8, 1933 [Illus. 147].
From her earliest affiliation to the year of her death, Cecilia actively participated in the events of the Institute and the Academy. While her retrospective exhibition in 1935 was her most dramatic contribution, and gave testimony to the abiding, albeit subdued, popularity of grand-manner portraits in the early decades of the twentieth century, she also sent paintings and drawings to other Academy shows and gave her drawing of George Arliss to the Institute's and Academy's art collection. In 1937, the Hispanic Society of America, a sister organization of the Institute and Academy, presented Beaux with their Sorolla medal, named in honor of the Spanish portraitist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida [Illus. 148]. She was also awarded the Institute's Gold Medal for Painting in 1941, becoming the fourth recipient and first woman to be given the medal, which was bestowed just once every ten years, an honor that had been previously conferred on John Singer Sargent (1914), Edwin H. Blashfield (1923), and Gari Melchers (1932). Cecilia was too ill to attend the joint festival and ceremonial of the Academy and Institute in May 1942, but she was there in spirit through her portraits, Ernesta with Nurse and Mrs. Alexander Sedgwick and Daughter Christina, on exhibit at the time of the ceremony. Beaux's niece Ernesta accepted the Gold Medal on her behalf, and Institute president Arthur Train praised her as "an artist whose superlative merit has long been recognized."
In the spring of 1933 -- the same year that Beaux was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters -- she was granted the National Achievement Award of the Chi Omega Fraternity, a women's organization that extended yearly recognition to the "American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world." Since Eleanor Roosevelt had served on the jury of selection, Beaux did not take her usual stand against prizes that were exclusively for women. Indeed, the first lady's presence made a strong political statement as, during her husband's first year of office, Roosevelt sharply focused public interest on the activities of women. Cecilia's lifetime achievement award from Chi Omega was just one of many feminine accomplishments that Eleanor believed worth noting.
Beaux had returned from "a three month rest in Arizona" to accept the award, and Mrs. Roosevelt flew up from Washington the day before the function. Scheduled for the evening of April 17, the ceremony was preceded by a dinner at the Cosmopolitan Club, with Laura Gardin Fraser, a sculptor and member of the jury, as the hostess for the banquet. Following the dinner, the group proceeded to the Fine Arts Building at 215 West Fifty-Seventh Street, where the formal presentation took place in the Vanderbilt Gallery amid the spring show of the National Academy of Design.
Beaux arrived on the sturdy arm of the young Wall Street auditor John Hines, and then shared the platform with the previous award recipient, Dr. Florence Sabin of the Rockefeller Foundation, with Frances Grimes, designer of the medal, and with the various speakers. Those who paid tribute to Beaux included Dr. William Sloane Coffin, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Dr. Carl Ryland, rector of St. George's Episcopal Church; Cass Gilbert, architect and president of the National Academy of Design; Dr. John Finley, editor of the New York Times; and Mary C. Love Collins, president of the Chi Omega fraternity. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Laura Gardin Fraser presented the medal to Beaux [Illus. 149], with Roosevelt using the event as an opportunity to promote the work of women: I think the idea which we are seeing carried out tonight is one which we should all be very happy in furthering.... I am always happy in seeing recognition paid to both men and women who achieve distinction in their own lines of endeavor. But I am particularly glad on this occasion that recognition is going to a woman, because too often in the past we have not paid sufficient expression to what women do. By such an award we encourage other women to carry on their work. And I am more than happy to be here and join with all of you in this very joyous occasion, both for Miss Beaux and for us.
Throughout the evening, Beaux's "work was linked in greatness to Sargent's" by William Coffin Sloane, who further commented that in "one hundred years literally millions will look at the pictures of Cecilia Beaux in the museums of the world." Cass Gilbert remarked that the award was "recognition of genius, and more than that -- recognition of the value of fine arts to civilization." He continued by noting that "Beaux impresses one with her sincerity of conscience, her integrity and solidity of thought, her French ancestral vivacity, vitality, and sense of color, and...these qualities combine to give [her work] high value and personality." Gilbert also saw Beaux's portraits as "truly American and grandly national in style," while possessing an added "quality of universality." He concluded that "her fame will endure," and that her "achievement serves and ennobles!"
Dubbed "a grand old lady of the arts," Cecilia received the Chi Omega medal just weeks before her seventy-eighth birthday, commenting on the day of the ceremony that "medals have always been something of a mystery to me," and that, while they were "pleasant to have," the main thing "about a medal is the work that gets it for you." That evening, as Cecilia approached the podium, dressed in black velvet with a red scarf about her shoulders, she stood tall and straight but leaned slightly on her crutch. Beaux's presence dominated the room, and in response to the presentations, she described the occasion as her "day of destiny." She praised the "outstanding purpose" of the Chi Omega -- to exalt and promote the world's workers as women -- and in a salute to the future, concluded her remarks by noting that women's opportunity in the field of art was "greater now than ever before," with results dependent "only" upon a woman's "powers, gifts, and devotion."
Beaux was gracious and charming to those who paid tribute to her, as well as to the reporters who interviewed her, and that evening she worked hard to maintain the carefully constructed public persona that she had developed over the years. Even in her advanced old age, she wanted to be regarded as still painting "tirelessly" and as "still active after a long life of achievement," remarking to a reporter that she was currently completing a portrait of Dr. Rufus Ivory Cole for the Rockefeller Hospital. Those who knew Beaux admired her youthful, curious, eager, and inspiring attitude toward life, and most were none the wiser when it came to her true age -- more than twenty years earlier, she had successfully dropped eight years.
Beaux's reaction to her photograph with Eleanor Roosevelt not only revealed her unhappy resignation to the ravages of age but also indicated her feelings about the adventures of her life, comments that unwittingly exposed the contrasts she saw between her choices and those of her more conventional older sister. A week after the ceremony, Cecilia wrote to George Seymour: I fought like a tigress against the snap flashlight -- or any picture taken then -- Impossible -- on account of the first lady, I had to yield -- the result is humiliating not because it looks old for I must reckon with that now, but it is a foolish old woman -- somebody's Aunt or Grandmother -- a person who would never have even thought of doing any of the things I have done. What an outrage -- it all is -- and the worst of it is that people seem to like it! What does one's life amount to I ask, if that rendering pleases one's friends!
Chapter 14: Different Lives, 1920 - 1942
In spite of the markedly different successes of the two Beaux sisters -- one a placid wife and the mother of six children, the other a world-renowned artist noted for her portraits -- their attachment to each other had become even stronger as they aged. Etta was the last link with the quiet family of Cecilia's youth, while Cecilia epitomized life beyond Etta's domesticity. In their seventies and eighties, the sisters carried on their daily routines but also deliberately made time for each other. While Etta still spent her summers at Curlew Cottage at Beach Haven, New Jersey, and Cecilia still divided her year between New York and Gloucester, each fall Cecilia came to Merion to spend a few weeks with Etta.
The yearly visits put the two sisters' lives in sharp review, giving them an annual opportunity to consider their differences. Cecilia had been in Europe painting the war portraits when Henry Drinker had retired from Lehigh University in 1920. He was seventy years old when he decided to step down from the presidency, having served the school for a good fifteen years. Etta had never considered Bethlehem home, and she and Henry soon moved back to the Philadelphia area, to a small but comfortable house that they had built across the road from the home of their son Henry, in Merion, Pennsylvania. Their children were now on their own, and several of them had married. Initially the Merion household was just Henry and Etta and their two "devoted retainers," Bridget Murphy, who cooked for them, and their "waitress and personal attendant," Mary McClafferty.
Yet rarely during their retirement was the Drinker residence as quiet as it was when Henry and Etta first settled in Merion. Before long, Henry's sister Catharine came to live with them, having outlived her husband Thomas, who had died in June 1913. In her advanced age, Catharine could no longer live on her own, and Henry and Etta took her in and cared for her until she died in July 1922. With Catharine's death, Henry, Etta, and Cecilia became the last family survivors of a now-vanished generation, an endurance that made for an even more profound bond between the two sisters. Without children of her own, Cecilia marked the passing of those before her as truly the end of an era; but Etta was afforded another perspective as her children provided her with a link to the future.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Etta's offspring distinguished themselves professionally. Henry was both an amateur musician and a successful lawyer with his own law firm, while his brother Jim had become a prosperous Philadelphia banker. Cecil was now the dean of the School of Public Health at Harvard, and Phil a physiologist at the Harvard Medical School, where he helped develop the iron lung that saved the lives of countless polio victims. Ernesta had become an interior decorator, earning $75,000 a year, and Kitty an accomplished author, whose talents were later recognized by the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She was elected to the Institute in 1963, some thirty-three years after her Aunt Cecilia.
In addition to the wondrous achievements of each one of the Drinker children, they also gave their mother progeny in abundance. Etta regarded her burgeoning family as her legacy to the world, a proud and accomplished clan that was more than twenty strong when the family gathered for a reunion in 1929 [Illus. 150]. Henry and Etta were seated at the center for the family photograph, a symbolic positioning that indicated their familial status. Etta's lifetime of selfless devotion to her husband and children played center stage when the family came together, and even in her old age her home was still a refuge.
During the course of Henry's and Etta's marriage, it was Henry who had assumed primary responsibility for directing the lives of his four sons, but when it came to his two daughters, he believed that they "needed no better example than that of their mother." While his sons found wives to care for them in the same ways that Etta had attended to Henry, his daughters' marital experiences were not as fortunate. Etta's role as the selflessly devoted wife proved to be a poor model for her daughters, as both Ernesta and Kitty had disastrous first marriages.
In 1916 Ernesta married William Christian Bullitt, a "proper Rittenhouse Square Philadelphian" and a brilliant foreign correspondent and novelist who wrote a book, It Isn't Done, that was a best-seller in the 1920s. Bullitt was later the first United States ambassador to Russia, as well as a confidant to Franklin Roosevelt and briefly the mayor of wartime Paris. Ernesta and "Billy" Bullitt spent their first year of marriage traveling throughout wartime Europe, experiences that Ernesta later published in her book, An Uncensored Diary from the Central Empires (1917). When she returned home from Germany in 1917, Ernesta was carrying William's child, but that fall she lost the baby when she was at Green Alley visiting Cecilia. While Beaux had "managed to get a portrait done 'on the side'," she had written to Dorothea Gilder McGrew that "the main episode was poor Ernesta's having a miscarriage here. No need to enlarge on this. It was a serious matter." Following four weeks of doctors, nurses, husband, attendants, and the restorative powers of the Gloucester air, Ernesta's health had returned, but Cecilia concluded her letter to Dorothea noting that "alas her arms are empty again." Ernesta was never able to give William a child, and by 1923 they had divorced.
Kitty was just twenty-two years old when in 1919, against her family's wishes, she eloped with professor Ezra Bowen. Her ambitions to be both a mother and a writer were realized in 1924, when her children's book The Story of the Oak Tree was published, and her daughter Catherine was born. Three years later she had another child, a son whom she named Ezra. At the same time that Kitty's children brought her delight and pleasure, her difficult husband made her home life unbearable. When she could no longer tolerate her insufferable situation, she moved out and filed for a divorce.
During the year that Ernesta's divorce from William Bullitt was in the courts, she rented an apartment in New York in the same building where Cecilia lived. Even at thirty-one, Ernesta was still her aunt's child, and Cecilia was anxious for her impetuous niece, remarking to George Seymour that "she is too like me. I am worrying over her." Kitty, on the other hand, took her children and went home to live with her parents while she worked to establish herself as a writer and waited for her divorce to be final. During the 1930s her home life replicated the childhood of her aunt and mother, an extended family of multiple generations -- loving grandparents, a hardworking and ambitious daughter, and children in need of nurture. Both Ernesta and Kitty eventually married again -- Ernesta in 1929 to musician Samuel L. M. Barlow and Kitty in 1939 to Dr. T. McKean Downs, a wealthy Quaker. Both were happier unions, because the wives were not expected to show selfless devotion to their husbands.
During the 1930s, Kitty was a witness to the Beaux sisters' annual visits, marveling at her mother's ritual of preparation as she anticipated her sister's arrival. Etta could not have made more of a "fuss" if she had been expecting "President Roosevelt himself." Furniture was rearranged, and the "best silver tea set" appeared, as did a "golden oak commode from the attic" and a "red satin comforter" smelling of camphor. Even in her eighties, Etta felt a certain anxiety in the presence of her eminent sister, compensating for what she considered as her own dull existence by showing off a flourish of domestic perfection for Cecilia's benefit.
Since Beaux had grown so accustomed to the homage of those around her, she may not have fully appreciated the extent of her sister's efforts. Indeed, Kitty regarded her Aunt Cecilia as "a holy terror," whose artistic genius had made her both magnetic and monstrous. When she came to visit, no one knew if she would be gracious, charming, fascinating, and delightfully humorous, or stern, sharp, sarcastic, didactic, and condescending. Cecilia's behavior toward her family inevitably resulted in a "series of small explosions" that reminded one of "old fashioned firecrackers that came in packs on a single fuse and popped off one by one." Yet, despite her imperious attitudes and decided self absorption, Cecilia had a genuine affection for her sister, and whenever she appeared, she awakened for Etta the memories of their youth. Certainly, Cecilia noted, even though Etta was "surrounded by a devoted set of children," the two of them had "a language and subjects of their own."
Cecilia took Etta back to a time of hopes and dreams, and while pleasant recollections of her childhood were stirred, darker and more unsettling thoughts also surfaced. Cecilia seemed to serve as a catalyst for Etta's assessment of her own life, an evaluation of her contentment with the singular ideal of selfless care for others without regard for her own desires and ambitions. Etta had never allowed herself "the stimulation of companionship with people outside the home circle" and had never developed "outside interests such as games, gardening, church work or social services of various kinds, or even music." Her life had been "bound up in service to her family," a "self imposed" restrictive commitment for which she paid a high price. In May 1934, when she was eighty-one years old, Etta suffered another nervous breakdown.
The family kept Cecilia away from Etta until the worst of the attack had subsided, fearing that Beaux's presence would greatly excite her sister, "no matter how quiet" she was. It was agonizing for Cecilia to realize that she was "not much of a comfort" for Etta, and for the next five years she found a number of ways to gently demonstrate her affection. The winter after Etta's breakdown, the two sisters spent January through March of 1935 at the Oak Hall Hotel in the "pine covered hills" of Tryon, North Carolina. The quiet and provincial life was "entirely outside of any previous experience" of Cecilia's, and she went not for her own pleasure but for that of her sister.
Two years later, when Henry Drinker died at Curlew Cottage in July 1937, in deference to the wishes of her nieces and nephews, Cecilia waited until the fall to come to Merion to be with her sister. By the spring of 1939, Etta's health had seriously deteriorated, and for Cecilia her sister's condition became "the first meaning" of her life. She did not make a single plan without considering Etta, and she arranged a summer visit with her for the beginning of August. Cecilia wrote to Thornton Oakley an account of what became the last weeks she would ever spend with her sister. I have been through the fire since you have heard from me -- fire and steam that is, humidity of the Jersey coast. I persevered with my determination to go to my sister at Beach Haven for two weeks: shortened by one day. All the physical side was Hades, but I shall never regret having succeeded in being close to my dear Sister for even this much time, and I have brought her what her heart needed.... My great consolation is that she did not seem to be prostrated by [my visit] or to feel the depression, [but] the parting was very hard. Etta died on October 27, just a few weeks before Cecilia had planned to see her again. As the sad and lonely surviving sister mourned her loss, she wrote to a cousin, "I feel that I can not do without her love."
The Drinker children had become extremely protective of their mother in her advanced age, and while they recognized how much their aunt loved their mother, they also realized that she had made her exceedingly nervous. Cecilia was tough-minded and unconventional in ways Etta never was, and the creative life that she had carved out for herself gave her existence a deeply rooted sense of purpose and contentment that was unknown to her sister. Cecilia's existence brimmed with meaning and youthful enthusiasm up until the very end.
Even though Beaux's painting production had fallen off after she had broken her hip, she was still generating enough work, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to send something new each year to the annual exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy, the Corcoran, the National Academy of Design, and the Carnegie Institute. In the 1930s her autobiography and various lifetime achievement awards kept her in the public eye -- so much so that she received fan letters from such people as J. Reese Price of Baldwinsville, New York, who wrote to ask for her autograph, and Robert Stanley McCordock, professor of history at Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tennessee, who wanted an autographed photograph for the School's Hall of Holography. Mabel Raymond of Pasadena, California, penned a poem to her; Elizabeth Calhoun, representing the Cecilia Beaux Art Club at the Mississippi Woman's College in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, inquired about purchasing a small painting to "be the nucleus for an Art Center in this section of the South"; and Elizabeth A. Rogerson, writing on behalf of the Clemenceau Memorial Museum in Paris, requested "a drawing, a sketch, or a painting of 'The Tiger,'" to add "to the treasures already in the memorial house." The Centerdale Woman's Club in Centerdale, Iowa, included Beaux in their year-long study of the twelve greatest living women selected by Good Housekeeping; and a race for the two-year-old division at the Kentucky State Fair saw Cecilia Beaux, a horse owned by A.G. Jones & Sons, place third.
Beaux lived a public life that had taken her far beyond the boundaries and strictures of her family, but she validated the creative work -- which defined her existence and had always been her first priority -- by comparing the pride she felt for the portraits that she painted to the delights of a mother who had successfully reared a son. She related the process of creation to the private "agonies known only to women in the perils of childbirth," reasoning that neither a created "conception" nor a child had a "recognized existence until it passes." The motherly protection that she felt for her work was indicated in a note from arts administrator Leila Mechlin following the opening of her solo show at the Corcoran in 1912: "You must feel as if you left all your children here and did not know whether they were having a happy time or not. Let me assure you they are." By embracing such a private and familial regard for work that frequently assumed a public existence, Beaux was not only able to maintain a feminine image of herself well into her old age, but she was also able to consider herself an equal to her sister. While Etta's legacy was her children, Cecilia's was her work and career.
Beaux's life and work were well respected by her family, and she returned their regard with a steadfast and abiding devotion. The fond attachment that she felt for her sister and brother-in-law and six nieces and nephews was extended to the next generation of children as they came along. Just as her nieces and nephews had visited Beaux at Green Alley, during the 1920s and 1930s, their children came to see her. Beaux expressed her affection by painting portraits of Henry Middleton Drinker, the son of her nephew Jim, and Henry S. Drinker III, the son of her nephew Henry. She also made a "much admired drawing of Cecil's girl Nancy." Henry's daughter Cecilia, her great-aunt's namesake, spent ten days with Beaux at Green Alley the same summer she sketched Cecil's daughter, and two years later when young Cecilia was at Bennington College, Beaux planned a trip to see her there on her way back to New York in the fall. When Cecilia graduated from Bennington, Beaux proudly sent news about her and her sister to one of her cousins: Cecilia had written a book for musicians as a graduation essay, and "Little Ernesta," who was named for Beaux's sister, "had just become engaged to a splendid earnest fellow...Fred Ballard...a Rhodes scholarship man." When young Cecilia married in the summer of 1940, Beaux looked forward to a visit at Green Alley from her and her new husband, Henry Saltonstall.
While Beaux maintained a lively interest in her sister's ever-burgeoning family, her life was also occupied by activities with her wide circle of friends. Kitty recalled her aunt appearing for the annual visits in Merion in the sedans of various attractive young men, but more frequently than not, Thornton Oakley was her driver. After Cecilia had fractured her hip in 1924, Thornton demonstrated his affection by providing her with a comfortable and convenient way to move between New York and Gloucester, and since the late 1920s he had been patiently and faithfully transporting Cecilia between her two residences each summer and fall. When she altered the routine with yearly sojourns to her sister, Thornton brought her to Merion instead of New York.
Thornton was significantly younger than Cecilia, and had a wife and daughter who were his first priorities, and while Beaux had come to accept the limits of their friendship, she continued to nurture it well into her old age. Indeed, Cecilia kept long standing friendships with a significant number of men. Harrison S. Morris and T. Alexander Harrison were lifelong professional colleagues; Archie Welch was a widowed cousin who lived in Hartford, Connecticut; and A. Piatt Andrew, Henry Davis Sleeper, and John Wilkie were companionable Gloucester and New York neighbors. While all of these relationships had an element of attraction, they were nevertheless quite clearly defined, but this was not the case in her decidedly more complex friendship with George Dudley Seymour.
Seymour was a bachelor and New Haven lawyer who was also Beaux's contemporary. She had first met him on a ship in the late 1880s, when she had completed her art training and was sailing home on the Anchovia. A mutual interest in the arts as well as common decisions to remain single launched a friendship, defined by common respect and support that they were able to sustain for more than fifty years. Cecilia valued George's opinion of her work and over time came to rely on him as a patron and adviser. He commissioned portraits of himself and his friends, and he gave Cecilia sound advice on the Leavitt family silver, as he was a knowledgeable collector of American decorative arts.
Cecilia offered George a bit of excitement by perking up his daily routines with occasional social engagements. He visited her in New York and Gloucester, and she came to see him in New Haven and at Birth Place -- Nathan Hale's historic home, which George had purchased and restored. She attended a party in New Haven that he had planned for her and also accepted several portrait commissions that he had arranged for her there.
George and Cecilia understood and honored one another's decision not to marry, and over the years they had become quite comfortable in expressing their feelings when a close friend made that choice. When George's companion, Henry Solon Graves, was about to wed, Cecilia wrote, By this time dear "Lone Survivor" my letter of congratulations has come.... I look upon Miss M. W. as a very lucky girl. Does she deserve him? I am afraid I should not discern between her and many others. Should I? and why do I think so. But it is always the average woman who gets the best. I'm jealous -- for you. That your Harry should be wrung from you.
Even though Cecilia herself had never wanted to marry, she recognized the impact that even diverted interest could have on a supportive friendship. When she found George's attentions focused on another woman, she expressed her fears -- "Who is the Lady? I'm jealous. Do not grow chilly to me. Really. I couldn't bear it. I mean this." While George's interest may have strayed for a moment, his fondness for Cecilia was far too deep and was even apparent to his friends. In 1924 he wrote to Cecilia, My friends here know that you are painting my portrait, and are much excited about it. I thot [sic] they might as well know it, as to attempt to keep it a secret would have been fruitless and confirmed the old gossip, which culminated in the story which I repeated to you, I think -- namely, that I always had a place prepared for you at my lonely board. Although George may have harbored such hopes, it was easier to just remain Cecilia's friend, and right to the end of their old and frail lives, they continued to find time for occasional visits, and to also exchange letters in which they sought each other's advice, offered consolation for each other's poor health, and narrated the routines of their days.
Beaux had an amazing ability to attract the attention and devotion of various admirers well into her old age. During the 1920s and 1930s, a new generation of bright-eyed young men and women willingly succumbed to her charms. She expressed genuine interest in the lives and careers of numerous young companions, with a mutual interest in the arts launching her friendships with Paul Feeley, Alexander Crane, and Walker Hancock. She painted portraits of both Feeley and Crane in the late 1920s, and some ten years later, in 1937, when Crane was thirty years old, she begged Thornton Oakley to take notice of his watercolors for the annual Philadelphia Watercolor Show. The following year, Beaux visited Walker Hancock in his Lanesville, Massachusetts, studio and then sent him a note with her reaction to what she had seen: I could not at all find speech for what I felt about the boy's head. It seems to have the purity of the boy's voice in our chorale. You made a good choice in your model and then fought your way through apparent failure (as you said) to the calm, young exquisiteness of the result.
Beaux enjoyed supporting the efforts of these up-and-coming young artists, but she also took great pleasure from such adoring companions as John G. Hines and Edwin L. M. Taggart, a distant relative of Beaux's Eastern Point neighbor Lucy Taggart. Edwin met Cecilia while on holiday there in 1931 and for the next eleven years he spent "remarkably long vacations" in Gloucester "in alternating periods" between Taggart's Timolat and Beaux's Green Alley. He and John both saw "a great deal" of Cecilia during the winter in New York. Edwin recalled a Gloucester afternoon when Thornton Wilder came for luncheon, and a New York evening at a Carnegie Hall concert, when Cecilia's presence "led scores of subscribers to be mis-seated." John remembered visiting her at "Green Alley" during four of five summers when he was in his twenties, and escorting her to a large Christmas party at her niece Ernesta's New York town house, which was attended by stars from the opera and stage.
While Beaux's abiding fascination for attractive young men was the motivating force behind her interest in their lives and careers, her friendships with women were often on a different and less equitable basis. Beaux initiated relationships with Elizabeth Cady Stanton Blake and Leila Mechlin, because they offered her new professional opportunities and continuing national recognition. For more than ten years, young Elizabeth Stanton agreeably tolerated Beaux's imperious attitudes and the obvious advantage that she took of her, in order to keep Cecilia teaching in her New York Portrait Class. Yet, despite Beaux's overbearing demeanor, the younger artist's attachment to the older woman was such that, when her daughter Bettina was born in April 1930, Elizabeth named Cecilia as the child's godmother. Over a twenty-five year period in her capacity as the secretary of the American Federation of the Arts, Leila Mechlin wrote several glowing magazine and newspaper articles about Cecilia and her work, making Beaux a household name to club women throughout the United States. In response to her friend's praise, Cecilia frequently invited Leila to Green Alley, and even let her stay there during the summer of 1920 while she was in Europe painting the war portraits. In the late 1920s, when Leila's job at the American Federation of the Arts was in jeopardy, Cecilia asked Thornton Oakley to keep an eye open for something else for her to do.
While Stanton and Mechlin were professionally useful, Cecilia relied on her dowdy cousin, May Whitlock, and her faithful maid of forty years, Anna Murphy, to provide the comforts of her personal life. May had been a companion of sorts since Cecilia's art training in Paris and after Beaux had built Green Alley, her cousin had become a regular member of the summer household. May was someone to talk to when the house was quiet, and was also a reliable assistant who regularly read to Cecilia's sitters. Beyond May's occasional aid, it was Beaux's loyal servant, Anna, who had assumed responsibility for deftly managing her employer's New York apartment and Gloucester summer home as well as her mistress herself. Anna endured a "twice daily ordeal" of doing Cecilia's hair, "twenty minutes of controlled strife so intense one marvelled the two of them survived it." Even though Cecilia often "bullied and cajoled" Anna, the two women were steadfastly attached to one another, as Anna believed that there was no one quite like Cecilia.
Anna's devotion was especially apparent when Cecilia reached her late seventies and eighties, as she cared for and sustained her mistress through numerous debilitating illnesses. In addition to her broken hip, Beaux suffered a variety of inflammatory ailments -- pleurisy, lumbago, arthritis, neuritis, bursitis, and sciatica -- as well as unpleasant bouts with pneumonia, laryngitis, and shingles. During the early 1930s, in an effort to preserve her health, in the company of Anna, Cecilia spent winters away from New York in the warmer climes of Winter Park, Florida, at The Alabama, and in Tucson, Arizona, at the Arizona Inn. Winter Park reminded Beaux of the "noiseless Sundays" that she had spent in "West Philadelphia in the old days," with the hotel and surrounding park offering "a good deal of loveliness" as well as a "few people that one cared to foregather with." In Arizona she was "a celebrity to be interviewed and pointed out," with the newspaper in Phoenix describing her "as one of the five best portrait painters in the world."
Beaux's pleasant winter sojourns to the South and Southwest ended when she developed cataracts in the late 1930s. Ernesta was astonished when she learned of her aunt's diminished vision, as Beaux hadn't bothered to tell anyone of this problem. When Ernesta asked her why, Cecilia said that she "always saw twice as much as anybody else and it [hadn't] mattered much." Beaux had two cataract operations, the first in April 1938 and the second in December 1941.
Yet, despite her diminished physical abilities, Cecilia retained a keen interest in the world around her. In 1940 she contributed to war relief by writing a "small cheque," by gathering together "a few big bundles," and by sending a painting to a blind auction. She graciously acknowledged the honorary life membership extended to her by the Arts Club of Washington, D.C., in 1941, and she attended her last meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Letters that fall. During the last winter of Beaux's life, Mrs. John Finley frequently visited her in her New York apartment, describing her as a woman of courage and indomitable spirit despite her lameness and failing eyesight. She considered Beaux "a great woman as well as a great painter."
Cecilia spent a quiet summer at Green Alley in 1942, and one of her last callers was young Edwin L. M. Taggart. He was about to go into the army and "ran up" to Gloucester "to spend a few days and say farewell." The visit provided a vivid last memory of her for him: The last day I had to depart fairly early in the day. A quick breakfast and then up to her room to bid good-bye. Miss B. still in bed was sitting up with a becoming scarf about her head, and the dressing of the bed, an Empire Sleigh design, was carefully covered with a pale ashes-of-rose cashmere coverlet, and a kind of periwinkle light blanket. We were both moved -- another war for her, and -- what ahead for me. Then off to Boston and the 5 o'clock boat from there back to N.Y. I lunched alone, and sent off to Miss B. a generous box of the particular mints she was fond of -- the shop assuring me they'd get off immediately and be received in Gloucester the next day, they knew her. But how awful -- boarding the boat with my bags and newspaper, I put the luggage in my room and went on deck to read the paper. On the front page was the featured news that my dear friend had died around one o'clock that day! In the safe and comforting shelter of her beloved Green Alley, Beaux died of coronary thrombosis on September 17, 1942, at the age of eighty-seven. Following her cremation in Boston, her ashes were buried in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
Beaux's death was announced by the press in newspapers throughout the country; the American Academy of Arts and Letters held a memorial service in her honor; and Thornton Oakley paid tribute to their friendship in a small volume that he privately published and distributed to her friends and colleagues. While the portraits that Beaux painted were her greatest legacy, eight of her gold medals were bequeathed to the Pennsylvania Academy and were melted down to establish the Cecilia Beaux Memorial Prize of $100. It was awarded periodically to "the best portrait painted during a school year by a student of the Academy." Green Alley went to her nephew Henry, and from the 1940s through the 1970s, various Drinker descendants retreated there for comfort and contemplation. While Beaux had never taken her niece Kitty under her artistic wing during her lifetime, after her death, Green Alley offered itself as a place of peace where the young writer could work to the best of her ability.
Chapter 15: A Woman's Life in Review, Then and Now
Cecilia Beaux was admired by her contemporaries as the most gifted artistic career woman in America. Indeed, she achieved a level of artistic popularity and recognition that was unmatched by any other American woman of her era. Yet the exceptional life that Beaux was able to create for herself was not merely an act of individual genius; rather, it was the result of concurring historical and artistic transformations.
Shifting attitudes toward women who worked opened unprecedented professional opportunities for women in Beaux's generation. They became doctors, nurses, journalists, educators, and scientists, and they also entered various branches of the arts. Yet, at the same time that unparalleled numbers of women were entering the workforce, there was an equally proportionate fear that working women were threatening the sanctity of the family and were unduly testing the culturally determined order by challenging the idea of a woman's natural role as wife, mother, and guardian of the home.
In an effort to confront and control such a potentially cataclysmic societal change, the work of women became linked to prescribed feminine functions, the choice of a career or vocation for a woman became linked to the concept of "blessed singleness," and justified as divinely inspired, and the professional woman, as well as her achievements, were assessed and placed in a sphere that was separate and different from that of men. Not surprisingly, these rather complicated forms of social regulation actually contributed to the development of Beaux's unique and highly visible career.
Beaux's artistic life began like those of hundreds of other young women who were trained in the American art academies of the late nineteenth century -- the first generation of women regardless of their family's economic status to be so instructed. In keeping with the work that most young women found when they finished art school -- feminine, graceful, delicate, and decorative work that was a complement to a woman's socially determined domestic role -- Beaux's earliest efforts were in the decorative and design arts, producing lithography, china paintings, and portrait sketches from photographs.
The routine and repetitive aspects of craft work were thought to perfectly suit the so-called limited artistic abilities of women. Indeed, craft work exemplified the belief that women were only capable of producing overly feminine, non-intellectual artwork. Such ideas corresponded with the popular notion that most women lacked the ability to express creative originality, an attitude that made it possible to easily relegate artwork by women to a second-class status and to place it in a special category distinct from mainstream cultural activity and professionalism.
While Beaux was influenced by such contemporary opinions and never regarded her craft work as art, her decision to single-mindedly pursue a career as a portraitist notably evolved out of her work in the decorative arts. But it was at an especially opportune moment that she resolved to become a portrait painter, because portraiture was both an art form traditionally acceptable for women to practice and, in the late nineteenth century, it was a medium that had reached an unprecedented level of popularity and importance.
Beaux drew upon the latest artistic sources represented within the international grand-manner portrait to develop her own unique style. Although her art instruction in Philadelphia took place at a time when the city's strong traditions of portraiture linked to Thomas Sully and the Romantic English portrait, were being challenged by the French academics and realists as espoused by Thomas Eakins, Beaux's earliest artistic affinity was more closely linked to the English Pre-Raphaelites and the "art for art's sake" followers of the Aesthetic movement. Like the Pre-Raphaelite painters, her work often conveyed a narrative. Stylistically, she was influenced by classical and Oriental sources, and was also concerned with surface decoration and the kind of atmospheric color-tones seen in the work of Whistler. The ideals of truth, beauty, spirituality, and the soul became her artistic raison d'etre.
Beaux's European art training introduced her to all the prevailing influences that affected late-nineteenth-century high-style portraiture. She studied in the Parisian ateliers; did copy work in the Louvre from old master paintings by Titian, Velázquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt; and traveled to the museums and galleries of Holland, Italy, and England, where she studied the work of Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Raphael, Goya, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Raeburn, Romney, and Lawrence. She also painted outdoors in the plein-air style during her summer in Concarneau, an experience that added a lighter color key to her palette and also loosened her brushwork. Following her Parisian art training, Beaux's painting was distinguished by a bravura impressionism that she used for the rest of her career. After the turn of the century, she incorporated this style into pictures that specifically suggested old-master and eighteenth-century English grand-manner sources. Some of her other late paintings drew upon the patriotic sentiments evident in French academic art and the art of the American Renaissance.
Colleagues and critics alike lauded Beaux's portraits for their stylistic virtuosity and sympathetic depiction of sitters. The critics noted the "freedom" of her brushwork, her "frank pure color," and its "remarkable purity of tone." Her colors were "suave, harmonious, beautiful, rich and deep through all the changing renderings of texture and local value," and her work was thought to express a "fine subtlety of drawing and construction," through compositions that were considered simple, straightforward, and easy to comprehend.
Beaux's pictures appealed to a clientele of well-positioned, intelligent, upper-class Americans, as she both identified with and sensitively portrayed their conservative and traditional world. Yet her portraits also expressed her own personal ideology. Through narrative themes and imbued personal or societal characteristics, and among opulent displays of acquired possessions, Beaux painted what she considered the finer types -- people who exhibited beauty, charm, refinement, individuality, dignity, intellect, nobility of the spirit, and spiritual significance.
Her portraits of children highlighted their purity and innocence, and her paintings of classical, idealized women embodied themes of liberty and patriotism. Her canvases of dark-haired, dark-eyed American girls suggested their roles as mothers, hostesses, and modern girls, while her pictures of older women were representative images of society matrons, selflessly devoted grandmothers and maiden aunts, and vocationally committed unmarried professional women. Beaux characterized the men whom she depicted as forceful leaders who were intelligent, courageous, and manly. She suggested intelligence by focusing on the grandeur of the head and then modeling it conspicuously and lighting it boldly; she indicated professional prominence by including the accoutrements of a man's profession; and she infused political idealism into her images of war heroes.
Beaux's credo -- imaginative insight & design -- reflected the contemporary belief that a portrait should be both technically dynamic and a penetrating characterization of the sitter, and it was her ability to suggest her subject's personal and societal characteristics that especially distinguished her portraits. Not only did she indicate social status, professional standing, lineage, and the proper gender roles for upper-class men, women, and children, but she also perceptively displayed the distinctive upper classes of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Her Philadelphia patrons came from old Main Line families; her New York commissions included the wives and children of aggressive, professional businessmen; and many of the New England Bostonians whom she painted were well educated and intellectual.
While hundreds of women made their living as artists at the turn of the century, several specific factors account for the incredible success and tremendous visibility that Beaux alone achieved. To begin with, her decision to paint portraits coincided with what the established art world expected from the female artist. Furthermore, high-style portraiture was highly regarded and commercially viable; and Beaux, an exceptionally talented portraitist, was perfectly willing to function within the recognized system. The importance of her sitters also allowed the work that she created to escape the label "minor," which was typically applied to art work by women. Portraiture allowed Beaux to avoid the confines of women's art and, without violating social codes; it also permitted her in some ways to rise above the woman artist classification.
Beaux's popular standing in the academic art world came from the continuous exhibition of her work. On display, her paintings brought prizes and laudatory review, while her achievements were given critical acclaim. Beaux served as a juror for numerous art exhibitions; she lectured periodically; she wrote articles occasionally; and, as an instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy -- one of the most prestigious art schools in the country -- she inspired a generation of students, many of whom acknowledged her influence. Indeed, few women in America had a position like Beaux's at the Academy; those who did teach were more often employed by schools of design, where they instructed other women in crafts.
Beaux was catapulted to her unparalleled position as the most visible American artistic woman when her colleague, William Merritt Chase, declared her "not only the greatest woman painter but the best that had ever lived" -- a pronouncement that made her "the career woman" of the day. She was soon compared to such feminine artistic luminaries as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Mary Cassatt, and Berthe Morisot, and her work was thought to stand "as much apart in her age as that of Vigée Le Brun did in hers." Others contemplated that Beaux "aspired to be the Jane Austen of art."
At first glance, such a standing and such accolades seem flattering and affirming, but the graphic explanation for Beaux's extraordinary success, penned by the author of an article, "Who's Who in American Art," sets forth an ideological double bind faced by many turn of the century career women. In one breath, Beaux's accomplishments were isolated and elevated above those of most other artistic women, but in the next they were summarily relegated to a prescribed feminine context: All this time we have been devoting this department to the men of art and forgotten that isolated figure, tremendous in its isolation, right before our eyes, right before everybody's eyes for the past few years -- a quarter century or so -- Miss Cecilia Beaux. Our only apology is our stupidity. 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.
While affirmation of the exceptional woman created an illusion that a woman could succeed, her uniqueness among men at the same time assured that few others would. Indeed, the singularly brilliant woman absolved reviewers from charges of prejudice for denigrating and ignoring all other women in the same category. Gifted women such as Beaux were wondrous and uncommon, and while they could serve as role models for a talented few, their unusual, and indeed abnormal accomplishments could also be used as a regulating mechanism to reinforce and perpetuate the more traditional and natural roles.
Beaux developed her vocation in the late nineteenth century, at a time when historians and critics were recording the persistent presence of women in the history of art and noting their growing numbers, but her career came to fruition during the twentieth century, when all but a few women were systematically excluded from the established artistic canon. Women such as Beaux came to exemplify a historical two-step process of isolation: first, there was the separation of their artwork into a distinctive feminine sphere, and second, there was the elevation of the gifted and successful individual, which led to further isolation.
Since creativity was primarily considered a male attribute, a woman such as Beaux, who exhibited notable artistic abilities, transcended one aspect of her gender classification. While her portrait-painting skills were occasionally compared to those of such female contemporaries as Ellen Emmet Rand and Lydia Field Emmet, whose capabilities were also said to "meet the men on their own ground," her artistic mastery was more frequently likened to Franz Hals, Édouard Manet, Thomas Sully, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, James J. Shannon, and Giovanni Boldini. Her remarkable standing among such artistically gifted men was highlighted by Homer Saint Gaudens, who wrote, "Cecilia Beaux established the exception to the rule that though the feminine sex may imitate in art they lack power to create initial objects, for she works as the one woman in a thousand who has no man between herself and her productions."
Beaux's creative vision was said to display a "great respect for aesthetic heritage" to which she "contributed something of her own," a point made by the critics who often compared her paintings to those of John Singer Sargent. Leila Mechlin wrote that Beaux's technique was "strong, self-assured, potent and convincing," and that her work, when compared with Sargent's, had a "similar virility of manner." Eugen Neuhaus declared her remarkable, as "the strength of Sargent would not normally be expected in women painters." He further commented, special qualities of delicacy and fragile charm one usually looks for in the work of women artists are not here. She is decidedly masculine, vigorous and as bold in her brush work as she is daring in her design and color.... The best compliment we can pay her is to say that the best of her work holds its own alongside of Sargent's.
Yet to see Beaux as a true equal of Sargent, or of any other currently fashionable male portrait painter, was absolutely unthinkable to her contemporaries and occasionally to Cecilia herself. In 1903, when both Beaux and Sargent were painting portraits in Boston, she frustratingly compared her own slow and deliberate pace to Sargent's swift accomplishments over a four-month period. "I have not seen the Sargent Ex. yet," she wrote to Helena Gilder, "but there are 20 pictures all painted between February and May! I feel like a footless hare." Beaux realized that she had neither Sargent's facile ability nor the wherewithal to collect the kind of enormous fees received by him or the stylish portraitist Martinez Eduardo Rosales.
Even though Beaux was considered the best among the women, her talents as both a painter and writer were still viewed with some suspicion. In 1900 Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the fashionable Philadelphia physician, known for his "rest cures" for such well-regarded American women as Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, wrote a thank-you note to Beaux for some poetry that she had sent him. "Dear gifted lady," he wrote, "What right have you to write such tender...verses & also to paint as you do. Who did you get to do it for you -- you double-minded woman -- for shame & thank you."
Descriptions of Beaux and her work frequently included telltale gender-based limitations. Even though she was often compared to Sargent and described as a masculine and virile painter, the fact that she was a woman meant that her talents were frequently dismissed and her art work identified with her gender. Ann O'Hagan explicitly connected Beaux's life with her pictures: "She has painted into her portraits the qualities which are paramount in her; or more exactly, the fine, intellectual quality in her has been the magnet drawing out in her sitters...the intellectual principle in them which has silently shaped them." Carlyle Burrows regarded her as "a specialist in painting the portraits of women and children...as though these subjects possessed qualities that in some indefinable manner were specially suited to her taste." Indeed, her paintings of women and children were refined, because Beaux herself was refined. Paul Bion felt that her portraits highlighted "the peacefulness of...family customs," and that "one cannot portray the home the way she does without traces of it lingering in her own soul."
References to the home highlighted the contradictory tugs experienced by unmarried women in the arts. Not only did they need to give the impression that their careers were both sacrifices and callings, but they also were obligated to "show that they were real, natural, tender, maternal women," who would never "speak slightingly of the vocation of wife and mother." While hundreds of women at the turn of the century abandoned domestic roles for the creation of art, they frequently expiated guilt by turning their talents to the "depiction of idyllic domestic scenes."
Beaux paid homage to the married, maternal role by frequently painting portraits of her sister, her brother-in-law, and her nieces and nephews; yet the parallel that she made between portrait painting and a woman raising sons also spoke to tensions at the heart of her relationship with her sister Etta. In her 1907 lecture at Simmons College, Cecilia brazenly gave portrait painting and motherhood equal status. Since deciding on this topic -- Portraiture -- I have felt that I am like one who has come too close to an object, to really see it.... If the mother of a large family of sons were asked to talk about boys, her views might be interesting, for they would surely be vital, but she would have to be pardoned if she tried to make us feel that the awkward love of a boy for his mother, and the pride of a mother in having reared a man, were the two finest things in the universe. As it happens -- they are, but as an instance, it will do just as well.
Even though Beaux equated her work with maternity, it was her relationships with men that more clearly defined her struggle between vocation and femininity. By fully committing herself to her art and embracing the societal notion that professional women must sacrifice marriage for career, Beaux willingly chose to suppress one aspect of her sexuality. She transferred physical passion to her artwork -- a safer and less dangerous outlet for a woman whose mother had died from complications following her own birth. Yet Beaux also believed that choosing to work did not mean abandoning allure. Indeed, as Walker Hancock observed, Beaux was not indifferent to men; instead she thrived on their company and enjoyed the attentions that they paid her. Noted for her beauty as a young woman and for her charm as she grew older, Cecilia prided herself on her ability to attract scores of men. But she again used to her advantage the conventional norms for the professional woman, refusing marriage offers and setting limits on her friendships with men. Beaux remained within the boundaries of genteel propriety, but she had cleverly created both a personal and professional place for herself within turn-of-the-century American society.
Her position in the art world made Beaux a public figure, and countless American women interested in an art career saw her as an inspiring example. Yet, on close examination, Beaux was a poor role model, as she endorsed the prevailing attitudes regarding the capabilities and proper roles for women. All her life Beaux held to the belief that creativity was rare in women; that art was a sacred calling requiring the sacrifice of marriage; that only women with strength and determination could succeed in the art world; and that most women were better suited to marriage and motherhood than to a life in the arts.
Even though Beaux was at times optimistic about a woman's chance of succeeding in the art world -- noting when she was fifty-five years old, in 1910, that a talented woman could now enter any American art school that she pleased -- she also believed that a life in the arts was more difficult for a woman than for a man, as "the world [was] likely to ask too much of her." By this Beaux meant that women were judged by social conventions more exactingly then men, and she used the example of note writing as an obligation that women were expected to keep up with, while men were not.
Still, Beaux's own success blinded her to the struggles of other women artists, and many of the later interviews about her life and career reflect her belief that a talented and determined woman could succeed in the arts if she tried, while her seamless public persona as the exceptional artistic woman actually blurred the course that she had taken. During the later years of her life, Beaux not only attributed her artistic ability and fortitude to the advantages of heredity, but she also glossed over the unusual support and affirmation that she had received from her family regarding her decision to be a professional artist. She also eliminated her sources of influence and training by claiming that she was self-taught, and she never bothered to mention how much her success had resulted from portraiture's unprecedented popularity in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, Beaux carefully erased all the early foundations that had made her career possible, and this hampered the next generation of women interested in pursuing careers in the arts from imitating, or even reconstructing, Beaux's path to success.
Certainly, Kitty Drinker struggled with the legacy of her tremendously successful aunt, and indeed Kitty's career as a biographer can be seen as a complement to Beaux's as a portrait painter. Each woman was interested in portraying people of character and accomplishment, and while Cecilia painted upper-class men, women, and children, Kitty wrote biographies of extraordinary men who were gifted musicians and astute lawyers. Yet the last book that Kitty wrote, just a few years before her death, was an unusually intimate family biography, undertaken to explain and come to terms with her brilliant kin.
In Family Portrait Catherine Drinker Bowen discussed the distant Revolutionary War-era Drinkers who were peace-seeking Quakers; she considered the lively Leavitt aunts and grandmother; and she appraised her competitive brothers and sister. Bowen gave entertaining descriptions of multiple generations of family members, but the chapters about her Aunt Cecilia revealed feelings of pride as well as extreme frustration. Bowen's account of her own experiences with her imperious but gifted aunt hints at a deeply felt deprivation. Kitty dared to occupy the same creative space that her aunt did, and for her efforts Beaux kept her at a wary and considerable distance. Indeed, Kitty recalled that the only show of encouragement and affection that she ever received from Cecilia was for the care she was providing her parents in their old age.
Bowen was not able to write a dispassionate account of her aunt, as she had neither a feminist biographical perspective from which to consider her nor a sufficient emotional distance to understand why Beaux was so dismissive of her talents and accomplishments. While the image of Cecilia that Kitty created undercut her aunt's carefully constructed public persona, her memories also unquestioningly perpetuated the impression of Beaux as the exceptional woman whose genius had made her somewhat "monstrous" and "abnormal."
Indeed, references to Beaux's life and career in the literature of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s is essentially a retelling of Beaux's own precisely created presentation. It is only since the 1970s, with the appearance of a new kind of critical commentary, that a careful reconstruction of Beaux's life and a meticulous reevaluation of her portraits have become possible. In the 1970s, new approaches to women and their work were first discussed in feminist scholarship in both art history and biography, and this was also a time when a resurging interest in, and study of, turn-of-the-century American art, including high-style portraiture, fueled by work on John Singer Sargent, brought about a new and more analytical review.
The 1970s opened with Bowen's biography; yet it was the numerous surveys and group exhibitions of artwork by women, published and displayed throughout the decade, that began to place Beaux and her work within a revised cultural and historical continuum. Yet feminist art history in the 1970s focused on the recognition of forgotten women, which made Beaux's placement among them as something of a fallacy. Even though her stature had dimmed since her death some thirty years earlier, and American high-style portraiture from the turn of the century had fallen out of fashion, Beaux never really fit the category of the obscure and ignored.
Still, a more critical study of her life and work awaited the donation of her archival papers to the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, following the publication of Bowen's Family Portrait. By the mid-1970s staff members of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts had perused the papers, written the first catalogue, and mounted the first retrospective of Beaux's work since her final solo exhibition in 1935 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The exhibition was on display in Philadelphia in September and October 1974, and in Indianapolis from January to March 1975. In response to the exhibition, numerous articles were written, in which some authors critiqued the show and others presented a general synopsis of her life and career, but there was also an article by Judith Stein of the Pennsylvania Academy that presented a penetrating feminist analysis. By the late 1970s Beaux's Background with Figures, Henry Drinker's catalogue raisonné The Paintings and Drawings of Cecilia Beaux, Bowen's Family Portrait, the Pennsylvania Academy's exhibition catalogue Cecilia Beaux -- Portrait of an Artist, and Stein's article "Profile of Cecilia Beaux" offered the reader five very different but interconnected perspectives on the artist and her work.
Since the 1980s Beaux's portraits have been regularly included in art exhibitions and accompanying catalogues dealing with American portraiture, with American art from the 1870s to the 1920s, and with artwork by American women. Her paintings and drawings have occasionally appeared at auction, and the first gallery shows of her work since her death have been in Boston at Alfred J. Walker Fine Art in 1985 and 1990. The Pennsylvania Academy's exhibition stimulated academic interest in Beaux, and students in various graduate and undergraduate programs throughout the country began studying both aspects of her life and career as well as her involvement in countless artistic activities at the turn of the century.
The influence of Beaux's life, work, and autobiography has also found expression in contemporary culture. Beaux's painting of Fanny Travis Cochran was included in a 1986 calendar called "Great Women Painters"; text from her autobiography made its way into Men and Angels, a popular novel by Mary Gordon; and Victoria Magazine, a chic monthly, published a sumptuously illustrated article about her pictures of children. Beaux's portrait Ernesta with Nurse was the inspiration for a similar painting titled Ernesta by the artist Kathleen Huddle of Elmira, New York. Huddle was "struck by its strong composition and its use of so much white," and she believed that Ernesta with Nurse was "a painting 'about' white as much as it [was] about a child's point of view in an adult world." Huddle felt that, even though she was limited in working from a print of the painting, she still "learned lessons on composition, color combinations, brushwork, and technique." The artist Merrilyn Duzy of Belleaire Beach, Florida discovered Beaux when she participated in a performance called "Women Artists in History" organized by the Southern California Chapter of the Women's Caucus for Art. The experience led Duzy to develop a slide lecture that she titled "Walking through History: Women Artists Past and Present," and also to begin a series of paintings in which she placed contemporary artists in settings created by "historical artists." Her self-portrait, Merrilyn Duzy as Cecilia Beaux, shows a woman in a white dress, holding a black cat, standing against a background that Duzy says is based on the background in Beaux's painting Man with a Cat [Illus. 151].
While there has been a continually increasing interest in Cecilia Beaux and her work, some factors have mitigated against even greater recognition. Beaux has often been regarded as merely one of the many followers of Sargent, and when Post Impressionism and modern art came to the fore, and Sargent's high-style portraits came to be seen as "little more than frothy evocations of Edwardian society," the work of those who were considered just devotees came to be held in even greater disdain. Yet today, with renewed interest in grand-manner portraiture, Sargent has been elevated to his formerly exalted position. Once again, his facile technique and prolific production set the standard by which his contemporaries are judged, and with such criteria Beaux -- as well as many others -- are still seen to rank as second-best in comparison.
Beaux's work was typically compared to that of Sargent during her lifetime, but today both she and her work are more frequently contrasted to Mary Cassatt. While Beaux's artistic standing in America at the turn of the century was greater than Mary Cassatt's, just the opposite is true today. Impressionism enjoys unprecedented popularity, and Cassatt and her work have been studied seriously for more than two generations. Beaux has been described as a "lightweight" next to Cassatt, while the type of commercial work that she produced was not thought to be of the same caliber as the work of Cassatt. Beaux and Cassatt had entirely different kinds of careers and approached their work from entirely different perspectives. Indeed, comparing their artwork is less meaningful than analyzing their lives and discussing their artistic motivations.
Cecilia Beaux must be reevaluated beyond the confines of
such arbitrary comparisons. Both her life and her work symbolize the changing
status of professional women at the turn of the century. Her success demonstrates
the choices made by one woman, and however reluctantly she accepted the
role during her lifetime Beaux was the artistic "new woman" in
the first decades of the twentieth century.
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2009 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.