Monday, November 9, 2020

Inktober Day 3: Cecilia Beaux


Admiral Sir David Beatty, Lord Beatty by Cecilia Beaux, c. 1920. (image via) The war-torn horizon immediately conjures images of Napoleon and of J.M.W. Turner's storm-tossed seas.

 A distinct style that arose for society portraiture in the Belle Époque and Edwardian era (1880s-1910s), I'm sure you've see it, that certain something that unites the work of Cecilia Beaux, John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Therese Schwartze, Joaquín Sorolla, William Merritt Chase, Lilla Cabot Perry and Giovanni Boldini. It's why all these rival's work looks a bit alike, and why critics engage in a fun circular game of calling each painter's work derivative of the other. But it's hard to know what to call the style. It isn't Impressionism, even though the brushtrokes are loose and fluid, natural light takes center stage, and the implied movement of the compositions looks strikingly modern, like a snapshot. It's very realistic and slightly idealized-- but it's not the Academic style either. Yet it was clearly suited to turn-of-the-century high society, that glittering slurry of new industrialists and old aristocracy: fresh yet unthreatening, classic but not stodgy, audacious yet respectable. Where, then, did it come from?


Velasquez. Yes, the Spanish painter from three centuries prior, the one who painted Las Meninas. His loose brushwork and thick buildup of wet-on-wet brushstrokes ran counter to the prevailing 19th century Academic tradition of perfectionist painters like Ingres. But it was hugely influential to figure painters like Carolus-Duran in Paris and Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz in Madrid, each of whom were prolific and influential instructors of the mid-1800s. 


Also arising in the mid-1800s were two schools of plein aire (outdoor) painting: Barbizon in France and the Macchiaioli in Italy, both precursors to Impressionism. While the later Impressionists often used blue-purple for shadows, thus creating a dazzling vibration of color contrasts wherein the entire painting seems bright and fleeting, the Barbizon and especially Macchiaioli shaded the traditional way, with black. You wouldn't believe what a difference this makes, nor how hallowed the tradition, but it anchors a painting firmly on solid ground, as well as in the past. Nevertheless the Barbizon and Macchiaioli painters dared to keep their brushstrokes sketchy and their paintings spontaneous, to let layered patches of color and shadow shimmer on the surface instead of blending everything together. They, too, were inspired by Velasquez, but moreso by English landscape painters and old Dutch and Flemish masters. The later society portrait painters would adopt many dazzling techniques of the Impressionists but they continued to shade with black.

Then there was James Abbott McNeill Whistler. All these portrait artists claimed him as an influence. To them he represented more than an admirable style, but a collection of bold modern ideas (by 1860s standards). Half a century before Kandinsky, Whistler was flirting with abstraction and naming his paintings things like 'Nocturne' and 'Symphony' to draw parallels between pure visual composition and music (his musician friend suggested it, and to Whistler's immense pleasure the titles pissed off the art critics to no end). He had no time for allegory or morals-- he was interested in "art for art's sake," that is pure form, pure color, pure realism rather than idealized Greek goddesses or art with some sort of moral message, which was favored by the predominant Academic tradition. As such Whistler's work incorporated an element of decorative arts (which, after all, claimed no higher moral purpose than to be beautiful). Whistler was mentored by Courbet (as was his friend Carolus-Duran). Courbet was in turn inspired by Velasquez and the Flemish painters like Rembrandt.

This entire lineage is interesting because while Academic Style built upon the predominant traditions of the previous centuries, these society portrait artists built on all the alternative traditions which flourished in the periphery.

This "alternative lineage" idea is completely my own take on it, though. I don't know if general art historical consensus would agree because it doesn't have much to say on the subject at all. Because these portrait painters drew on alternative traditions, they were never on the cutting edge of anything (neoclassicism, romanticism, pure impressionism, fauvism, abstract expressionism, etc) and have been almost completely left out of the narrative of art history. They're considered unimportant in the progression and eventual triumph of unsentimental abstract expressionism. Sargent, Zorn and Sorolla are beloved, but most people don't learn about them from a boilerplate art history class. They simply stumble across them on Pinterest or in a coffee table book in some waiting room.

In their heyday, though, these artists were considered forward-thinking. So as Ingres' old-fashioned style dominated the 19th century, his style became associated with it. The new generation of bright (rich) young things wanted something new, something that represented them, yet they still were searching for the next Old Master, to own what their grandchildren would consider important art. Each aspiring young portrait painter who studied in Europe was right at the center of it, various influential movements as they unfolded in real time, meeting their modern idols at cafes and copying the old masters in museums.

And then there was Cecilia Beaux, stuck in Philadelphia. 

There was one good place to study art in Philly, and that was at Thomas Eakins's academy. But everyone knew that place was full of freaks. Ever since Eakins had exhibited a graphic painting of a surgery in progress, no respectable woman would touch his school, even if he was a great painter, and even if his school did allow women to study anatomy. 

Beaux's concerned family found a relative to teach Beaux instead, one Catherine Drinker. After studying with Drinker and desperate to make some money to support herself and her family, Beaux turned to painting portraits of children on porcelain plates. People would mail in photographs and she'd mail the plates back to clients as far away as California. She drew advertising lithographs ad technical illustration as well. "This was the lowest depth I ever reached in commercial art," she said, "and although it was a period when youth and romance were in their first attendance on me, I remember it with gloom and record it with shame." But the money did afford her the independence to continue her studies ("only until marriage of course," she told her family and, to an extent, herself). More importantly it taught her that mothers would do anything for portraits of their children. (I once had this same "ah-ha!" moment with pet portraiture when I saw someone go into the Louis Vuitton store pushing a gigantic dog stroller with a shivering chihuahua inside).

Beaux had to admit growing admiration for Eakins' Academic-style work. And she knew she had to step up her game if she didn't want to be painting plates forever. In the end she worked up the nerve to attend the academy but studied with other teachers. "A curious instinct of self-preservation kept me outside the magic circle." Sadly Eakins would be fired from the academy for his practice of allowing women artists to study anatomy. Philadelphia was not ready for his ideas. 

Somewhere along these studies she picked up a lifelong belief in phrenology, which was a preeminent form of quackery from an embarrassing period in history when scientists believed that behavior and character traits correlated with various physical features. At its worst this idea was applied to blatantly racist, sexist, classist and xenophobic agendas-- that's why it's earned such a nasty reputation nowadays. However I find it interesting that a portrait artist would pick up phrenology and run with it. It makes me reconsider the practice of cartooning where physical features are exaggerated to show personality. Much of portraiture is after all just glorified cartooning, where the artist manipulates the sitter's physical appearance to turn them into an expressive character. 

Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance by Cecilia Beaux, 1883. (image via)


With the exhibition of her first serious work, Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance, Beaux allied herself with artists like Whistler and Mary Cassatt. Beaux's reputation grew and she opened her own portrait studio. In just a few years she was able to charge as much for a commission as Eakins himself. She was good, but she wanted to be great. She craved a European education and in 1888 at age 32 she set sail for Paris. "Remember," begged her loving Aunt Eliza, who was anxious for her unmarried Quaker niece amid the notorious vices of the Paris art world, "you are first of all a Christian – then a woman and last of all an Artist."

Paris hit Cecilia Beaux like a ton of bricks but she thrived in the adversity. It wasn't Bouguereau, the most nurturing of her instructors, who buoyed her spirits the most, but the underhanded encouragement of the severe Fleury, eyeing her efforts: "...We will do all we can to help you."

At the same time that Beaux was training in the Academic style she was also drawn to its polar opposite, Impressionism. She experimented with incorporating it into her style but found she was too precise and concrete a painter to really adopt the style. However she did lighten her color palette significantly, beginning a lifelong love affair with white-on-white effects. She also studied the effects of natural light and outdoor painting which she would put to use later in her career with outdoor portraits and landscapes.

Twilight Confidences by Cecilia Beaux, 1888. (image via) Beaux painted this early work after spending the summer at an artist's colony in Brittany. She completed numerous studies for this, and the painting is her first foray into plein aire (i.e. outdoor) painting. The play of fleeting natural light is obviously her main focus and the white Briton bonnets of the women serve as perfect vehicles.

New England Woman, by Cecilia Beaux, 1895. (image via) While this painting was completed a decade after her time in Paris you can clearly see the influence of Impressionists like Morisot and Cassatt. Beaux also was an admirer of Whistler, and one of his most famous portraits was a girl in a white dress in front of a white curtain, titled Symphony in White.
When Beaux returned to Philadelphia she dedicated herself completely to painting. She chose never to marry or even to have serious relationships so she could focus. Her extended family welcomed her back home, and all of the time she lived there and worked in her studio, "I was never once asked to do an errand in town, some bit of shopping…so well did they understand." (everyone who works from home lately will understand what a gift that is). She maintained a strict daily routine with a punctual starting and quitting time.
The year after her return William Merritt Chase (the prominent Impressionist and society portrait painter) claimed, “[Beaux is] not only the greatest living woman painter, but the best painter who ever lived!” I personally disagree-- no one beats Anders Zorn, come on-- but Beaux was clearly earning a solid reputation stateside. She had multiple pieces exhibited together with John Singer Sargent who was much more well-known at the time, and a critic was famously overheard making very sideways compliment: "I see Sargent has signed his best paintings, 'Cecilia Beaux.'" He meant that her style was very derivative of his, but also that her work was superior. Her work is still frequently compared with his-- and they are very similar-- but as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, both Beaux and Sargent were basically painting in the style of Carolus-Duran.
In a reversal of the previous decade when she had difficulty acquiring training, Beaux was hired as the first woman to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphians were proud and she became a very popular instructor for the next twenty years.  
Beaux went on to exhibit large murals at the Chicago World's Fair, to amass a long list of sought-after clientele including Teddy and Edith Roosevelt, and to have her paintings exhibited in Paris to acclaim. 
By the early 1900s several of Beaux's extended family members died. Beaux was devastated, as she had been orphaned at birth and raised, with her sister, by her grandparents, aunts and uncles. She found it too painful to stay in Philadelphia and relocated to a country home in a wealthy community. She began summering in New York as well. Interestingly, she incorporated hiking and leisure into her daily studio schedule because she considered the steady maintenance of energy to be crucial to her artistic output. One must accept, she believed, that art will work one to exhaustion, so an artist must plan one's day in a way that re-energizes oneself.   

Abruptly in 1907, American artists overhauled the Impressionist era, moving on to gritty social realism, Dada and then abstraction. But Beaux never considered moving on from her style. "These men [Rubens, Memling, Mabuse, all Renaissance and Baroque painters] were not reformers," she wrote. "Theirs was the earnest desire toward perfection. Not to break down, but to build." For Beaux the old masters had set art as an ever-fixed mark that does not alter when it when it alteration finds. 
Despite the art world moving on the last decades of her life were filled with prestigious honors and awards of every sort. Toward the end of her life she broke her hip and her painting slowed considerably. She died in 1942 at age 87. 

Sita and Sarita, by Cecilia Beaux, 1893-4. (image via) Who wouldn't like to have their portrait made like this, looking mysterious with a witchy cat. Beaux sometimes added a touch of something slightly odd such as an unusual pose or composition which made the image more attention-grabbing while allowing the sitter to retain their dignity.

Mrs. Alexander Sedgwick and Daughter Christina, by Cecilia Beaux, 1902. (image via) The pose in this is interesting. The mother's back is turned, and she isn't even more than a sketch at the edges. Yet she's very prominent in the painting. 

Sarah Elizabeth Doyle by Cecilia Beaux, c. 1902. (image via) Sarah Doyle was a suffragist and educator who founded the Pembroke College in Brown University. Her former students commissioned this portrait from Beaux, to “be of itself a work of art of the highest merit" which would acknowledge Doyle's “deep and lasting influence upon the women of this community,” and “perpetuate her strong, womanly personality.” Doyle is shown here in her academic robes over her personal clothes, with a pose and expression that radiates intelligence and gravitas (to get in trouble and be sent to her principal's office would be terribly intimidating). The simplicity of the forms and fluidity of the brushstrokes create a confident sense of balance. The red background appears plummy purple in some photographs of the piece, and if that's the case in real life it would be an allusion to the symbolic colors of the women's suffrage movement: white, green and purple.

Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) by Cecilia Beaux, 1898. (image via) Drinker was a wealthy and stylish railroad executive who married Cecilia Beaux's sister. He was also brother to Beaux's first art instructor, Catherine Drinker. Known to be a strong personality, the painting seems to be some sort of recognition and accord between his strong personality and Beaux's own formidable character (according to unsigned commentary at Smithsonian's image database). This man was the pinnacle of glitteringly wealthy East coast society, and here he is so comfortable with himself that he slumps in a chair to accommodate the cat on his lap, the literal lap of luxury. Besides the pose I love the technique of this painting. The brushstrokes are clear watery pools of color, the side lighting that splashes over the folds of his suit beautifully divides his face in two.

After the Meeting by Cecilia Beaux, 1914. (image via) I adore this composition-- the high contrast pattern play, near-abstract blocks of color, and how it leads the eye in an unusual upward zigzag. The bold layering of patterns echoes whatever peppery thing the woman in the chair is saying, and the lively composition which zings back and forth hints at a gathering of others who are listening and ready with a lively answer. According to writers in 1915 the "meeting" certainly refers to a women's suffrage meeting (note the green and white dress) and the "restless energy" is meant to characterize those who attended, someone who talks with her hands and grabs attention. The flattened, color-blocked composition was a pointed reference to abstract European modernism and drew a parallel between the modernism of the woman and of the painting itself (and possibly painter). Meanwhile the careless simplicity of the brushstrokes and lack of shading especially in the face was a reference to fauvism, another modern art movement. Beaux considered herself a "New Woman," an independent cultured citizen who supported women's rights. 

Portrait of Alice Davison by Cecilia Beaux, 1909. (image via) I think the way she painted Central Park is neat.

Cardinal Mercier by Cecilia Beaux, 1919. (image via) While this man doesn't look like someone I'd want to know the painting itself is beautiful. The tonal value of the red against the background is somehow surprising; where you'd expect dramatic contrast (as in a Baroque painting) they're separated only by outline. The mottled misty quality of the figure creates a separation from the viewer, as if he's not real. The overall effect really sucks you in.

So, here is my portrait of Cecilia Beaux for Day 3 of Inktober. I readily found two of Beaux's self portraits online, and while I quite like them as paintings I didn't think they made very good reference images. Nor were the photographs of her very descriptive. With some digging I found a watercolor portrait of Beaux by another artist named Rosina Emmet Sherwood. (Sherwood's life and work is worth taking a look; she did some gorgeous children's book illustration.) I tried to mimic Beaux's own long fluid brushstrokes in her blouse and in the "scumbled" background. I also noticed that she frequently employed a subtle but thick outline to separate the figure from the background. It creates a slightly art-nouveau-style effect, like a rich glaze puddling around the contours of a vase. You can see it in the portrait of Sarah Doyle above with the red background. I added the bow on the blouse to anchor the composition and cropped the image way in from Sherwood's original seated pose; I like how it makes her look like a thoroughly modern "Gibson Girl."  


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