Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) is the most important American society painter that you probably have never heard of. She was a popular artist and a highly-respected teacher, but she isn’t well known today. Let’s change that and explore beautiful portraiture of Cecilia Beaux.
It might be thanks to her grandmother and aunts that Cecilia Beaux became such a success. She and her older sister lost their mother early, but they grew up with strong female relatives who valued education. They encouraged Beaux to pursue her love of art. She studied at a few different places including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She also spent time in Paris studying at the Academie Julien. One of her earliest teachers was another successful lady, Catherine Anne Drinker (1841-1922). She painted other subjects for a while, but she soon decided her heart was in portraiture. After that, she didn’t paint anything else.
The choice paid off. Cecilia Beaux was the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ first full-time female professor. She was also a member of the National Academy of Design. She won many accolades in the U.S. and Europe, including medals at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. Beaux received two honorary college degrees, and Eleanor Roosevelt named her “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world” in 1933. She was an independent and successful woman at a time when that wasn’t typical. She made a very comfortable living all by herself and turned down a few marriage proposals. (One was by the man below, who ended up marrying her sister instead!)
What I like most about Beaux’s art is the fact that her subjects were so varied. She loved to paint her sister’s children. Her first early success was a portrait of her sister and nephew. She painted many other mothers and children of various ages. However, she also painted powerful men, like French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and wealthy American families like the Roosevelts. She seems to have had a penchant for showing people with cats. All of her works are soft and elegant, usually with a touch of drama. She combined the loose brushwork popular with Impressionists and the detail expected of a society portraitist. Her paintings are always beautiful and easy to look at.
These aspects of her style have led many people to compare her with John Singer Sargent. They were popular with the same audience at the same time, so they sometimes competed for commissions. It seems that Beaux was fully capable of getting the job over Sargent. She has also been compared with the Impressionist Mary Cassatt. Cecilia Beaux might not be as famous as Cassatt, but her works are every bit as memorable. In fact, I enjoy them more. I particularly love her paintings of her niece and favorite subject, Ernesta Drinker. See young Ernesta and grown-up Ernesta below.
Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. Revised first edition. Boston, etc.: McGraw Hill, 2003. P. 354.
National Museum of Women in the Arts. “Cecilia Beaux”. Washington D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Luce Artist Biography. “Cecilia Beaux”. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Esaak, Shelley, “Artist in 60 Seconds: Cecilia Beaux”. ThoughtCo. Updated July 1, 2017.
“Cecilia Beaux” San Francisco: de Young | Legion of Honor Fine Art Museums of San Francisco.
Veloric, Cynthia Haveson. “Art of Cecilia Beaux” in The Encyclopedia and Greater Philadelphia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 2017.
If you enjoyed Cecilia Beaux’s work, you might also like to read about:
- Her near-contemporaries, the female Impressionists (Four Women Impressionists You Shouldn’t Forget)
- Another successful female portraitist (Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun And The Women In Her Portraits)
- More wonderful, but mostly forgotten female artists (10 Female Artists Forgotten By Art History)