Cecilia Beaux's Contemporaries Judged Her to Be the Cat's Meow; History Sees a Bit of a Chameleon

A new exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts examines the career of Cecilia Beaux, an American artist who painted some of the most skillful portraits of America's ruling class.
Sunday, March 9, 2008

By the standards of her time, Cecilia Beaux, born into genteel Philadelphia society in 1855, was as much of an original as Frida Kahlo. She followed her art to shows in Paris and New York, cultivated and sometimes fell in love with much, much younger men and gave up the traditional woman's role to have more time to paint. (When a niece once had a miscarriage in Aunt Cecilia's country house, the young lady got herself to the hospital. It wouldn't have done to bother auntie at her easel, she said.) Beaux, who never never married or had children, was a passionate, ambitious, committed professional in an age and culture in which such determination was deemed unladylike.

And yet few of her pictures hint at that "mannish" fortitude. They only show its product: Consummate professional skill -- of just the kind Kahlo rejected. Unlike Kahlo, this artist used her superb hand and eye as a screen to hide behind.

In the years to either side of 1900, she painted some of the most skillful portraits of this country's ruling class. For a while, Beaux counted as a substantial rival to both John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. She scored two honorary degrees to Sargent's one; she beat Cassatt's count in gold medals and Paris Salon accolades.There's only one suggestion of a meeting between Beaux and Cassatt, who were both from good Philadelphia families: In a catty passage in a letter, Cassatt mentioned having made the "mistake" of trying to talk art with Beaux. It feels as though Beaux could pose a threat to the best-known woman painter in America.

And yet, for all the high points Beaux could reach, her overall career doesn't add up to as much as you'd think. She painted so well in established modes that she never had to forge her own peculiar way of doing things. That must be why she dropped from sight until just recently. It's only now, thanks to a few books and articles and shows such as the one in Philadelphia, that she's getting her due.

At her best, Beaux could handle a brush and paint as well as Sargent. When New York painter William Merritt Chase called her "not only the greatest woman painter, but the best that has ever lived," the compliment was only slightly backhanded. Her 1893 picture of her cousin Sarah Allibone Leavitt with her cat, titled "Sita and Sarita," is a stunning exercise in flamboyant technique. It has always been one of Beaux's most famous and admired works. (Here in Washington, the Corcoran has Beaux's 1921 version of the picture. It seems just about as good as her first. She gave the earlier one to the French government, which is why it came to this exhibition from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.) The bravura treatment of the woman's pallid face has a wonderful counterpoint in the velvety black fur of the pet that's on her shoulder. Their four green eyes are wittily lined up to form a row of glowing spots. Sarita's brilliantly white dress is so washed out, you see its structure as much in the texture of the paint as in any spelled-out details of its shape. In fact, there's such an unnatural bright glow to the whole scene that the picture may be meant as a study in the artificial light of gas or of the new electric bulbs -- a preoccupation for many of this era's greatest artists. In a picture such as this, where the sitter isn't posing so much as being caught unawares, Beaux is billing herself less as a skilled portraitist than as a "painter of modern life," in the avant-garde tradition of Manet and Degas.

Ditto for the picture that may be her second-greatest work, the so-called "Man With the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker)" painted in 1898 and on loan to this show from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Here the sitter's eyes engage the painter's (and the viewer's) as in more formal portraiture. But everything else about the image points to a gentleman who has decidedly been caught at ease and "at home": The picture's unusual relaxation extends from the cat-man's rumpled, soft white suit, to the hint of domestic mess stretching out behind him, to his slouching pose, to his pet's decidedly feline -- and maybe feminine -- sprawl, to the slack brushloads of paint the scene is captured in. And yet, once you know a touch of Beaux biography, you realize that, at least for the painter's intimates, this picture would have been more than just a casual scene, brilliantly painted. Beaux had once rejected Drinker's offer of marriage, so he'd moved further down his list and married her very different elder sister, Etta, who'd long been the genteel lady to Cecilia's virago. That suggests that the picture's vibrant tension between formality and informality, distance and intimacy, is also its central emotional subject.

Such tensions and subjects are arguably there in all of Beaux's most potent images. They are tightly connected to her female experience, and counter any notion that her art, however much it echoes work by a male artist such as Sargent, is simply toeing the establishment's masculine line. In her own day she was best known as -- or relegated to being -- a painter of women and children. But hers is not, or not always, a standard take on mothers and kids.

A full-length society portrait of Mrs. Clement A. Griscom and her adult child Frances, which Beaux called "Mother and Daughter" (the title gives a sense there's more at stake than just commemoration of the sitters), seems to capture strained relations between the two generations of American womanhood.

An 1897 picture called "Sister and Brother" ups the anxiety level. We seem to witness a clearly gendered standoff: A younger boy refuses to give up a toy to his older female sibling, but she somehow doesn't have the power to demand it of him.

Cassatt also documented the world of women and their offspring, maybe even more extensively than Beaux did. Cassatt, however, often seems to acknowledge its stresses from the inside, with the solicitude of a kind aunt. Her gaze may be unsentimental, but it's still warm, whereas Beaux's most striking pictures hint that she is an escapee from that female world and rather views it with alarm.

Maybe she never completely escaped. Looking at Beaux's whole career, there is a sense she never quite assumed the sense of power and privilege a great male painter might have had. She didn't always have the confidence to focus on her strengths or follow her own way. Sometimes she lapsed into the complacent professionalism of a society portraitist. Or else, going to the other, more arty extreme, she tried on one vanguard style for a picture or two, but didn't live with it long before moving on to another. Beaux was so skilled that she often got those trendy manners right. But you sometimes wish she had the confidence of a Frida Kahlo: to decide precisely who she was, then just be her very best.

Cecilia Beaux, American Figure Painter is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia through April 13. Call 215-972-7600 or visit http://www.pafa.org.

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