America's Greatest Female Artist?
By David E. Shi
President, Furman University
museums not only preserve and display art; they also freshen our
understanding of important artists and their circumstances. Until
September 9, the High Museum is hosting an important exhibition of the
figure paintings of Cecilia Beaux. The gorgeous show reveals a great
deal about the dynamics of artistic reputations and the peculiar
challenges faced by women painters during the Victorian era.
was Cecilia Beaux? At the beginning of the 20th century, she was widely
viewed as America's greatest woman artist. In 1899 the preeminent
painter William Merritt Chase proclaimed that Beaux was "not only the
greatest living woman painter, but the best that has ever lived." Her
portraits won numerous gold medals at exhibitions in the United States
and in Europe, and her talented brush was in great demand among the
nation's social and political elite. By 1916 an art critic could assert
that "Miss Beaux as an American painter has no rivals at all. . . ." Six
years later, when the New York Times conducted a survey to name the
"twelve greatest American women," Cecilia Beaux headed the list, which
included the social activist Jane Addams and novelist Edith Wharton.
Cecilia Beaux is little known today except among art historians and
connoisseurs. Why did such a revered painter disappear as though she
never existed? The exhibition at the High Museum, entitled "Cecilia
Beaux: American Figure Painter," answers the question, and, in the
process, tells much about the mercurial quality of artistic reputations.
in 1855, Cecilia Beaux grew up in a West Philadelphia household
bustling with talented women. Her mother died 12 days after giving
birth, and her distraught French father fled to his native Provence,
leaving infant Cecilia and her sister to be raised by their widowed
grandmother and two aunts. Cecilia grew up in an atmosphere of strict
moral rectitude, cultural vitality, nurturing love, and hard work.
was educated at home and then spent two years at a Philadelphia
finishing school. By the age of sixteen, she had decided to turn her
talent for drawing into a career. To generate income, she first painted
portraits of children on ceramic plates to be hung on parlor walls. In
the 1880s, however, the self-assured, vivacious Beaux was able to begin
taking formal art lessons. But her guardians insisted that she work with
a private instructor so as to avoid being exposed to the "coarse"
behavior and vulgar language of male art students--as well as nude
models. In 1883 she opened a studio in Philadelphia and produced her
first major canvas, a stunning portrait of her sister and nephew. It won
first prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition and
later drew excited attention at exhibitions in New York and Paris.
Beaux's precocious success led to more study in Paris that greatly
broadened her horizons and deepened her sophistication.
returned to Philadelphia in 1889 and soon thereafter her reputation as a
portrait painter of the wealthy and famous soared. Her works were
widely exhibited and praised, and her connections in the art world grew
ever more extensive. In 1895 she became the first woman instructor at
the Pennsylvania Academy, and the next year, after a triumphant
exhibition at the Paris Salon, she was elected to the Société Nationale
des Beaux-Arts. In 1901 she was invited to the White House to paint Mrs.
Theodore Roosevelt and her daughter. She was elected to the National
Academy of Design in 1902. Yale and the University of Pennsylvania later
awarded her honorary degrees.
Beaux's sumptuous portraits
resemble those of the more celebrated John Singer Sargent. But where
Sargent was self-consciously theatrical, Beaux was more reserved--a
technician rather than a performer with a brush. Tall and slender,
intelligent and imperious, she abhorred ostentation. Where Sargent
assaulted the canvas with panache and cleverness, she labored over her
subject's composition and treatment in an effort to capture the "weight
of personality." She once told a friend: "I never do anything easily."
all of Cecilia Beaux's obvious talent and success, however, her
reputation quickly faded after her death in 1943. Her sole focus on
portraiture diminished her stature. Art critics and historians prefer
painters with wider interests. Yet Beaux dismissed such bias. She had to
earn a living through her art. "It doesn't pay to paint everybody," she
explained. In addition, her emphasis on patrician men and sheltered
women and children has alienated many modern art critics. Even more
important in explaining Beaux's declining stature was her resistance to
changing artistic fashions. Unlike her rival Philadelphian, Mary
Cassatt, she did not embrace Impressionism or any other "rebel"
movement. Beaux shunned the avant-garde. She once dismissed Cubism as
"egotistical, insane, insincere and ugly."
conservatism has grated on art historians and critics. Equally
disturbing to such modern sensibilities is that Beaux doubted that women
painters would ever display the creative power of a Rubens or
Michelangelo. "To produce a great painting," she insisted, "requires a
certain objectivity which is rare in women." But Beaux also stressed
that, in the end, "success is sexless." As the exhibition at the High
Museum reveals, her own success within a male-dominated profession
deserves renewed attention and acclaim.