15 Chapter 9 – Cecilia Beaux

Defining Beaux’s Art

William Armstrong

Audio recording of the full chapter can be found here:



Anyone can find themselves defined by certain labels. Humans seem to have a natural tendency to categorize people, perhaps as a way of understanding. People can be defined by a whole host of characteristics, from race to gender, sexuality to wealth. Sometimes these labels can help people find a sense of common identity. Other times, these labels ultimately restrict people, leading to unfair judgement. Cecilia Beaux was an artist who undoubtedly showed immense talent and skill in her work. She was also a woman, one whose career started in the late 19th century, at a time when women were not even allowed to vote.[1] Beaux’s career was often defined by this label over which she had no control, and it impacted her career in varying ways, all as she frequently tried to remove herself from its power.

Head and shoulders three-quarters portrait of a woman looking left
Cecilia Beaux, Self Portrait, oil on canvas, 1894

In the late 1800s, there were certain forms of art that were considered female, and others that were not. The male-dominated society in the United States believed that women were not suited for the academic side of art, instead believing that women should focus on “commercial and decorative work”.[2] When a teenage Cecilia Beaux began to work in art, that was exactly the kind of work she started with. Notably, she did fossil illustrations as part of work for the United States Geological Survey.[3] She also learned to paint portraits of children onto ceramic plates. It was another form of commercial, decorative work, and one that she hated.[4] Ironically, it was this kind of ‘feminine’ work that Beaux developed skills in drawing and painting, and discovered an interest in portraiture, an interest that would define her career as a professional artist.[5] As a person who aspired to make good art, Beaux understandably felt that the commercial works she created were beneath her. As a woman, however, she had had no alternative. Yet even if she could not see it, she made use of the limitations prescribed to her, learning and developing where she was allowed until she gained enough skills to truly enter the world of art.

Cecilia Beaux, Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) oil on canvas, 1898

Part of the reason Beaux hated her decorative work so much is because it was work that could be defined as female.[6] Beaux knew that she could either be a professional artist or she could be a woman artist – there was little room for both titles to coexist. Her early ‘feminine’ commercial work gave her a good sense of business and of art, both of which she used to develop herself as a skilled and successful portraitist. Due to her skill, she was able to get help from her family and admirers of her work and she succeeded in traveling to study in Paris to further develop her skills.[7] She came to be well admired and recognized for her paintings. The Impressionist influence and subtle tonalities showed a painter with a great deal of skill, even if the paintings themselves conformed to many artistic conventions at the time. The skill was evident, but Beaux’s success was attributed by the art community to a diverse range of factors, all of which still seemed to highlight her gender, despite her best efforts to conform. She was celebrated for being special and unique, her work viewed as masculine.[8] Unfortunately for Beaux, it was as though she was being celebrated for her success in spite of being a woman.

Half body three-quarters portrait of a dark haired woman wearing a white dress, seated on a white and blue floral couch with a green-eyed black cat standing on her shoulder
Cecilia Beaux, Sita and Sarita, oil on canvas, 1893-94

Beaux’s desire to be seen for her work and not for her gender caused herself to become isolated. She began to believe that she indeed was special, and that she was not like other women. Beaux’s admirers compared her to other female American painters and positioned her as far above all the rest. Though Beaux had expressed the belief that “success is sexless,” she was continuously seen as a uniquely exceptional woman painter.[9] It was the primary way she was recognized, and it was as close as she could get to being removed from her gender. She isolated herself from all other female painters, buying into the belief that she was a rare type of woman who had managed to rise above her gender. She did not believe that a woman could be a successful artist unless she “sacrificed” what made her a ‘woman’, and avoided the life of marriage and children as Beaux had.[10] This view further isolated her from many female artists including her own niece.[11] Beaux was trapped; she did not want to be seen as a ‘female’ painter, but she would never be considered to be on the same playing field as her male contemporaries. She was applauded for conforming to ‘male’ forms of art even though it was her practice in ‘female’ avenues that had helped lead her to becoming who she was. Beaux would go on to win numerous awards, including one presented by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world”.[12] An incredible honour, though even it singled out her identity as a woman. She was a master of her craft, regardless of gender, but ultimately neither she nor the world could shake her categorization.

Identity can be an important force in a person’s life, but it should not be used to impose limits on their potential. In a time when women were treated as lesser, Cecilia Beaux worked and honed her craft, becoming one of the best painters of her generation. She entered male- dominated institutions and created works of the highest quality. Though she sought to be recognized purely for her work, the fact that she was a woman always managed to become a factor as to how she was judged, even by herself. She was seen as special, and special she indeed was, but not because she was a good woman painter. She was special because she was a phenomenal painter, one who rivalled any great painter of her time regardless of gender. Cecilia Beaux’s identity cannot be ignored. Her experiences as a woman played a great role in her development as an artist. But those experiences do not define the nature of her work. She was as skilled a portraitist as any, one who does deserve to be recognized for her work as a woman, but who even more so deserves to be recognized and defined for her work as an artist.

Cecilia Beaux, Portrait of Mrs. Albert J. Beveridge, oil on canvas, 1916

 

 

 

Bibliography

“Cecilia Beaux.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/cecilia-beaux-300 .

“Cecilia Beaux: Artist Profile.” NMWA. May 28, 2020. https://nmwa.org/art/artists/cecilia-beaux/.

Mathews, Nancy Mowll. “”The Greatest Woman Painter”: Cecilia Beaux, Mary Cassatt, and Issues of Female Fame.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 124, no. 3 (2000): 293-316. Accessed September 18, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093367.

Tappert, Tara L. 1988. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14 (4): 389. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=5806669&site=eds-live.

Toohey, Jeanette M. “”Intricacies and Interdependencies”: Cecilia Beaux and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 124, no. 3 (2000): 349-74. Accessed September 21, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093369.

Yount, Sylvia. 2007. “‘Like a Needle to the Pole’: The French Adventures of Cecilia Beaux.” Magazine Antiques 172 (5): 170. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=27471089&site=eds-live.

Katus, Barbara. “Between the Covers: An Artist Looks at the Sketchbooks of Cecilia Beaux.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 124, no. 3 (2000): 391-99. Accessed October 12, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093372.

 

 

 


  1. “Cecilia Beaux.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/cecilia-beaux-300
  2. Tara L. Tappert. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 4 (1988): 391.
  3. “Cecilia Beaux.” Smithsonian American Art Museum.  https://americanart.si.edu/artist/cecilia-beaux-300
  4. Tara L. Tappert. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 4 (1988): 395-397.
  5. Tara L. Tappert. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 4 (1988): 395-397.
  6. Tara L. Tappert. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 4 (1988): 397.
  7. Toohey, Jeanette M. ""Intricacies and Interdependencies": Cecilia Beaux and the PennsylvaniaAcademy of the Fine Arts." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 124, no. 3 (2000): 359.
  8. Tara L. Tappert. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 4 (1988): 405.
  9. Tappert. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14: 407.
  10. Tappert. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14: 408.
  11. Tara L. Tappert. “Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 4 (1988): 408.
  12. "Cecilia Beaux: Artist Profile." NMWA. May 28, 2020. https://nmwa.org/art/artists/cecilia-beaux/

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