For the month of April we will look at Cecilia Beaux, considered by many to be the finest woman painter active in America at the turn of the century. I think it’s fitting that we move on to Beaux after studying Eakins, as Ms. Beaux was a student of Eakins at the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts. She later taught at this school. Her work has been compared to Sargent although she was not nearly as prolific as he was. Beaux was not only technically masterful in her rich, vigorous manipulation of paint and her subtle orchestration of color, but is also recalled as a keen observer and an innovative designer. By 1902 Beaux was recognized as one of the top portrait painters in America. She had exhibited her work and garnered prizes in museum exhibitions from Philadelphia to New York to Paris. She was awarded full membership in the male-dominated National Academy. And perhaps just as telling of her popularity, she painted a portrait of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and her daughter in the White House, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Daughter Ethel (1901-02, private collection).
Beaux was born in Philadelphia. Due to her mother's early death and her French father's subsequent departure to Europe, she was raised by her maternal grandmother and aunt. The example of her aunt, the artist Eliza Lewitt, was a very positive one for her. With her family's support and her aunt's inspiration, Beaux set out to be a painter. At the age of sixteen she studied drawing under Catherine Drinker, an historical and religious painter whose brother later married Beaux's sister. In 1872 or 1873, she took instruction from Adolf Van der Whalen, a Dutch artist active in Philadelphia. She also appears to have taken classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1877 and 1879 under Thomas Eakins. Additionally, between 1881 and 1883, Beaux studied semi-privately in a friend's studio with William Sartain. Between 1888 and 1889, Beaux traveled to Europe where she studied at the AcadEmie Julian and the Colarrosi Academie under Bouguereau, Fleury, Dagnan-Bouveret, and Courtois, as well as privately with Benjamin Constant. In 1895, she became the first full-time woman faculty member at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she would teach drawing, painting, and portraiture for the next twenty years.
Beaux's rich use of buttery strokes and exquisitely fine-tuned orchestration of whites and blacks reveal her respect for the preeminent portrait painter of her day, John Singer Sargent. The flattened picture plane, cropped forms, and bold reductive masses also indicate her thorough understanding of Japanese art as interpreted by such leading French Impressionists as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. In intimate works depicting friends or family, as in Ernesta with Nurse (1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art ) and Henry Sturgis Drinker (1898, National Museum of Art Beaux excelled as an insightful portraitist. After 1900, however, her work became increasingly more superficial despite her extraordinary technical facility. By the time she had gained virtually universal recognition as one of America's leading portrait painters in the teens and early twenties, much of her early edge had eroded.
I am posting four paintings here, along with their sizes and background. Two are fairly simple pieces and two are perhaps a bit more challenging. I encourage you to paint the pieces as close to their original size as possible. If you don’t have a canvas in the exact size, consider cropping or painting slightly smaller. Do not attempt to reduce your painting to an 8” x 10”; you will struggle needlessly. It is always easier to paint things larger because you can actually observe and try to record the detail. Find a reference for your painting that is clear and accurate in color. Do not try to use two or more references for color as this will only confuse you. Think about your underpainting (if you use one) and how it will affect your upper layer of colors.
Above all, have fun and keep an open mind and don’t get stressed—it is just paint and it scrapes off easily – unlike watercolor or acrylic. It is infinitely workable and changeable and your options are always open. Not many mediums are that easy to work with so enjoy it for what it is!
If you look on the internet and view some of Ms. Beaux’s other works you will come across a self portrait that she did where we can see how she began her painting. This is a loose painting with a brown or umber colored underpainting. She probably followed the consensus of the day and began her paintings with such an underpainting – a value map, if you will. I recommend trying it this way if you want to follow Beaux’s style but you don’t have to.
OPTION NO. 1
This is perhaps Ms. Beaux’s most famous work, Henry Sturgis Drinker, Oil on canvas, 1898
87.8 x 121.9 cm (34.57" x 48")
I love this painting for three reasons: 1) The guy’s handlebar moustache 2) He is holding a cat and 3) The looseness of the strokes
Number three will make this a difficult copy to do accurately.
It is obvious to me that Ms. Beaux used a large brush and lots of paint and she was not afraid to “leave” the original swatches of color – look at the chair and how loosely it is modeled. When I see the hand I am amazed! Almost Fechin like- it is painted in so few strokes. Look especially at the chair arm behind the cat’s head---it is painted in just enough so that we know it for what it is but it is very unimportant to the composition and she had the guts to just LEAVE IT. I am so guilty of overworking paintings many times- even though I tell myself to just “stop!” This lady seems to have been able to recognize a stopping point and stuck to it. Good luck to those of you who want to try this. Another option would be to paint just the crop of his head and shoulders as I have here-perhaps on an 11” x 14” canvas.
Here is a link to the artrenewal site with a pretty good image:
Head and shoulders only
OPTION NO. 2
Ernesta and Her Nurse, 1894, 50.5” x 38”
Here is a link to this painting that looks pretty good
OPTION NO. 3
A Little Girl (Fanny Travis Cochran), 1887. Oil on canvas. 36 x 29 3/16 inches (91.4 x 74.1 cm)
Here is a very good link to this painting, and again if you do not want to do the entire figure, consider cropping it and painting her head and shoulders.
OPTION NO. 4
Head of a Woman, 1888
I am not sure of the size of this piece- but I would guess between 11" x 14" and 14" x 18"
Here is a high resolution link to a site with this image:
http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-LsWTjooumxo/TYYO0gmW50I/AAAAAAAAksE/E8a7YcQYwhM/s1600/7%2BCecilia%2BBeaux%2B%2528American%2Bpainter%252C %2B1855-1942%2529%2BHead%2Bof%2Ba%2BFrench%2BPeasant%2BWom an%2B1888.jpg
I think we have a good assortment to choose from and I hope we have lots of brave souls ready to experiment with this master painter. I chose Cecilia because she was one of the few women painters who worked around the turn of the century, alongside other great painters of the time. She seems to have specialized in portraits although I saw a few landscapes. We have so many women artists nowadays that I thought it only fitting to pay our respects to one who blazed the path for the rest of us.