Art Lesson: Cecilia Beaux

Before I start, I would like to point out that art movements don’t always fit into neat little boxes: Rather, they fade subtly from one to the other, the new styles often retaining characteristics of the old.  Generally, the formal Impressionist activity occurred around the 1870s-1880s, but some of the artists involved continued to develop their styles in later years.  Gauguin and Cézanne are the first to come to mind, giving foundation to the new “style” or tendency called Post-Impressionism … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Cecilia Beaux doesn’t snugly fit into the Impressionist category as most people think of it; There are no countryside landscapes or city scenes of modern life, but I saw her work in an exhibition on American Impressionism, so that’s gotta mean something.  In addition, she visited Europe numerous times for artistic training, especially Paris, which was considered the center of the art world at the time, and certainly the epicenter of Impressionism.  Certainly, the visible brushstrokes and occasional departure from rigid composition denote the famous French style, but the subject matter – portraits – is rooted in traditional, formal art of the Academy.

I like to think of her work like this:  She took the traditional, stiff portrait of the past, and breathed some life, movement, and color into it.  I especially love this one below – the background has no form and is essentially pure paint strokes.  I adore Cecelia’s use of pure white and that vibrant plum/violet/purple shade in the dress!  There’s also this playfully inquisitive look in the eyes.  It takes real talent to convey this kind of youth and expression, simply with a loose arrangement of blotches of color.

Cynthia Sherwood, 1892
Cynthia Sherwood, 1892

I love this one, After the Meeting, because of the patterns.  More attention was given to the floral yellow chair and the bold striped dress than to the woman.  Even though a person is depicted here, it’s not really a portrait.  Have you ever seen people today pair a floral skirt with a striped top?  Yeah – it was even a great pairing 100 years ago…

After the Meeting, 1914

In many (but not all) of her paintings, there are additions of bright, florescent colour, almost like little electric shocks.  Sometimes, the edges of things hum with energy.  You can really see this in Dorthea in the Woods, pictured below.  The blips of ultramarine/blue/purple at first seem out of place or unnaturalistic, but the more I look at it, the more I like it.

Dorothea in the Woods, 1897
Ernesta, Cecilia Beaux (1914)
Ernesta, 1914

These last two don’t have the saturated, colorful highlights, but I do think they capture the spirit and attitude of the women perfectly.

Mrs. Larz Anderson, Cecilia Beaux (1901)
Mrs. Larz Anderson, 1901
Flora Whitney, 1916

Cecilia Beaux had one of the most successful careers as a (woman) artist, and she was extremely well-respected by the art world as a whole.  So many of her paintings were shown in the top exhibitions of Europe, a success that few women achieved at the time, unfortunately.  At least in the late 1800s, it was a common view that women could certainly make beautiful art, but it could never be as grand or majestic as the art created by men.  She even became the first woman to teach full time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  She was a professional artist through and through, and people respected her for it.

You can find lots of information about Cecilia Beaux online, and there’s even a collection of diaries, letters, drawings, and documents called the Cecilia Beaux Papers that you can still read today, although the direct scans of her handwriting are quite difficult to decipher – I recommend taking a look at the photographs on that website!   There’s also a nice list of her paintings here.

I'm a Californian in my mid-twenties who studied Art History and lived in France for 3 years. I blog honestly about my travels, share my thoughts on life, and get poetic about art and photography. I also sell prints of my photographs on Etsy.


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