There were many very talented and successful painters in the US during William Merritt Chase’s career. Among his friends and colleagues was James Carroll Beckwith (1852–1917): in his day as well-received and famous, but today almost unknown. Beckwith also – quite innocently – may have come close to being murdered.
Carroll Beckwith was born in Hannibal, Missouri, but brought up in Chicago, where he started his training at the Chicago Academy of Design in 1868. After the great fire of 1871, he transferred to the National Academy of Design in New York, then he studied in Paris from 1873-78.
In Paris, he studied drawing with Adolphe Yvon at the École des Beaux-Arts, and painting with Carolus Duran. There he met and befriended John Singer Sargent (also a pupil of Carolus Duran at the time), and the pair of them assisted their master with a ceiling mural in the Palais du Luxembourg in 1877.
He then returned to the US, where he was appointed a professor at the Art Students League in New York in 1878, and in 1881-2 he painted William Merritt Chase’s portrait.
Normandy Girl (c 1883) appears to have been painted during the harvest in Normandy, France, at a time when Beckwith was teaching in New York.
Although this painting appears to have the title of Greece (1887), it more likely shows a tree-lined street in the US.
Beckwith won awards at the Paris Salon, Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, 1890, and again in 1899.
Beckwith was best known for his many portraits. Although not his most famous, his Portrait of Mark Twain (1890) is of particular interest, as it shows the hugely popular American writer, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), at a time when he was suffering serious financial troubles because of problems in his businesses.
His portraits of women often showed them sewing against a rural landscape background, as in his Lady Sewing (c 1893).
He returned to Paris in 1893 to paint murals for several months.
Nita (1897) apparently shows a woman named Nita Sewell.
Sylvan Toilette (1898) is a more highly-finished work which may have been intended as a gentle mythical image for exhibition.
By 1900, Beckwith was approaching his fifties, long-married, and if anything rather staid. This was almost certainly a good thing, when he painted this almost nude Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit (c 1901), whose loosely-wrapped kimono was just about to fall off altogether.
This shows one of the first ‘supermodels’ whose career was professionally promoted. Nesbit (1884-1967) started modelling for artists when she was only 14 years old. With her family in dire financial straits when they moved to Philadelphia in 1900, her mother contacted Beckwith and encouraged him to employ her as a model. At this time, Beckwith’s major patron was the wealthy John Jacob Astor (who later died in the Titanic), and Mrs Nesbit was clearly chasing his money.
Beckwith’s (nearly) nude portrait of the young woman, who was no older that 17 at the time and could have been as young as 14 (her mother had a strange flexibility with her year of birth), helped launch her modelling career. Frederick Stuart Church (no relative of the landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church) also painted her skimpily clad, despite Nesbit’s mother claiming that she never allowed her daughter to pose “in the altogether”.
By 1905, her face had been on most of the popular magazines of the day, was in many adverts, and she had become one of Charles Dana Gibson’s ‘Gibson Girls’. She also worked as a chorus girl on Broadway from 1901, the year that she first met the acclaimed architect Stanford White. She later accused White of drugging and raping her, and following marriage, her husband, Harry Kendall Thaw, shot White dead during a stage show in the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden. Beckwith must have been grateful that the insanely jealous Thaw had never taken exception to this painting.
Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit (1901) may have been more the sort of painting that the model’s mother had in mind, but sweet though it is, it would hardly have launched her daughter’s career.
In 1907, he seems to have been in Europe, where he painted his late portrait of the Spanish dancer Carmencita (1907).
The black veil worn by the woman in his Lost in Thought (Phoebe at Onteora) (1908) implies that this resident of Onteora, in the Hudson Valley, New York State, had recently lost her husband.
Mother and Child (c 1910) is a delightful double portrait in an unusually crisp realist style for Beckwith.
The title of his New Hamburg Garden (c 1910) is another puzzle, as New Hamburg was most probably a rural township in Ontario, Canada, at the time, and Beckwith lived in Italy from 1910-14.
The Palace of the Popes and Pont d’Avignon (1911) shows the vast buildings of the Papal Palace in Avignon, France, one of the largest mediaeval Gothic structures in Europe. It was last used as a papal palace in 1370.
Deciphering the references in his richly colourful and symbolic L’Empereur (The Emperor) (1912) is also not easy. As he was in Italy then, the statue – which holds aloft the eagle of the Roman Empire – may be that of a Roman Emperor, although the initial N on its plinth more probably refers to Napoleon, whose army appears massing with its artillery in the clouds.
Betty Hazard (1914) was most probably painted on his return to the US in 1914, as war broke out in Europe.
Beckwith died suddenly in 1917, in New York City. Evelyn Nesbit had just started her short career as a silent movie actress. Harry Kendall Thaw, who had murdered Stanford White on 25 June 1906, was judged sane and released from custody in 1915.