Having established herself as the leading portrait painter to the wealthy and influential on the East Coast, Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942) could only continue to rise in status.
Man with a Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) (1898) is a portrait of Beaux’s brother-in-law, who at this time was a railroad executive, and went on to become President of Lehigh University. Here, the cat was probably a sign, together with its loose brushwork, that this was intended as a personal, rather than corporate, portrait – a painting to adorn the home, not the boardroom.
Mother and Daughter (Mrs. Clement Acton Griscom and Frances C. Griscom) (1898) shows the family of Clement Griscom (1841-1912), a prominent shipping magnate and Quaker.
In 1899, William Merritt Chase himself presented Beaux with a gold medal from the Carnegie Institute. He poured lavish praise on her, saying that “Miss Beaux is not only the greatest living woman painter, but the best that has ever lived. Miss Beaux has done away entirely with sex in art.” At that time, sex meant gender, of course.
Bertha Hallowell Vaughan (1901), who commissioned this portrait, lived from 1866-1948, and was a resident of and benefactor to Hallowell in Maine. Hallowell is named for Benjamin Hallowell, an ancestor of Bertha Vaughan, Boston merchant, and one of the Kennebec Proprietors, who held land which had originally been granted to the Plymouth Company by the British monarch in the 1620s. Her family home in Hallowell is now designated a Historic Homestead.
In 1902, Beaux was honoured to be invited to the White House, to paint a double portrait of the President’s wife and daughter, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Daughter Ethel (1902). This shows President Theodore Roosevelt’s second wife Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt (1861-1948), and their daughter Ethel Carow Roosevelt (1891-1977), who was then about eleven years old. Thirty years later Eleanor Roosevelt (who was first cousin to Ethel) stated that Beaux was “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world”. That year Beaux became a member of the National Academy of Design.
She seems to have painted a few landscapes again, perhaps experimenting with plein air techniques in her leisure; these do not appear to be well-documented. Half-Tide, Annisquam River (c 1905) shows the tidal estuary which connects Annisquam Harbour to Gloucester Harbour, Massachusetts.
She increasingly sought solace from the pressures of New York, living among her friends and clients in an affluent neighbourhood. However, the rise of urban and social themes in art, and the altogether rougher styles of Robert Henri and the Ashcan School, saw taste changing from the more traditional approach she had espoused, together with the likes of William Merritt Chase.
Beaux’s wonderful portrait of Mrs. Stedman Buttrick and Son John (1909) shows the latest member of this Concord, Massachusetts family, and his doting mother.
This portrait of Bessie Vance Brooks (1911) shows a fellow artist and future patron of the arts. Brooks studied art at the Clara Conway Institute in Memphis, Tennessee, and later married Samuel Hamilton Brooks, who died the year after this painting was made. Her husband’s estate established the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, which was dedicated by Bessie Brooks in 1916. She then moved to Florida, where she died in 1943.
In 1912, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, held a major solo show of her work, but the following year tastes began to shift more violently, with the (in)famous Armory Show in New York.
After the Meeting (1914) has all the makings of a ‘problem picture’. The woman in the foreground is in discussion with an unseen companion to the left and beside the viewer. Another woman in the distance appears to be in the company of a young girl, and is talking at a counter. We are invited to speculate what might be happening, what interactions there have been, and who the meeting might have been with.
Beaux’s portrait of the French statesman Georges Clemenceau (1920) shows him in his later years – he is nearly eighty here. He had been Prime Minister of France during the First World War, and had only recently resigned from that post and from politics more generally, and was a good friend of Claude Monet.
In 1924, Beaux fell when walking in Paris, and broke her hip. Then nearly 70, this accident left her crippled for the rest of her life, and inevitably slowed her painting. She was invited to paint her Self Portrait (1925) for the Uffizi’s unique Medici Collection.
Dressing Dolls (1928) is one of her later works, harking back to the many wonderful portraits which she had made of children, and perhaps revisiting some of her own childhood memories.
During the 1930s, she was the recipient of a steady stream of honours reflecting her lifetime achievement, culminating in the award of a gold medal by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, in 1942. Later that year, she died in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Cecilia Beaux has not been forgotten, as so many women artists of that era have been. But in her day, her work was matched against John Singer Sargent’s. Although she could not compete with him in other genres, she often seemed to have the upper hand when it came to portraits. Perhaps now that Sargent has been ‘rehabilitated’, it is time to celebrate the superb portraits painted by his rival, Cecilia Beaux.