Given the strong, even violent, responses to some paintings, it’s perhaps surprising that more painters haven’t come to violent ends. Two who may have been murdered are Masaccio and Caravaggio.
Masaccio left Florence for Rome, where it’s thought he may have been expected to join his friend and colleague Masolino painting frescoes in the Basilica di San Clemente. But he simply vanished, and is rumoured to have been poisoned by a jealous rival in 1428. Nearly two centuries later, Caravaggio also died in mysterious circumstances when he was on his way back to Rome from the island of Malta.
This weekend I look at a far more recent artist who, quite innocently, may have come close to being murdered by a jealous husband. Not only that, but he had painted the man’s wife nearly naked when she was under-age.
Among the friends and colleagues of William Merritt Chase was the talented American painter James Carroll Beckwith (1852–1917), in his day well-received and famous, but today almost forgotten. He 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 trained in France 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.
Carolus-Duran had been commissioned to paint this startling ceiling decoration for the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris, which shows The Glorification of Maria de’ Medici (1878). She had been the second wife of King Henry IV of France, and lived from 1575-1642. A noted patron of the arts, the Palais du Luxembourg had been built and furnished for her, with Rubens as her court painter, and his famous cycle of paintings there one of his greatest commissions.
John Singer Sargent’s famous Portrait of Carolus-Duran (1879) is not only his personal tribute to this great teacher, but when it was shown at the Salon proved the foundation of Sargent’s own career as a portraitist.
Unlike Sargent, who went on to his successful career in Paris and London, Beckwith then returned to be appointed a professor at the Art Students League in New York in 1878, where he painted William Merritt Chase’s portrait.
Beckwith painted Chase in 1881-82, when Chase was in his early thirties. His patent leather shoes appear quite incongruous, and his left hand looks far older than his face.
Although Beckwith was committed to teaching in New York, his heart and many of his paintings remained in France. 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 continued to exhibit in Paris, where he won awards at the Salon and Exposition Universelle in 1889, 1890, and again in 1899.
He 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, who seems to have vanished without trace.
Sylvan Toilette (1898) is a more highly-finished work which may have been intended as a gentle mythical image for exhibition.
Then, just after the world had entered the twentieth century, Beckwith painted a young model who was soon to become far more famous than him.
Although he was fast approaching his fifties, long married, and if anything rather staid, his Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit (c 1901) was quite out of character. Her loosely wrapped kimono appears as if it’s just about to fall off altogether, which is all a bit tacky given that at the time she was no older than seventeen, and could have been as young as fourteen. The young Miss Nesbit was going to prove a lot of trouble.