Search the Collections

Cecilia Beaux
Nationality: 
american
Gender: 
Female
Birth Date: 
1855
Birth Place: 
Philadelphia, Pa.
Death Date: 
1942
Death Place: 
Gloucester, Mass.
One of America’s leading painters during the last decade of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, Cecilia Beaux portrayed the social elite of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Born in Philadelphia in 1855, her mother died from complications of childbirth twelve days after Beaux was born and her grief-stricken father returned to his French homeland, leaving her and her sister in the custody of her maternal grandmother. Although her father returned to Philadelphia for four years in 1857 and again in 1872, Beaux was raised by her grandmother and her two aunts. After showing a talent for drawing, Beaux studied with Catherine Anne Drinker (1841-1922) and later at the school run by Francis Adolf van der Wielen (1847-?). In 1874 Beaux began working as a drawing instructor and drew illustrations for a Philadelphia publisher. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in the late 1870s, and earned money by painting children’s portraits on porcelain. From 1881 to 1883 she attended a women’s painting class organized by a friend and advised by William Sartain (1843-1924), who traveled to Philadelphia from New York City to critique their works. Beaux’s first major painting was Les derniers jours d’enfance (1883-1885, The Last Days of Infancy, PAFA), a double portrait of her sister and her nephew, done under Sartain’s supervision. It was exhibited in 1885 in the American Art Association show in New York City and in PAFA’s annual exhibition, where it won the Mary Smith prize for the best work by a woman from Philadelphia. A friend took the painting to Paris in 1887 where it was accepted for exhibition in the Salon and received critical praise. After receiving commissions for several portraits in Philadelphia and the Mary Smith Prize for a portrait exhibited at the 1887 PAFA exhibition, Beaux went to Paris in 1888 with her cousin Mary Ursula Whitlock (1860-1944) to study at the Académie Julian under William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) and Tony Robert-Fleury (1837-1911). The two cousins spent that summer at the American art colony in Concarneaux, Brittany, where Beaux worked with the American painters Alexander Harrison (1853-1930) and Charles Augustus C. “Shorty” Lasar (1856-1936). Back in Paris after a fall trip to Italy, Beaux studied with Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (1845-1902) and took classes at the Académie Colarossi. Beaux copied Old Master works in the Louvre and other European museums, visited friends in England and returned to Philadelphia in 1889. She would make seven more trips to France. Beaux soon became a sought-after portrait painter in Philadelphia. She was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1894 and a full member in 1902. She was appointed as the first woman to be a full-time instructor at PAFA in 1895, a position she held for twenty years. She exhibited six paintings in the 1896 Salon de Champs de Mars in Paris, which led to a membership in the French Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Her first large solo show, exhibited in 1897 at the St. Botolph Club in Boston and the American Art Galleries in New York showed 27 of her works. Several of her paintings won multiple honors, such as Mother and Daughter (1898, PAFA), which won gold medals at four international exhibitions, including the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. She established her first New York City studio in 1899. Beaux was commissioned to paint the double portrait of Edith Carow Roosevelt (1861-1948, the wife of the President) and her daughter Ethel (1891-1977) in 1901. From 1905 Beaux spent summers in a house she built in Gloucester, Massachusetts and most winters in New York City, and continued to paint portraits. Beaux received seven solo exhibitions from 1903 to 1917. She received honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale and gold medals from the Art Institute of Chicago, PAFA and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She exhibited seven works at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and received a Medal of Honor. In 1919 Beaux was commissioned by the National Art Committee to paint the portraits of three European war heroes, including Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) of France. Beaux fell and broke her hip in Paris in 1924; the injury did not heal properly and she had difficulty standing, limiting her ability to paint. However, she did complete the commission for a self-portrait from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Despite limitations on her mobility, she lectured, traveled and wrote an autobiography, Background with Figures (1930). Beaux became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1933, which held an exhibition of 62 of her works in 1935-36. She died at her home in Gloucester in 1942. (TNB 11/2014) Selected bibliography: Carter, Alice A. Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2005. Yount, Sylvia, et al. Cecilia Beaux: American Figure Painter. Exhibition catalog. Atlanta: High Museum of Art; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.