The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

September 7, 2016

September 7, 1942

We read of
Cecilia Beaux (May 1, 1855 to September 7, 1942) that her

paintings ... were favorably compared with those of John Singer Sargent.

Born to Cecilia Kent Leavitt and Jean-Adolphe Beaux, the artist’s early life was shaped by her mother's death, just 12 days after her birth. Beaux’s father returned to France, leaving Beaux and her older sister, Aimée, to be raised by relatives. Beaux’s early interest in art was encouraged at home and school.

By age 18, Beaux was earning her living through commercial art, making lithographs and painting on china while studying in Philadelphia. She completed her first medal-winning portrait in 1884. In 1888, after rejecting several marriage proposals, Beaux decided to devote herself to portraiture and studied in Europe for 19 months.

Back in Philadelphia, Beaux painted prominent writers, politicians, and other artists. For many years, she taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Beaux’s pictures were widely exhibited in the United States, as well as in Paris and London. She moved to New York in 1898 and also built a summer house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which became a popular stopping point for her distinguished clientele.

Britannica picks up the story:

After moving to New York in 1900, she received a series of important commissions, including portraits of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and her daughter Ethel, Mary Adelaide Nutting (for the Johns Hopkins Hospital), Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Richard Watson Gilder, and, for the National Art Committee’s project on World War I leaders, Admiral Lord David Beatty, Georges Clémenceau, and Cardinal Mercier. Following an injury in 1924 she painted little. In 1930 she published an autobiography entitled Background with Figures. She was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1933...

Wapo had a writeup on one particular portrait Beaux did. We excerpt their article about this portrait, titled "Sita and Sarita."

...Cecilia Beaux, [was] born into genteel Philadelphia society in 1855 ...She ... sometimes fell in love with much, much younger men and gave up the traditional woman's role to have more time to paint. (When a niece once had a miscarriage in Aunt Cecilia's country house, the young lady got herself to the hospital. It wouldn't have done to bother auntie at her easel, she said.) Beaux, who never married or had children, was a passionate, ambitious, committed professional in an age and culture in which such determination was deemed unladylike.

In the years to either side of 1900, she painted some of the most skillful portraits of this country's ruling class. For a while, Beaux counted as a substantial rival to both John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. ...There's only one suggestion of a meeting between Beaux and Cassatt, who were both from good Philadelphia families: In a catty passage in a letter, Cassatt mentioned having made the "mistake" of trying to talk art with Beaux. ...

And yet, for all the high points Beaux could reach, her overall career doesn't add up to as much as you'd think. She painted so well in established modes that she never had to forge her own peculiar way of doing things. That must be why she dropped from sight ...

At her best, Beaux could handle a brush and paint as well as Sargent. When New York painter William Merritt Chase called her "not only the greatest woman painter, but the best that has ever lived," the compliment was only slightly backhanded. Her 1893 picture of her cousin Sarah Allibone Leavitt with her cat, titled "Sita and Sarita," is a stunning exercise in flamboyant technique. It has always been one of Beaux's most famous and admired works. (Here in Washington, the Corcoran has Beaux's 1921 version of the picture. It seems just about as good as her first. She gave the earlier one to the French government, which is why it came to this exhibition from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.) The bravura treatment of the woman's pallid face has a wonderful counterpoint in the velvety black fur of the pet that's on her shoulder. Their four green eyes are wittily lined up to form a row of glowing spots. Sarita's brilliantly white dress is so washed out, you see its structure as much in the texture of the paint as in any spelled-out details of its shape. In fact, there's such an unnatural bright glow to the whole scene that the picture may be meant as a study in the artificial light of gas or of the new electric bulbs -- a preoccupation for many of this era's greatest artists. In a picture such as this, where the sitter isn't posing so much as being caught unawares, Beaux is billing herself less as a skilled portraitist than as a "painter of modern life," in the avant-garde tradition of Manet and Degas.....

Cassatt also documented the world of women ....Cassatt, however, often seems to acknowledge its stresses from the inside, with the solicitude of a kind aunt. Her gaze may be unsentimental, but it's still warm, whereas Beaux's most striking pictures hint that she is an escapee from that female world and rather views it with alarm.

Maybe she never completely escaped. Looking at Beaux's whole career, there is a sense she never quite assumed the sense of power and privilege a great male painter might have had. She didn't always have the confidence to focus on her strengths or follow her own way. Sometimes she lapsed into the complacent professionalism of a society portraitist. Or else, going to the other, more arty extreme, she tried on one vanguard style for a picture or two, but didn't live with it long before moving on to another. Beaux was so skilled that she often got those trendy manners right. ...

I believe this is a portrait of our artist.

It may be a self-portrait.

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