Beaux, Cecilia (1855–1942)

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Beaux, Cecilia (1855–1942)

American artist who was acclaimed, during America's Gilded Age, as the greatest living "woman artist" and, in the 1920s and 1930s, as one of the 12 most influential women in America. Name variations: (nicknames) Leilie and Bo. Pronunciation: Boe. Born Eliza Cecilia Beaux on May 1, 1855, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died of coronary thrombosis at Gloucester, Massachusetts, on September 17, 1942; daughter of Jean Adolphe Beaux (a silk manufacturer) and Cecilia Kent (Leavitt) Beaux (grandmother of historianCatherine Drinker Bowen ); educated by homestudy until age 14, then attended Miss Lyman's School for Girls in Philadelphia two years; trained as a painter in Catherine Ann Drinker's studio, at Adolf Van der Whelan's art school and privately for two years with William Sartain; later on in adult life, studied in Paris at the Académie Julien, 1888–89; granted honorary LL.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1908; granted honorary M.A., Yale University, 1912; never married; no children.

Brought up by grandmother and two aunts in Philadelphia; studied painting in teens with William Sartain; awarded Mary Smith Prize from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for painting Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance which was exhibited in Paris in the official government sponsored Salon (1885); won three more annual Mary Smith awards for the best painting by a resident woman artist (1887–89); went abroad for further study, to Paris, Italy, and England (1888–89); the next few years spent working in her Philadelphia studio brought numerous honors; taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1895–1915); moved studio to New York City (1900); built Green Alley, her famous summer home in Gloucester (1905); commissioned to do three portraits of the Allied World War I leaders at the Paris Peace Conference (1919); broke hip in France (1924), which thereafter curtailed her mobility and painting career; published an autobiography, Background With Figures (1930).

Medals, prizes and honors:

Mary Smith Prize, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1885, 1887, 1891, and 1892); Philadelphia Art Club, gold medal (1893); Member Society of American Artists (1893); Dodge Prize, National Academy of Design (1893); Associé Société Nationale des Beaux Arts (1896); bronze (1896) and gold (1899) medals, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts gold medal of honor (1898) and Temple gold medal (1900); gold medal, Paris Exposition (1900); gold medal, Pan American Exposition, Buffalo (1901); First Corcoran Prize, Society of American Artists (1902); member National Academy (1903); gold medal, Universal Exposition, St. Louis (1904); Saltus gold medal, National Academy (1913); medal of honor, Panama Pacific Exposition (1915); gold medal, Art Institute of Chicago (1921); invited to paint self-portrait for Uffizi Gallery at Florence, Italy (1924); gold medal, Academy of Arts and Letters (1926); gold medal, Chi Omega (1933).


The Brighton Cats (published 1874). Paintings: Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance (private collection of Henry S. Drinker, Merion, Pennsylvania, 1883); Little Girl ([Fanny Travis Cochran ], Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1887); William R. Darwin (family collection, 1889); Rev. Matthew B. Grier (1891–92);Cynthia Sherwood (1892); Mrs. Stetson (1893); Sita and Sarita (original, Luxembourg Palace Gallery in Paris, replica Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1893–94);Ernesta Drinker with

Nurse (private collection of Henry S. Drinker, Merion, Pa., 1894); The Dreamer (Butler Art Institute, Youngstown, Ohio, 1894); Self Portrait No. 3 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1894); Reverend William H. Furness (Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, Pa., 1885); New England Woman (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1895);Mrs. Alexander Biddle (family collection, 1897); Mr. and Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1898); The Dancing Lesson or Dorothea and Francesca (Art Institute of Chicago, 1899–1900);Mrs. Alexander Sedgwick and Christina (Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield,Mass., 1900–01);Bertha Vaughan (Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass., 1901);Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt with her daughter Ethel (Ethel Roosevelt family, 1901); Man with the Cat ([Dr. Henry S. Drinker], National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1902); After the Meeting (Toledo Art Museum, 1914); A Girl in White: Ernesta (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1914); Cardinal Mercier (1919); Admiral Sir David Beatty, Lord Beatty (1919); Georges Clemenceau (National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1920); Self-Portrait No. 4 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, 1925);Mrs. Marcel Kahler (1925–26); Dressing Dolls (private collection of Henry S. Drinker, Merion, Pa., 1928).

Although artist John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) ended his career painting murals, in the late 1880s he was the most sought after portrait painter in England and the United States. However, a Philadelphia woman, who was born the year before Sargent, enjoyed a longer career and one that was entirely devoted to portraiture. Sargent's contemporary female rival was the remarkable and gifted artist Cecilia Beaux. While analyzing a display of both their paintings, noted art critic Bernard Berenson was overheard commenting that Sargent had signed his best paintings "Cecilia Beaux." It was, of course, an ironic way of flattering Beaux, a lesser-known female artist, whose technique and style of painting were similar to Sargent's but the quality of whose work Berenson quite boldly judged as being superior. Despite her uncommon ability to earn a comfortable living for herself from painting commissions alone and the dozens of prizes and gold medals that Beaux received during her lifetime, her portraits were, nevertheless, ignored by art critics for the next 40 years.

Jean Adolph Beaux, a French Huguenot silk manufacturer, emigrated from Avignon in southern France around 1850 to start a business in Philadelphia. He soon met and married Cecilia Kent Leavitt who belonged to a culturally refined, socially well-connected New York textile family—the John Wheeler Leavitts. Unfortunately, his wife's family had recently lost most of their wealth. The couple had three daughters, but the death in infancy of the oldest was followed by that of the wife 12 days after the youngest was born. Left alone with their grief-stricken father whose own business was then failing, infant Cecilia and two-year old Ernesta were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, an industrious and frugal Connecticut woman of Puritan descent. Being unable to care for his family as he wished, Jean Beaux returned to France at some point, visiting so rarely that when he did, his two daughters regarded him as a "foreigner" with peculiar manners. Nevertheless, the Leavitt family brought up the girls to be as proud of their French ancestry as of their English descent.

The extended family with whom Cecilia Beaux lived for the next 45 years moved from New York after Grandfather Leavitt's death to West Philadelphia to be near other relatives and friends. Also living in her grandmother's home were her two aunts, Eliza and Emily Leavitt . After Aunt Emily's marriage to William Foster Biddle, he too joined Grandmother Leavitt's household. "Leilie," as Cecilia Beaux was called at home to distinguish her from her late mother, was sheltered inside this predominantly female family circle and educated through home study until she was 14. Their stubborn Puritan and Quaker values were instilled in her early. She later recalled instructing one of her china dolls, whom she imagined were married women, to embrace grandmother's passion for completing whatever tasks she started.

Drinker, Ernesta

Born Aimeé Ernesta Beaux around 1853; daughter of Jean Adolphe Beaux (a silk manufacturer) and Cecilia Kent (Leavitt) Beaux; sister ofCecilia Beaux ; married Henry Sturgis Drinker (brother ofCatherine Ann Drinker and president of Lehigh University).

The Leavitt's refined and intellectual lifestyle had lasting influence on the future artist. For example, as an adult she recalled all the piano playing and group singing of hymns as well as classical music. Grandmother Leavitt read great literature and poetry aloud. Aunt Eliza, a water-colorist, always carried her sketchbook wherever she went and thus provided a role model for Cecilia who soon developed keen powers of observation and a natural flair for drawing. Her artistic aunt also lovingly brushed and braided her niece's thick, straight, long brown hair and sewed the blue-eyed, pug-nosed girl's wardrobe. Her aunts tutored her in French and math, taught her how to write compositions, and encouraged her to keep a diary. Cecilia loved the stories she wrote down as her aunt dictated them, as well as the feel of holding the pen. Cecilia and Ernesta were taught to recite the Calvinist Shorter Catechism and Bible verses. The family included the little girls in visits to public art galleries and private collections, giving them their first exposure

to things European. In 1869, they decided to send their 14-year-old to Miss Lyman's School for Girls on South Broad Street, an exclusive, ungraded, "finishing" school, for two winters. Thus, by the time Beaux started school, she was already immersed in high culture.

Going to school with other girls further broadened Beaux's horizon. For the first time, she was outside the family, seeing new, diverse characters. She described school as spectacle: "a drama of unforgettable vividness." Having completed her general education at 16, she prepared to support herself until she chose to marry.

The family decided to let her have her way, to study drawing. The one male figure in her immediate family, William Biddle, assumed a key role in directing and financing his niece's preparation from this point on and chose traditional methods to protect her from the sort of eccentric art students who attended Thomas Eakins' classes at the Pennsylvania Academy. He decided that Beaux would begin by taking lessons from his cousin, Catherine Ann Drinker , at a studio on Independence Square. After spending about a year at Drinker's studio, and now 17, Beaux continued at Adolf Van der Whelan's Art School. The Dutch Realist painter taught her linear and aerial perspective and how to draw shadows and light by practicing with plaster shapes. Then she studied skull bones to learn the skeletal structure of the head, something that later would affect her portraiture. When Whelan turned the school over to Catherine Drinker, she in turn gave Cecilia Beaux her own position as drawing teacher at Miss Sanford's School. At this time, Beaux also started to give private drawing lessons herself. While she thus started to make some of her own money, she still never dreamed of someday becoming a great "artist."

As her professional career took off, Beaux's uncle decided to provide further opportunities. He arranged to take her to a lithography studio where she was shown how to carve the stone used for the lithographic process. The lithographer gave her fossils as models to inversely carve into the stones, which were eventually processed into a government geological volume. From these attempts to master the art of lithography, she quickly learned to handle volume through meticulous shading. When her lithograph of an actress' head was accepted for a magazine advertisement, she already had several career choices. Beaux published another charming lithograph of the heads of two sleepy cats in 1874.

Next, she enrolled in a short course on painting china. Although she later scorned the technique of over-glaze painting as an "ignoble art," she became an overnight success at painting portraits of children on plates, which were done by mail-order from photos. Because she immediately received so many orders—mothers of friends purchased these plates from as far away as California—Beaux realized that there was nothing mothers in those days wouldn't do to get portraits of their children.

Drinker, Catherine Ann (1841–1922)

American painter. Name variations: Kate; Katherine Ann Janvier. Born Catherine Ann Drinker in 1841; died in 1922; daughter of Sandwith Drinker (a sea captain in the East India trade) and Susan Drinker; aunt of historian Catherine Drinker Bowen; studied art at the Maryland Institute with Dutch painter Adolf van der Whelan, and with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy; married Thomas Allibone Janvier, in 1878.

The first woman permitted to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy, Catherine Ann Drinker was a traditional painter who was fond of historical and Biblical subjects. She was the daughter of Susan and Sandwith Drinker, a sea captain, and spent her childhood in Hong Kong. Following Sandwith Drinker's death in Macao in 1857, the Drinker family boarded the ship Storm King to return to Baltimore. It is said that during the voyage home, when the captain was discovered to have depleted the rum kegs, Catherine Ann, trained by her father, took over the navigation.

In 1857, after Susan Drinker's death, Catherine took over her mother's girls' school and the support of her sister, grandmother, and her brother Henry Sturgis Drinker. After a term studying art at the Maryland Institute, she moved the family to Pennsylvania and began to study under Adolf van der Whelan, then Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy. In 1880, Catherine was awarded the academy's Mary Smith Prize for her painting The Guitar Player. That same year, she published her book Practical Ceramics for Students.

"Kate Drinker's clothes were all wrong," wrote her niece Catherine Drinker Bowen in Family Portrait (Little, Brown, 1970). "No matter how styles changed, Kate remained one lap behind. When women wore plain sailor hats, hers had flowers; if their stockings were beige, hers stayed black." At age 37, Drinker married Thomas Janvier, and together the couple traveled throughout the world. Much of their time was spent in Provence, France, where Drinker earned recognition for her English translations of romantic novels of Provençale.

Amid all this commercial artistry, Beaux carried on an active social life, which included many male friends and prospective suitors. Her family, however, never pushed her into marrying any of them, and she became increasingly dedicated to her career. When she started to study for two more years at a higher level with William Sartain, a New York artist who came to Philadelphia to give private classes, she turned a very sharp corner, she recalled in her autobiography, "into a new world which was to be continuously mine." Sartain had studied in Munich; consequently, he introduced her to the style of that Realistic school of painting that used a dark palette. Conquering Sartain's ideal of merging exact likeness with individual personality required Beaux's utmost perception and understanding; but, by making this ideal her own, she transformed herself forever from being merely an expert draftswoman into a genuine "artist," in the most eloquent sense of the term.

After Sartain's classes ended, Beaux rented a spacious studio of her own in downtown Philadelphia. For several years, she worked there independently, free from family distractions and housework, concentrating for several hours a day. Finally she was inspired to try a large canvass. This time her family supported her effort by lending furniture and a carpet for the background, and, more important, by enabling her sister Ernesta and son to be the sitters. In 1885, when the painting, entitled Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance (The Last Days of Childhood), was entered in an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, it won the Mary Smith Award for the best painting by a resident woman artist. The following year, a friend took the canvass to Paris and successfully entered it in the Salon of 1887. It was the first of over 200 oil portraits Beaux was to complete either of relatives or as commissions.

Bernard Berenson">

Ah, yes, I see! Some Sargents. The ordinary ones are signed John Sargent, the best are signed Cecilia Beaux.

—Bernard Berenson

In the 1880s and '90s, during the so-called "Gilded Age," when America's industrial aristocracy splurged on lavish architecture, fashions, and portraits of their family as evidence of their new wealth and power, American artists went abroad to complete their study. Although well established and already in her 30s, Beaux decided to make the first of many voyages to Paris to study for two winters at the Académie Julien, copying paintings of the Old Masters at the Louvre. Once there, she admired Rubens, Memling, and Mabuse; of them, she later wrote, "These men were not reformers. Theirs was the earnest desire toward perfection. Not to break down, but to build." This opinion thereafter personified her own philosophy of art.

Back in Philadelphia from 1895 to 1915, Beaux taught Drawing and Painting from the Head at the Pennsylvania Academy, commuting from New York where she had moved after her grandmother's death in 1892 led to complete dispersal of the Leavitt family. The Paris Salon of 1896 included six more of her portraits, which she went to see exhibited. She visited the leader of the Impressionist movement, Claude Monet (whose work she admired but thought lesser artists ought not copy) at his country home, Giverny, and was elected to membership in the Société des Beaux Arts. She was acclaimed as the greatest living "woman painter," a category she ridiculed in her lectures by saying that that would be flattering when the category of "man painter" also existed.

By now she had become such an international celebrity as a society painter that she became independent enough to be artistically selective. In fact, she has been quoted as saying, "It doesn't pay to paint everybody." She did paint first lady of the United States, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt (Edith ) and her daughter Ethel in the Red Room of the White House, and lunched beside the president at his vacation home. She also knew her famous contemporaries in the international world of art: Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt , and Childe Hassam. In 1905, Beaux designed and built a summer home, Green Alley, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where every summer and fall she painted in her studio as well as entertained renowned intellectuals, family members, and close friends. Visitors described her as a handsome, witty, outspoken, romantic woman who liked male companionship but whose spirit would not be conquered; one who was gifted with originality and hated imitation but also showed determination, worked tirelessly standing at her easel, and slowly struggled with her canvasses to depict the spirituality of her artistic vision.

In 1919, Cecilia Beaux was thrilled to be chosen by the U.S. War Portraits Commission to do three portraits of Allied leaders who had cooperated to win the First World War. These were destined to be hung in the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The city of San Francisco paid Beaux $25,000 for portraits from life of: (1) the British Admiral Sir David Beatty, who had played a significant role in the Battle of Jutland on May 31 and June 1, 1916; (2) Désiré Joseph, Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, a scholar who became an advocate for his invaded neutral country and (3) "The Tiger" Georges Clemenceau, a physician, journalist, and novelist who had been reappointed as premier of France in 1917. Beaux watched from the gallery and sketched as Clemenceau read the text of the treaty to the French National Assembly before its ratification, and this was how she painted him in 1920.

The War Portraits Project was the capstone to her fabulous career and life. In 1923, she was named one of America's greatest living women by the League of Women Voters. The following summer, while in Paris, Beaux broke her hip, but she refused recommended surgery so that it never healed properly. Forever afterward walking on crutches and with the onset of bursitis, arthritis, and cataracts, her productivity was slowed. As she became more nostalgic in her advanced years, her last significant painting, done in 1928, was of herself as a child dressing her dolls. With restricted mobility, she redirected most of her energy toward writing her autobiography, Background with Figures (1930). The next year, Good Housekeeping magazine awarded her the distinction of being one of America's 12 most influential women. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt pinned Chi Omega Sorority's National Achievement Gold Medal on her in 1933. Beaux was honored as "the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world." Then in 1935–36, when she was 80, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, exhibited the largest solo show of her work (62 items) held in her lifetime. Beaux died September 17, 1942, at age 87, at Green Alley and was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, not far from the family home.

For about 40 years thereafter, Cecilia Beaux was neglected as an artist. The American Renaissance of the Gilded Age of expansion and power had been replaced following World War I by the economically austere times of the Great Depression, both in the U.S. and Europe. Moreover, advances in camera technology and affordability led to the replacement of portraiture by photography. Even within painting, the popularity of Realism had been superseded by that of Impressionism, a movement that had little effect on Beaux's society portraits—where a flattering likeness was what customers expected—although it more greatly affected her experimental works portraying members of her family. And Impressionism, in turn, was eclipsed by Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, styles so unconducive to portraiture that patronage shifted elsewhere. Despite the variety and spontaneity within her work, Beaux's devotion to the academic tradition and to portraiture alone never wavered. As Frank H. Goodyear, Jr., noted, "Her art was more like a person than anything else."


Barnard, Susan B. "Cecilia Beaux rediscovered: an annotated bibliography with introductory essay," in Bulletin of Bibliography. Vol. 45. March 1988, pp. 3–7.

Beaux, Cecilia. Background with Figures. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1930.

——. Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1974.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Family Portrait. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1970.

"Cecilia Beaux" (obituary). The New York Times. September 18, 1942, p. 21.

Cortissoz, Royal. A Catalogue of an Exhibition of Paintings by Cecilia Beaux. NY: American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1935.

Drinker, Henry S. The Paintings and Drawings of Cecilia Beaux. Philadelphia, PA: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1955.

Goodyear, Frank H., Jr. and Elizabeth Bailey. Cecilia Beaux: Portrait of an Artist. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1974.

Oakley, Thornton. Cecilia Beaux. Philadelphia, PA: Howard Biddle Printing, 1943.

Platt Frederick. "The War Portraits," in Antiques. Vol. 126, 1984, pp. 142-53.

Tappert, Tara Leigh. Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

suggested reading:

Drinker, Henry S. History of the Drinker Family. Merion, PA: private printing, 1961.

Hill, Frederick D. "Cecilia Beaux, the Grande Dame of American Portraiture," in Antiques. January 1974, pp. 160–68.

McKibbon, David. Sargent's Boston. Boston, MA: Museum of Fine Arts, 1956.

Morris, Harrison S. Confessions in Art. NY: Sears Publishing, 1930.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition. Philadelphia, PA: 1955.

Tappert, Tara Leigh. "Cecilia Beaux: A Career as a Portraitist," in Women's Studies. Vol. 14, no. 4, 1988, pp. 389-411.

Weinberg, H. Barbara, Doreen Bolgar, and David Park Curry. American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.

Whipple, Barbara. "The Eloquence of Cecilia Beaux," in American Artist. Vol. 38, September 1974, pp. 41–51, 80–85.


The Cecilia Beaux Papers and the Carnegie Institute Papers at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; the Catherine Drinker Bowen Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress; and the George Dudley Seymour Papers in Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut.

June K. Burton , author, editor, and historian emeritus, Akron, Ohio

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Beaux, Cecilia (1855–1942)

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