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by N.F. Karlins
"Cecilia Beaux, American Figure Painter," Feb. 2-Apr. 13, 2008, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102

The American figure painter Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) is not as well-known a portraitist as her contemporaries Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. But based on her retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, "Cecilia Beaux, American Figure Painter," she certainly deserves to be.

Beaux’s terrific portraits of children are real stand-outs, making manifest all the insecurities and helplessness yet innocence and curiosity of children. One masterpiece is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Ernesta (Child with Nurse)  (1894), with its child’s-eye view of the world, fresh vigorous brushstrokes, and radiant light.

Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was born in Philadelphia, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy, and eventually became its first female faculty member. Despite her lack of formal education, she studied hard to learn to draw and paint, taking drawing lessons from her aunt as early as age eight and studying locally while avoiding Eakins, whom she feared might dominate her. She was always a loner.

Beaux completed her first important oil in 1885, when she was already aged 30. In that year she made her professional debut with the painting Les deniers jours d’enfance (The Last Days of Infancy), and got more good notices when it was shown at the Paris Salon two years later. She never looked back.

The painting shows her older sister with her little boy. Unlike Whistler’s Mother, on which it is based, the two subjects are not shown in profile, as if for the ages. Rather, the mother looks down at the child whom she holds sprawling in her lap, and the child looks not at her but elsewhere, as if tolerating the parental embrace while plotting his escape. The painting captures the mixed emotions both experience on the cusp of the child’s separation from his mother.

After a trip to Paris for study and visits to the Continent and England, Beaux turned out more high-key works under the influence of the Impressionists. Some were done on commission; some were of friends and family. Her sister’s husband, whom Beaux had once refused to marry, is shown as tamed as his cat in Man with a Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) (1898). Beaux was great at combining psychological insight with a chic likeness that could distract attention from or hide the truths she’d uncovered.

Cecilia Beaux was anxious about a portrait of her cousin and her black cat, Sita and Sarita (1893), in which the placement of the woman’s hand has recently been likened to that of the courtesan in Manet’s Olympia. Whether one buys that analysis or not, the sexy undercurrent of the picture is certainly there. Beaux needn’t have worried, because in her day the suggestion of sensuality (in the portrayal of a woman caressing a cat) was overlooked by commentators or, at least, it wasn’t mentioned. The portrait was rightly admired for its stylish verve.

Good-looking and personable with clients, Beaux got to know her sitters very well, including many affluent and famous ones, even when they weren’t friends initially. She was asked to do a drawing of Teddy Roosevelt for a magazine. Although the charcoal wasn’t used, it resulted in a commission to paint Mrs. Roosevelt. Her daughter was nearby, and Beaux turned it into a double-portrait, Mrs. Roosevelt with Her Daughter Ethel (1902).

Having won many awards, Cecilia Beaux was once considered a national treasure. William Merritt Chase called her "not only the greatest living woman painter, but the best that has ever lived." While sexist, the comment still stands as a testament to her acclaim during her lifetime. With this retrospective, perhaps her eagle-eyed portraits will be given their due again.

"Cecilia Beaux, American Figure Painter" was organized by Sylvia Yount, curator of American art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and former Pennsylvania Academy curator. The show premiered at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and subsequently appeared at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.