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Cecilia Beaux's mother died two weeks after she was born. Cecilia rejected many offers of marriage, was never brushed by scandal, devoted her life almost entirely to the pursuit of excellence as a portraitist of women and children. It does not take much of an amateur psychoanalyst to surmise she was dominated by fear of pregnancy, and possibly guilt about being the cause of her mother's death. But living in the Victorian era before Lister and Pasteur could finally make childbirth safe, her sort of life was not as unusual as it is today, except for her notable thirst for achievement. An aristocratic upbringing almost certainly contained a strong condemnation of boasting and self-promotion, with the result that she is sometimes referred to as a perfect model for the graduates of Bryn Mawr College, although she did not attend there. Placing its emphasis on success for women other than or in addition to marriage, the quiet determined graduates of that college make a goal of achievement, not fame. Beaux became the finest woman portraitist in America, possibly the finest portraitist anywhere, but it was a title she earned and deserved without theatrics or egotism. Lots of eligible men found this attractive, but she retreated for her own reasons in her own graceful way.
Monica Zimmerman lectures on this and other topics at the Academy of Fine Arts and recently talked at the Right Angle Club. We are grateful to her for pointing out the influence of John Singer Sargent in opening up for Beaux the borders of grand manner portraiture, enhancing the mood and intimacy by surrounding the subject with an environment, rather than the dark gloomy plain backgrounds that are so traditional. Parenthetically, there is a marvelous example of this school of portraiture hanging in the hall of presidential portraits at the Union League. Among the collection of gloomy dark backgrounds for the other presidents, the portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush shows him on the portico of the White House and allows his luminous likeableness to shine out among the severe and stately presidential peers. Photographic portraiture has to struggle to blot out distracting background; portrait photographers like Bachrach struggle to imitate what is more natural for backgrounds in painted portraits. Except for those of the school of Cecelia Beaux.
Beaux's two-year-old niece and favorite model,
Ernesta Drinker (1892-1981)
One other feature to be noticed about the Beaux exhibit is her outstanding ability to work with white. There are white gowns, white frilly dresses, white upholstery in a profusion seen rarely because it is so difficult to do.
Go see the next exhibit of her work at the Pennsylvania Academy. It's an event that will be talked about for a long time.
Originally published: Wednesday, January 30, 2008; most-recently modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2021