Style: Portrait, Realist
Background: Cecilia Beaux was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 1, 1855. She was a near contemporary of better-known American artist Mary Cassatt and also received her training in Philadelphia and France. Her sympathetic renderings of American ruling class made her one of the most successful portrait painters of her era.
Education: At age 16, Beaux began art lessons with a relative, Catharine Ann Drinker, an accomplished artist who had her own studio and a going clientele. Drinker became Beaux’s role model, and she continued lessons with Drinker for a year. She then studied for two years with the painter Francis Adolf Van der Wielen, who offered lessons in perspective and drawing from casts during the time that the new Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was under construction. Given the bias of the Victorian age, female students were denied direct study in anatomy and could not attend drawing classes with live models (who were often prostitutes) until a decade later
At 18, Beaux was appointed drawing teacher at Miss Sanford’s School, taking over Drinker’s post. She also gave private art lessons, and produced decorative art and small portraits. Her own studies were mostly self-directed.
Beaux began attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1876, then under the dynamic influence of Thomas Eakins, whose great work The Gross Clinic had “horrified Philadelphia Exhibition-goers as a gory spectacle” at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
At 32, despite her clear success in Philadelphia, Beaux decided that she still needed to advance her skills. She left for Paris with cousin May Whitlock, forsaking several suitors and overcoming the objections of her family. There she trained at the Academie Julian, the largest art school in Paris, and at the Academie Colarossi, receiving weekly critiques from established masters like Tony Robert-Fleury and William Adolphe Bouguereau.
Achievements: Cecilia Beaux was the first female instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her later life was filled with honors. In 1930 she was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters; in 1933 came membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which two years later organized the first major retrospective of her work. Also in 1933 Eleanor Roosevelt honored Beaux as “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world”. In 1942 The National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded her a gold medal for lifetime achievement.