Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Remarkable, Unconventional Isabella

Isabella Stewart Gardner

Isabella Stewart Gardner was born in New York City on April 14, 1840 into wealth and privilege. She learned early on that an elevated station in life couldn't stop bad things from happening. Her baby Jackie died of pneumonia in 1864 when less than one year old.

Isabella was inconsolable for nearly two years. Upon her phycisian's advice, her husband, Jack took her to Europe. She found solace in travel and returned to America a healthy, happy woman. By this time, Isabella was known as Mrs. Jack. She had abandoned hope of motherhood, and had also abandoned conventions imposed on women of her class.

Newspapers carried sketches of her strolling with lions borrowed from the zoo. She drove horses and cars at breakneck speed. She smoked cigarettes. She went to boxing matches. She had a pair of large diamonds mounted on gold springs and wore them like antennae in her hair. Once, to attract notice to a concert by an unknown musician she favored, she stood at the door of the concert hall handing out programs. A passionate athlete and sports fan, she was seen at the symphony wearing a hatband inscribed ''Oh You Red Sox.'' A dahlia was named for her, as was a peak in the Isabella mountain range in Washington.

With her money she could have been the poster girl for the idle rich. Instead, she found her passion: collecting art. In 1917, she wrote to a friend:

"Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life's work if I could."

In the late 1890s, Isabella and Jack rapidly built a world-class collection of paintings and statues, tapestries, photographs, silver, ceramics and manuscripts, and architectural elements such as doors, stained glass, and mantelpieces.

After Jack's death in 1898, she commissioned the construction of Fenway Court, a personal museum based on a Venetian palazzo, to house their vast collection. Involving herself in every detail of the design and installations, she personally supervised the placement of every last piece, and then took up residence in an apartment on the fourth floor.

When she opened her home to the public on New Year's Day in 1903, guests listened to the music of Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, gazed in wonder at the courtyard full of flowers, and viewed one of the nation's finest collections of art. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had been born.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

There was also a time when she offered the use of the third floor to John Singer Sargent as a studio. He painted several portraits at that location including the one of Mrs. Fenway and her daughter.

Isabella Inviting Guests to See Venetian Fireworks
gifted to her by Anders Zorn, 1894

In old age she practiced a miserly frugality that astounded her cold, hungry houseguests; she explained she was protecting the funds she intended to leave for the maintenance of her museum. Isabella died at Fenway Court on June 17, 1924 but she remains an ever-present force within its walls.

She ordered that all the art work must remain exactly as she arranged it. If it is moved or changed in any way, the entire collection must be sold. The museum appears much the same today as it did the day it opened.

The only changes are now the empty frames that once held a Vermeer, a Manet, three Rembrandt and five Degas works which were stolen in 1990. Two thieves dressed as police officers overpowered the guards and stole 13 works of art valued at around 300 million dollars. Despite a 5 million dollar reward, the art work has yet to be recovered, and remains the largest art heist in modern history. Is Isabella rolling over in her grave, or loving all the attention?!

To see photos of the absolutely beautiful museum that Isabella furnished to house her fabulous painting collection, see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Facebook page or go to their site at

Information from a variety of sources including:

Introducing Isabella Stewart Gardner

My first meeting with Isabella Stewart Gardner had left me duly Unimpressed. The encounter had been through a portrait of her by John Singer Sargent. She looked like a wannabe Madame X with her fair skin and black dress, and there was something stiff and unappealing in both her pose and expression.

Isabella Stewart Gardner

It seemed like that's just the way John Singer Sargent felt about her, too.

"The first time Isabella met Sargent was in England in 1886 by introduction of Henry James. When he finally painted her two years later it was on his first professional trip to America. The painting started in December of 1887 in Boston. For Sargent, it proved difficult. She was a restless sitter, given her high energy, she would continually look out the window to see what was happening on the river outside their home at 152 Beacon Street, Boston. Sargent grew frustrated and after eight unsuccessful attempts was willing to give the entire enterprise up but she was reported to have insisted “ . . . as nine was Dante’s mystic number, they must make the ninth try a success," and it was."

"She loved the painting and thought it the best portrait John ever did, even tried to get Sargent to admit as much. Her husband, on the other hand, who was painted by Mancini, had an opinion altogether different and expressed it in a letter to his wife from New York: 'It looks like hell, but looks like you.'”
(Morris Carter, 1925)

Isabella was a dedicated - and energetic - patroness of the arts. Upon the creation of her art museum in Boston in 1917, she explained:

"Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life's work if I could."

And so, she collected art - and artists - and encouraged, and supported them. The more I learned about this lady, the more I liked her - and the same happened with Sargent. At the end, it was he who asked her to sit for another portrait. This time it was a lovely watercolor - a tender, caring portrait of this remarkable lady.

Mrs. Gardner in White

"This, Sargent's last portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, was painted at Fenway Court in September 1922 when she was eighty-two years old. It appears to have been painted on Sargent's initiative. In an undated letter he wrote to Mrs. Gardner from the Copley-Plaza Hotel: 'It is very nice of you to be willing to let me try a water-colour - Will you propose an afternoon of next week?'

Mrs. Gardner had suffered a debilitating stroke in December 1919, which had left her right side paralyzed. As Sargent depicts her, pale and fragile, sitting on a day-bed with cushions propped around her, she might seem a diminished figure, but swathed in translucent white cloths and spiritually disembodied, she has the shrouded mystery of a priestess or seer, radiating a haunting, other-worldly presence. As a characterization, the water-colour is more intimate but no less iconic than the notorious full-length portrait of Mrs. Gardner, and it seems to have appealed to her taste for the dramatic and exotic. She said that the new painting was keeping 'everyone's tongue busy wagging' and confessing that 'even I think it is exquisite.'"

"The portrait might be seen as Sargent's pictorial valediction to a remarkable collector, patron and friend. Mrs. Gardner died less than two years after it was painted; Sargent was named in her will as one of her pallbearers, but he was unable to attend the funeral."

John Singer Sargent, The Later Portraits
by Richard Ormund and Elaine Kilmurray

Next: Just Who Was Isabella Stewart Gardner?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why I Draw Plaster Casts

I am a plaster cast drawer these days...and thought that I would like to share Why.

Reason Number One: My Teacher Told Me to Do It
I admire my teacher's beautiful work ( and figure that if he is willing and gracious enough to pass on his knowledge, I will do what he says to do. He received his training from an outstanding group of teachers (Allan Banks, RH Ives Gammell and Richard Lack) who all are from an academic background...and that includes plaster cast drawing. That tradition goes way back to Italy as this video from Angel Academy in Florence, Italy explains:

Reason Number Two: Working from a cast is working from a model that does not move

  • Live models vary their positions; it is inevitable. A cast does not. You can depend on seeing the same relationships and shapes. It is an "easier" ballgame in which to play - so to speak.

Reason Number Three: The cast (your model) is always there whenever you have the time

  • I now have the cast(s) set up in my art room. Winter is a great time for plaster cast drawing. When I get home from work or wake up early before going to work, it is a simple matter to switch on the spotlight and to start drawing.

Reason Number Four: The cast helps you to see values more clearly

  • Since casts are basically ivory, you are not dealing with issues of color. It is easier to concentrate on learning to create form, the bedbug line, distinctions in values and so on.

Reason Number Five: The cast gives you more time to observe art principles for yourself

  • When I first started this process, it was in a small class under the close supervision of my teacher. For about eight Saturday mornings, we worked on our cast drawings. He taught us how to use the sight-size method, the Boston School approach to drawing, and other important principles. Now that the class is over. I still have the privilege of getting occasional and valuable input from him, but essentially I have become the day-to-day decision maker and evaluator of my work.

    As I spend time with Homer's unchanging head, I have the luxury and time to think about what it is that makes a shape look rounded or how each edge of a shape is saying something about the shape next to it or discerning the planes of a face. Really - this list can go on and on because as I embrace this exercise, I look for more and more truth to discern. I write down my "lessons" and my teacher's critiques on the margin of my drawing. I'm collecting them and saving them as visual and written reminders of this journey.

How many of these casts will I do? I've heard that it may be ten, but probably it will be as many as it takes until I understand and can apply the principles that are being taught. I am now on number six and am still learning. As long as I am learning, I am happy.

Is cast drawing the only kind of art I do? No, nope, no way! At the present, I am working on a painted portrait from a live model, regular plein air painting, a still my Tuesday Morning Meeting sketches. Principles from the cast drawing apply to those other efforts as well. Ah, yes...I also like to read art books which is also valuable - as I'm sure you'd agree!

HomerThe Unknown

Saturday, February 19, 2011

You Know You're an Artist If...

Facebook has an incredible network of talented and fun-loving artists. This was part of a post that we all threw together for our - and now your - enjoyment!

You know you're an artist if

  • if you can't balance a checkbook
  • if you think of jury duty and blood donation as Plan B revenue streams
  • if you wonder about the possibility of painting over the food stains on your clothing that refuse to come out
  • if you consider everything like showers and shopping extremely annoying because it keeps you from your easel
  • if you get more excited about Bernini than Gucchi
  • if you buy wine because you want to use the bottle for a still life - or that's just the excuse you use to buy wine
  • if you can spell Bernini better than you can spell Gucci
  • if all of your clothing has a dab of some errant color on it
  • if you need a bumper sticker that says, 'Warning: Makes sudden stops for scenery and sunsets"
  • if the phrase "It looks JUST like a photograph!" sounds like fingernails on a blackboard to you
  • if you know 101 ways to make Ramen noodles taste like real food
  • if you think nothing of lying on your belly in your best coat in damp gravel to see something from a better angle
  • if you fantasize about faking your death
  • if you get up at 3:30 in the morning to go swat your canvas
  • if you often lose track in a conversation because you are studying the value patterns in the person's face or wondering which colors to mix to duplicate that exact shade
  • if you have two kinds of pants...the ones with paint on them...and the ones that's gonna get paint on them
  • if you know what Alizarin Crimson is and that it has a lightfastness rating of III
  • if you'd rather spend discretionary money on good tools and materials than anything else you can think of
  • if all interests you....the sounds,shapes,colors.Kaleidoscopic is your world
  • if the fruit and vegges you plan to paint are old and have think that's beautiful and gives them personality
  • if you look at everything with the eye for line and colour and find your hand itching for a pencil or paint brush
  • if staying up all night to finish a painting or drawing gives you a bigger high than any drug
  • if you do not correct your vision - it might spoil the view
  • if you can spend hours outdoors standing alone in one spot looking at one thing . . . and love every minute of it
  • if your fingernails have dirt under them, only it's red and blue
  • if you find yourself snapping pictures as you drive because the light hitting that tree is just perfect
  • if you find yourself drawing in the air the shape of the face of the person you are talking to, without even being conscious of doing it
  • if when you are not painting you are thinking about what you will be painting next
  • if your idea of a great time is standing in the snow at minus 10 degrees for several hours in order to capture a scene
  • if the doc says there's no hope for a transfusion because your blood type is two-thirds Windsor Newton and one third Old Holland
  • if you can never remember anyone's name, but you can recognize almost everyone you've ever met
  • if you start visualizing subject matter while you're driving on the expressway
  • if you get so focused that you dip your paintbrush in your coffee tea or beverage, instead of the medium
  • if you thought everyone understood the concept of 'fat over lean'
  • if you stare up at a broad expanse of sky at sunset and you nearly faint with admiration over the colors on the clouds
  • if you are spotted measuring doorways/vehicles to see if that canvas will fit through it/in it
  • if you have to be physically restrained when someone calls your set of Sennelier Pastels, "chalk"
  • if when you tell someone what you do and they say, "no really..."
  • if you have a show coming up and your nice frame budget is gone so you go to a "craft/hobby" store and try and find the least offensive, synthetic framed print
  • if when your activities in gathering 'visual information' for figurative work at the local bus stop, park, train station, and coffee shop link you to rumors of a stalker in town
  • if the only thing that breaks your concentration after 13 hours of painting is the change of lighting as the sun goes down
  • if you spend more than a half hour in the produce section at the grocery store looking for the perfect melon . . . not for taste . . . but for aesthetic interest
  • if you wear a Halloween mask on the back of your head in the middle of a field while you're painting so that cougars avoid attacking you from behind
  • if you keep your eyes open on garbage day for a frame that some foolish person who didn't know the value of things left along the roadside

Friday, February 18, 2011

How Bunker Went About His Landscape Painting

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

When I get out to paint nature, my brain gets an attack of ADHD. The colors, the changing light, how to distinguish the shapes and varieties of foliage overwhelm my ability to interpret what I'm seeing onto canvas. Any method which will break these whirling dervish thoughts down into simple-to-follow steps is welcome.

RH Ives Gammell in his biography, Dennis Miller Bunker, gives some insight into how Bunker went about painting his lovely landscapes:

"He was certainly in full possession of a very sound method of landscape painting when he arrived at Medfield in the early summer of the following year (1889). His way seems to have been to

  1. lay in first the larger masses of color on his canvas, a procedure he was able to carry out with great rapidity and accuracy.

  2. In so doing he established once and for all the general tonality of his picture, pitching it in a key which allowed for sufficient luminosity while avoiding the chalky and insubstantial look which so often mars the work of plein air painters. Bunker's unerring judgment in this matter of key is one of the main factors in the success of his landscapes.

  3. Once the larger masses were properly established and the canvas covered, he would proceed to work into these areas with broad touches of color. As the pictures progressed these touches naturally became smaller until, in the more finished canvases, the workmanship bore some resemblance to the pointilliste technique of the Frenchmen. But Bunker's feeling for paint quality and fine surface of pigment did not desert him.

Although he necessarily sacrificed some of this surface quality in his unrelenting pursuit of visual truth, several of his landscapes have a beauty of workmanship very unusual in pictures executed out of doors with a similar pictorial purpose."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dennis Miller Bunker's Warning to His Fiancee

Dennis Miller Bunker

Dennis Miller Bunker
was a student of William Merritt Chase (Art Students League and National Academy of Design in New York) and of Jean Louis Gerome in Paris (Ecole des Beaux Arts). Afterwards in Boston, he was in a small sketch group with Joseph DeCamp, spent the summer of 1886 with Abbott Thayer and then the summer of 1888 with John Singer Sargent. He taught at Cowles Art School in Boston in which William Paxton was his best pupil.

On October 2 Bunker married Eleanor Hardy in Boston. The couple then moved to New York. Returning to Boston to celebrate Christmas with the Hardy family, Bunker fell ill. On December 28 he died of heart failure, probably caused by cerebro-spinal meningitis. His legacy was passed on to his students, notably William MacGregor Paxton, who then taught RH Ives Gammell, who in turn taught a number of very fine, current painters.

As I read Gammell's biography of Bunker, I was interested in how he developed as an artist and how he lived, and also in some of the attitudes that artists of that time held. You might be surprised - and perhaps unpleasantly - because they are certainly not reflected in most attitudes these days.

Do You Realize What You're Really Getting Into?

Here is an excerpt from a letter to Eleanor with a dire warning of what it would be like to be the wife of an artist:

"Do you know what it is to live with a painter? Of course you don't! Do you see me getting up at two in the morning with a candle to look at my picture or rising at six to play on the piano, as I did yesterday, in a dressing gown, with my eyes half open or sitting up all night to fight over something that will seem to you of no importance? Will you care for the species of chimpanzee that we suspect of great talent? Will you feel the pang and the weeks of distress that come when you paint a poor thing? Will you be able to stand the conceit and absurd and idiotic talk when we've done a good morsel of painting? ...Are you to see me rude to all sorts of swagger people and afraid of the wash-woman?"

"You must try and realize how dull and monotonous an artist's life is. There is absolutely nothing but work, work, work. And there is nothing in the work of an artist that shows his personality.

You are marrying a man whose highest ambition is to conceal his identity, to remain above his work and apart from it, not to appear in it in any way - to be as cold and calm as a machine. Oh! if I only could, I might some day learn to paint! What I am trying to tell you is not to nourish any ideas of an artist people whom you see may expound to you. Don't think, as they do, that the charm of an artist's work must be found also in his own personality. It is always apart, or should be, should have nothing to do with it, and that is what makes it such an infernal trade. Never to play on one's own twopenny flute but to keep the big end in view always; to remain patient and cold and quiet and work like a dog from morning 'til night; there is no other way of arriving even at talent, unless one is cut out of larger stuff than I am.

I wish I could sink myself completely out of sight, so that when people looked at my things they would never think how they were made, never think that they were clever, or never think, above all, that they were personal. Great painting should have no stamp of its maker. I dream of doing a thing that is absolutely stupid - I mean what I say - absolutely stupid in style and manner of work but also in subject, and then have it of a truth so gigantic and bare and big that no one will ever forget it. But God knows how such a task is ever to be accomplished!

Certainly not by being smart for a few years and glittering in the sun and pleasing the bourgeois. It is so easy to be smart in Art, so easy to catch this and that quality of the time or the taste, the frightful smug taste of the public, so easy to do all manner of tricks of sentiment, of lies that people love and hug and live with and praise! Oh! how differently I can think of it! It costs more courage, more true courage, to do a thing with a true sentiment and in a true impression than any form of danger we can face, I think. Never to palliate a line or a tone; to know the precious value of what is human and beastly in us as well as what is great and noble..."

from RH Ives Gammell's biography of Dennis Miller Bunker

Tomorrow I will post some of his paintings and ask the question: Do you think that it is possible to hide your identity as you create a painting?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reminding Myself: About the Unity of Effect

In the Studio
William MacGregor Paxton

people assume that realistic or classical painting is merely copying subject matter. They do not realize that good painting is very much like a good game of chess. There are strategies according to which a painter will create his work. To emphasize his vision of the subject, the artist will create particular types of edges, make alterations in the composition, and alter values and colors. As he pays careful attention to these things, he must also pay parallel attention to the Unity of Effect. RH Ives Gammell, an excellent artist and legendary teacher in Boston, wrote on the Effect in his biography, Dennis Miller Bunker:

On Unity of Effect
"People untrained in the art of painting often believe that finish is attained by simply adding detail to detail and consequently they dismiss it as a mere by-product of industry and patience. Unfortunately this view does not correspond with the truth.

For an essential characteristic of all fine painting is unity of effect, and this unity is destroyed by any detail stated in a false relation to the other component parts of the picture. This is particularly true of the type of painting we are here discussing, the purpose of which is to recreate on canvas the impression made on the painter's eye by the landscape before him.

To achieve this end, each detail must be set down with the degree of definition and coloration which it holds for the eye when the focus of vision is adjusted so as to include the entire scene depicted. Piecemeal notation of individual detail immediately destroys the requisite unity of impression and turns the canvas into a compilation of separately observed visual facts. This invariably results in a hard, dry look, destroying all breadth of effect and offensive even to those who are quite unaware of its technical cause.

It is, in fact, one of the most serious defects which a painting can have and perhaps the most difficult defect for an earnest painter to avoid. The ability to carry a picture to a high degree of finish without losing its unity of impression is the mark of a master and requires artistry of the highest order. It is the central problem of the type of painting which takes for its main theme the interpretation of the beauty of the visible world."

from RH Ives Gammell's book, Dennis Miller Bunker, pp. 65, 66

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In Which We Say Farewell to Ms. Beaux

Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942)

You can tell if a book is well-written or not
if it opens up a stage upon which you live out the author's story. Cecilia's Background with Figures (1930) did that for me. I experienced her life growing up in her grandmother's home in urban mid-1800's Philadelphia, her time in private schools, at l'Academie Julian and Europe, then return to the States. The last chapter came all too soon, and I wondered about the rest of her life.

A Summarization of the Final Pages of Her Book
"By 1906, Beaux began to live year round at Green Alley, in a comfortable colony of “cottages" belonging to her wealthy friends and neighbors. She worked in the mornings and enjoyed a leisurely life the rest of the time. She carefully regulated her energy and her activities to maintain a productive output, and considered that a key to her success. On why so few women succeeded in art as she did, she stated, 'Strength is the stumbling block. They are sometimes unable to stand the hard work of it day in and day out. They become tired and cannot reenergize themselves.'

While Beaux stuck to her portraits of the elite, American art was advancing into urban and social subject matter, led by artists such as Robert Henri who espoused a totally different aesthetic, “Work with great speed..Have your energies alert, up and active. Do it all in one sitting if you can. In one minute if you can. There is no use delaying…Stop studying water pitchers and bananas and paint everyday life.” He advised his students, among them Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent, to live with the common man and paint the common man, in total opposition to Cecilia Beaux’s artistic methods and subjects. The clash of Henri and William Merritt Chase (representing Beaux and the traditional art establishment) resulted in 1907 in the independent exhibition by the urban realists known as 'The Eight' or the Ashcan School. Beaux and her art friends defended the old order, and many thought - and hoped - the new movement to be a passing fad, but it turned out to be a revolutionary turn in American art.

At fifty-five years of age, Beaux remained highly productive. In the next five years she painted almost 25 percent of her lifetime output and received a steady stream of honors. She had a major exhibition of thirty-five paintings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1912. Despite her continuing production and accolades, however, Beaux was working against the current of tastes and trends in art. The famed 'Armory Show' of 1913 in New York City was a landmark presentation of 1,200 paintings showcasing Modernism. Beaux believed that the public, initially of mixed opinion about the 'new' art, would ultimately reject it and return its favor to the Pre-Impressionists. But she was wrong; the art the traditionalists deemed 'not only incompetent, but grotesque' came to dominate the 20th century.

Beaux was crippled after breaking her hip while walking in Paris in 1924, and afterwards her output dwindled. 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.

Death and critical regard
Cecilia Beaux died at Green Alley at the age of eighty-seven, and was buried in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. In her will she devised that a Duncan Phyfe rosewood secretaire made for her father go to her cherished nephew Cecil Kent Drinker, a Harvard physician, whom she had painted as a young boy.

During her long productive life as an artist, she maintained her personal aesthetic and high standards against all distractions and countervailing forces. She constantly struggled for perfection, 'A perfect technique in anything,' she stated in an interview, 'means that there has been no break in continuity between the conception and the act of performance.' She summed up her driving work ethic, 'I can say this: When I attempt anything, I have a passionate determination to overcome every obstacle…And I do my own work with a refusal to accept defeat that might almost be called painful.'"

Bala-Cynwyd Cemetery


Monday, February 14, 2011

Living through Winter in Paris, 1880s

Boulevard Saint Martin in Winter, Paris 1913

What was it like to live through a winter in Paris in the late 1800's? For many students both at Julian's and the ateliers, it was far from glamorous, but they were willing to endure much for their art. Here is Cecilia Beaux' description of her experience:

"Our pension was in the quarter of the Pont de l'Ama, but not near to the river and its beauty. All that a skimping French pension could mean in mid-winter was ours. Mdlle. de Villeneuve, our keeper, bore her considerable years, which had borne much skimping, too, under a brown wig and a long nose. She carried Fi-Fi, a tiny, old dog with rattling teeth and a cracked bark, constantly under her arm. She had bony fingers, and for the first time I heard the rattle also of keys.

Friends were expecting us and there were others there who were to become friends. Our room was au premier, and was furnished in Bon-Marche imitations of Louis XV, and of course second-hand at that. We were to spend a few months in a type of French house which at that time Americans, who wished to appear respectable, and even stylish, used to frequent. Our room looked into a side street. We did not know then that we should have been thankful that in this quarter it was not a court that our windows commanded, and although the street was in itself monotonous, we soon found that on all stories our opposite neighbors were not.

Probably our waterproofs and cotton gloves had already instructed our landlady in the type of art students we represented, and she guessed that we were too serieuse even to recognize the character of the tenants en face. They were much on the balconies and one of them used to come out and water her flowers in a red flannel petticoat.

Our room was, of course, unheated, though it had a pretty chimney-piece and a clock, and what heat the previous summer had left behind had died long since between the closed windows and door. I was not pampered, and of course steam heat was unknown to me at home, but I had never known the damp, penetrating chill of never-heated houses in winter. Of course, a wood fire was impossible for us, but they wheeled us in a Schoubersky, a black charcoal stove, which could travel from room to room and never demand a chimney. Our chimney was a very retiring one, but with the Schoubersky approximately near it, we might avoid suffocation.

Until May, we never saw the sun, but I had started immediately at the Julien Cours in the rue de Berry, and my good circulation did the rest, for a polite little French woman in the adjoining room used to borrow our Schoubersky in the morning and forget to return it.

We were far from touching the high elegance that existed near us. We wore shabby clothes, demodee [outmoded], and prim, and until spring came and we did a little shopping, we were invisible in the street. Our complexions always proved that we were English, our ulsters bore out this fact, and the cochers [coachmen] shouted, "Anglaise [English]!" when they wanted to be rude.

In February and March, the snow had fallen sparsely and melted. It never lay upon the pavements of Paris, and I learned what it was to leave a chill house for the bitter chill of outdoors. Not once did we see the sun, and perhaps this had something to do with another moment of ecstasy.

One morning in early April, we met, and saw, the first of Spring in Paris. All of youth, hope, and joy seemed to be in those shafts of sunshine, pouring through virgin leaf and violet shadow, and in the voices that called this and that from cleverly manipulated pushcarts heaped with flowers, vegetables, fruit, whose fresh moisture the sun touched with rainbow hues.

Every French heart bounded with the hour's happiness, and I knew that my heart was French, too. We saw the French sky for the first time; a Heaven not too high to be mixed with Earth's quality. Tender blue and white lifting large forms over, but in perfect unison with wall and verdure and the sumptuous greys of Paris."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Several of Cecilia's Thoughts on Learning

Bouguereau's Atelier at the Academie Julian, Paris , 1891
Jefferson David Chalfant, artist (1856-1931)

The Ideal Maitre

Cecilia Beaux: "In Art, as in Religion, Faith is necessary - indispensable, in fact. What the student above all needs is to have his resources increased by the presence of a master whom he believes in, not perhaps as a prophet or adopted divinity, but one who is in unison with a living world, of various views, all of whose roots are deep, tried, and nourished by the truth, or rather the truths that Nature will reveal to the seeker. He is the present embodiment of performance in art, better called the one sent, representing all.

He is serious, quiet, a personality that has striven. Nothing breaks the sobriety of his visit. His thoughtful consideration of your drawing will be impartial. He will do you justice and will be gracious toward your earnestness, but it will be a simple matter for him to probe your weakness. He is a Parisian, though probably of provincial origin. He is one of the esteemed of his day and generation in the world of French Art. How much he has seen!

How great is his experience! How great his reverence! If his interest is slight, you suffer. If he seems to recognize in you some evidence of power to come, you will feel it in his few concise words as he passes on. Courage and persistence to perceive the truth flame up and stronger, quicker pulses feed subconscious force."

"Boulanger and Gerome had each a great following. Their influence was immense, and deservedly, for their personal view was never imposed. They inspired their students without bending them in any direction, and their most grateful pupils "arrived" without a trace of their master's style upon their canvases, and ready to undertake freshly individual subjects and treatment.

The legend was that Boulanger and Gerome were severe, and never spared their pupils' feelings. Gerome is said to have visited an ambitious American aspirant who had done a huge canvas for the Salon. It contained nine American Indians over life-size. Gerome examined the canvas, asked the artist why he didn't draw his moon with a compass, and left the studio."

Cecilia chose her teachers thoughtfully. For example, she had turned down the chance to study with Thomas Eakins because of his over-dominating personality. She did not want to learn from Carolus because she was going in a different direction with her art. But she was ready to listen indirectly to both of their instruction through conversation with their students. Her teachers' comments at l'Academie Julian - both positive and negative - drove her to greater efforts. And whether or not there was a teacher to direct or inspire her, she was highly self-motivated: always observing her subjects carefully, looking for artistic principles to learn and to put into practice.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cecilia Goes to a Parisian Exhibition

The Annual Paris Salon

"The world of Art in Paris was in no wise opened to me, and in fact was too far out of sight to be even longed for. I saw its reflection only in the Exhibitions. Bastien le Page was being worshipped. Dagnan also, for less reason. The polished sentimentalists had lost ground. L'Hermitte was enormously admired and respected, and, indeed it was something to have recorded the scent of hay, and summer noon and toiling bodies, resting in the stubble, themselves part of the field and drying their sweat in the spices of earth and the hot sun.

The Salon drew crowds of all kinds. To Vernissage flocked the elite of Paris, the aristocracy of Society, of the Stage, of Music, and Literature, as well as of the Arts: in other words, the French Crowd, always intelligent, always amused, always disputive. How new to me to see a group of forceful, middle-aged or old men, masters in some field without doubt, stooping over a small picture, arguing with heated insistence, denouncing, eulogizing! Never had I seen assembled so many men of 'parts' - real men, I would have said, - so absorbed, so oblivious, greeting each other warmly, and with absolutely no general curiosity; pausing a moment with great deference, before some quiet lady, or obvious beauty, but really there through profound interest in contemporary art. I longed to get closer - not to meet them, but to hear their talk, their dispute about the supreme subject.

Into the gallery one day, as our obscure party moved about there entered a Personage; a charming figure, with a following of worshippers. The lady was dressed in black lace, strangely fashioned. Though she was small, her step and carriage, slow and gracious as she moved and spoke, were queenly. She was a dazzling blonde, somewhat restored and not beautiful, as one saw her nearer. The striking point in her costume - and there was but one - was that the upper part of her corsage, or yoke, was made entirely of fresh violets, bringing their perfume with them. Every one, artists and their friends, ceased their examination of the pictures, and openly gazed, murmuring their pride and joy in their idol, Sarah Bernhardt.

Numerous, of course, in the crowd were the artists themselves. Many of them were men of sixty or seventy, with fine intellectual heads, sometimes with a quiet little woman beside them. Puvis might have been there in his black silk cap, venerated, full of honors, or Jean Paul Laurens, Raffaelli or Renoir even.

Every one was there, from the little old man, loved and respected for his lifelong devotion to the cher metier, to the young aspirant, long-haired and loose-cravated, and of course accompanied by his petite amie; and the flamboyant bel homme, trying to be satisfied with what he could get of notice...Generally I remained ready to progress noiselessly, and without importance."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

Monday, February 7, 2011

Study at l'Académie Julian in Paris

Académie Julian . 1889

Cecilia traveled with a friend to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian. At that time, women were not allowed to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, but at Académie Julian they were provided with the same classes as men [which were preparatory for l'Ecole] including the drawing and painting of nude models. There were separate classes for men and women. Since this academy is often mentioned in artists' biographies, I thought that it would be interesting to share some of her experiences there.

"I had worked alone, and fully believed that, in Paris, I should be among brilliant and advanced students, far ahead of a practically untaught American. I was to learn that the Academie Julian was a business enterprise, and could not be maintained for gifted students only.

I began, of course, with an 'Academy,' a full-length drawing. 'Tony' - that is Tony Robert Fleury - was to criticise that week, and at the hour entered a young-middle-aged and very handsome man, with a face in which there were deep marks of disappointment; his eyes, grey and deeply set, smouldered with burnt-out fires. How un-American they were! As I observed him from behind my easel, I felt that I had touched for the first time the confines of that which made France and Paris a place of pilgrimage. Into the room with him came something of what he had come from and lived in. The class, although accustomed to him, was in a flutter. I was still and icy with terror, fearing among other qualms that I might not understand him and blunder hideously.

My turn approached. He sat down. I knew only enough French to stammer out, as my defence, that it was my first attempt in Life-Class. He muttered something in a deep voice that sounded like an oath, and plunged me deeper in woe. The class, which understood better, looked around. I began to hear that he was quoting Corneille. He asked me where I had studied, and my story did not seem to account for my drawing. He rose, not having given me any advice, but bent his cavernous eyes on me with a penetrating but very reserved smile and turned to the next. The class had gathered round by this time...and when le Maitre had left, they rushed to me, and, if it had been the practice of the day, would have borne me on their shoulders. Of course, I listened to all the criticism I could get wind of, and was to learn that analytical methods were not used in the French cours.

M. Julien, the organizer and director of the cours, had been a prize-fighter by profession, and whatever the turn of fate or necessity that directed his ambitions toward the realm of the Fine Arts, he was certainly an example of the versatility of the French mind. He had never attempted to become an artist, but he had frequented the milieus and haunts of artists. The lobbies of the Salons and the Exhibitions were familiar to him.

He was a big, handsome man, who never for a moment forgot his position of manager only, and held the masters who came to criticise the class in high reverence. Nevertheless, he had an eye on every pupil, and would appear unexpectedly in the class, a serious and observant figure, decidedly on the watch.

We had no luxuries. The room was kept warm by a stove, on the models' account. But for that, I fancy we should often have drawn with numb fingers. The patience and fidelity of the models to their job was pitiful. There were so many others to take their place, if they failed. One poor thing, who had the face of a worn-out provider, and with her aging countenance and shabby clothes, would never have been noticed by anyone, had a slender and perfect form with exquisite articulations. She used to fetch a large basket of mending from behind the screen during the rests, and drawing a forlorn skirt about her shoulders, fall to with French zeal upon small ragged stockings and patched underwear. I heard that she was a favorite model for the 'Printemps,' 'Sources,' and 'Jeunesse' that we were to admire in the Salon before long.

Jeunesse by William Bouguereau

Every week subjects for composition were given out. The compositions were handed in on a Saturday, and the student who had produced the best in the opinion of le Maitre had the privilege of first choice of place on Monday morning for the new pose. This, in such a crowded room, was an immense advantage, but punctuality was also the price, for without it one's chance was given to the next. I had the good luck to win it pretty often. The compositions were shown on the wall and we all stood behind Fleury, or whoever the critic of the month might have been. He stood growling before them with folded arms. Pointing to mine, he said savagely, 'Qui est-ce qui a fait ca (Who did this)?" I stood quaking before him, for he was often bitterly ironical. 'Humph,' he said, 'c'est vous? Je n'ai pas vu les autres, mais je sais bien que c'est la meilleure (It is you? I haven't seen the others, but I know very well that it is the best).'

The next day Julian came to the class. He held up my composition, and looked at me smiling. It was to be accrochee sur le mur. This was the highest honor the work of a student could hope for, and the wall showed a meagre collection of examples, charcoal studies from the model, and a few paintings, and once there, it was forever. They were never to yield their place. Once worthy, always worthy - a record of the Cours.

What peace, what space for deliberation, there was in being a student! I did not have to think of exhibition, or any of the sordid growths that flourish about student life when permitted, and in fact are planted by their directors in many schools now. It was all between the fascinating object and myself. Not even the Master would come between. He would say little. If I felt that my work did not interest him, something was wrong, and I was goaded into greater effort. If I felt sympathy in his 'vous etes dans une tres bonne voie (you are on the right track),' I could go on with a happy sigh."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Portrait of Admiral Lord Beatty

Cecilia had approached each of her three commissions differently. Her approach was to accommodate her subject as far as possible. Her goal was to capture not only their appearance, but their character as well. Today we find her painting the English Navy hero, Admiral Lord Beatty.

"The American Committee on War Portraits, setting about to choose representative figures from England's Army and Navy, rested their decision upon Field Marshal Haig and Admiral Lord Beatty. They were approached through our Ambassador, Mr. Davis. Both kindly consented and kept their engagement with the readiness and 'sense of duty' that is part of their code.

Beatty was young, in the early forties, a gallant man; and in his spirit and conduct had fully measured up to the stern tradition of the British Navy. Of course, it was a simple matter for anyone to have a general idea of the appearance of any and all of the heroes of the day;shop windows, newspaper, and magazines displayed photographs and reproductions liberally. The well-known figure of Admiral Beatty in cap or Panama, slightly tipped, I had often wondered over, feeling that more than that must be found in the real man, and when I called at Hanover Lodge on an October morning,the soft English quiet of Regent Park, the lawn, big trees, and pretty yellow house seemed a strange introduction and contrast to the personality I was in search of.

A middle-sized, unsmiling man in a blue serge suit shook hands with me. I, too , could be business-like, prompt and short, and he soon relaxed a good deal as we paced the deck. I explained exactly what my object was, which he did not really know, being only concerned to accommodate the American Ambassador.

Early in our interview he had said that he would give me one or two sittings, on which I did not comment. He now took out a small notebook and asked me when I wished to begin. Of course, I said whenever it suited him, I had no other engagements. 'How about tomorrow?' said he, adding politely, 'It's just as well to get disagreeable things over, eh?' With this appeared his first smile and a nice one.

Lord Beatty was prompt for his appointment, as might have been expected, and I asked for only time enough to make a few decisions in regard to position and lighting. The direct light of the studio brought out bold forms. I saw that it was a falcon face; the nose broad at the base, unbelievably fine at the end, the brows bending toward it, eyelids heavy and full, over-large, far-seeing grey eyes. A falcon ready for the chase.

After I had seen Lord Beatty, I never had any doubt as to the type of painting that, if successful, would best present him. Tradition being the mainspring of his life, it must be the starting point of his portrait. It must be something seized, not thoughtfully accumulated and built up.

Before the next sitting, I had made the composition on a small panel of the exactly desired shape. The stretcher was made and the canvas mounted. The background was rubbed in. A blank space was left for the head and a few other indications gave the canvas that look of promise. I thought it would be wise to begin without disturbing the canvas, and so prepared a board and paper on another easel for a charcoal drawing to be transferred. A drawing must be made which must contain all the elements of the head and which would be my only material, if I should never have another sitting.

Concerning the next visit, I have little to report. Lord Beatty looked at the two easels, the blank paper and partly covered canvas and made no comment. I said, 'I have to draw the head first,' and we began. Little was said, at least that I can remember. Neither of us was obliged to rest, although I stopped long enough to offer mercy to the model. I found the forms of the very original face before me intensely absorbing.

The drawing turned out to be the most comprehensive as well as the most direct drawing I ever made, just less than life-size and easily transferable. The clarity and simplicity of the sitter seemed to take possession and pervade everything. If this had been Lord Beatty's only visit, a painting could have been made from it. To one accustomed to innumerable sittings of three hours each, the enterprise was strenuous hunting, and could not have been carried out on continuous days. How thankful I was for the quiet studio, for the absence of calls or engagements. I could be as slow and reflective as an owl appears to be. I was literally alone the entire day.

When Lord Beatty came to his third appointment, which he was kind enough to do without protest, the drawing still stood beside the canvas, on which the head was now drawn and lightly massed in, in monochrome upon a background which was likely to 'fit' with very slight adjustment. In this instance, it seemed best to prepare the palette beforehand, ignoring a superstition which prohibited doing this until after the arrival of the subject.

When the hour was over, the Admiral came behind to look 'Oh, you've done the hair and the forehead.' 'Yes,' I said, indicating the three main divisions of the head. 'Next time it will be the middle space, eyes, etc., to the base of the nose, and the time after that, the lower division.' The Admiral made no objection.

A little Cockney actor was an essential support. Always ready, cheerful, glad of the fire, where he might even dry his soaked shoes, build up the greying coals, and fill the kettle. With his help I could proceed upon certain spaces in the canvas requiring careful adjustment, without strain. What was important in gold braid and buttons could never have been found with any zest between two lights, if Lord Beatty had been wearing them. Even the hands could be done (for the first and only time in the experience of the artist) from the model. They held the sword and in some way, Lord Beatty's smooth fine fingers appeared in the end.

The more I saw of the Admiral, the more I was aware of that childlike, earnest quality that all great performers have - along with all the conscious ones, which must be reckoned with. Absurd as it sounds, it is the quality which can only be called 'innocence' as a child is innocent. I have recognized it in such men as Roosevelt and Cleveland. Undoubtedly Lincoln possessed it, and I believe it can be found in all outstanding characters and is one of their most winning assets. Napoleon had it; Anatole France called him 'un enfant, mais un enfant grand comme le monde' (A child, but a child as big as the world).

After two months of uninterrupted work, and having reached my furthest limit in it, it was perhaps well that my separation from the picture should be brusque. I was summoned to Paris, and as kind friends looked after it and all affairs concerning it, I did not see it again for some time.

What I remember as the final episode took place on the next to the last of Lord Beatty's visits to the studio. He had been standing before the drawing, and said something that manifested his appreciation of it. I expressed a desire to give it to him - he had been so kind about posing. A slight shade of doubt crossed his face, and I at once went on to explain that the drawing was not mine, as Mr. Pratt, the chairman of the committee had stipulated that all studies and sketches made for the portraits were to be his. There could be no doubt that he would be delighted to present the drawing to Lord Beatty, if he cared to have it. The Admiral turned quickly and said like a true Briton, 'Tell him to come over and fight me for it.' Then we laughed, and the drawing was his."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

Tomorrow: Cecilia Goes to l'Academie Julian in Paris

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Portrait of Georges Clemenceau, Pt. 2

Summarizing thus far:

"In the spring of 1919, it became evident to those interested in American art that if the United States was to have a pictorial record of WWI, it would be necessary to send artists to Europe for that purpose, but to do so as a private contribution without waiting for public action...
The artists chosen for this work were
  • Cecilia Beaux
  • Joseph DeCamp
  • Charles Hopkinson
  • Edmund Tarbell
  • Irving Wiles, and
  • Douglas Volk.
All went to Europe in the early summer of 1919, when the war's confusion still reigned and the more difficult task of making peace was in progress."* Cecilia had - after the period of a year - finally received permission to meet with Georges Clemenceau of France. This is an excerpt from her account of her experience while painting his portrait.

"I was glad that at this meeting I had not been rapt away to the extent of being unaware of what was going on. I could now remember the voice of consciousness, whispering as I sat at the outer arc of the horseshoe: 'You are alone with Georges Clemenceau in his study. You are talking like old acquaintances, across a narrow table. That small hand in a worn, grey glove resting on some sheets of paper covered with black handwriting is the same that defied Germany and hoisted France out of the pit...Take this moment Fate permits you, and be thankful.'

Sargent was the only artist in the world strong enough to wrest an oeuvre from such a meagre opportunity...There was no room in Clemenceau's study for canvas, easel, and paints for the direct attack...and that soft side-light from the window would have been the death of synthesis and simplicity, and indeed, would have veiled, rather than revealed, the force of Clemenceau.

One must remember, too, the destiny of the portrait. I was to be an attempt to give the public of another country some idea of the Frenchman, the Patriot, the Leader, the Denouncer, the Supporter. Clemenceau must be seen in the Tribune Chambers, lighted from far above. Color was of little consequence; the great head and the action alone important. By seeing him as often as he would permit, I might continually refresh my knowledge of forms, correct mistakes of measurement and proportion, and above all get a repeated first-hand view of his positive, yet so intricate, personality.

On my second visit, I took a board with a piece of paper to make notes. I knew I could not draw. He came in, saying, 'Well, I would like to kill you, but our laws do not permit it.' But he took hold of me by both arms, a good-natured shake, not terrifying at all. I climbed over some armchairs and got my back to the light, and Clemenceau got into his chair facing me.

His eyes are clear, dark depths with yellow lights across them, not a sign of age there; and in spite of those gleams, under all, when one sees deep enough, there is disillusion and more of pain than of bitterness. His eyebrows bristle out, grey, with terrific energy.

I did not stay long - that is, I got up to go - and then he began showing me things. He had a great little picture by Daumier, a gift he had just received, and although it was framed, he insisted on holding it out at arm's length, for me to see, and was full of understanding and enthusiasm. He helped me on with my coat, and it was then that he proposed my writing to him when I wished to come again.

When I arrived one morning for an appointment, made as he had proposed, he entered holding up both hands in dismay. 'Alas, I have made three engagements for this hour. Can you come tomorrow?' "Certainly, [I said,] 'but there is no need. I am seeing now what I came for.' And then as he stood ready to be measured and examined, I remarked that it didn't take long to see something when one knows what one wishes to find. He shouted, 'C'est vrai! c'est vrai [It's true, it's true!!' And when I was going out, he said very kindly, 'You do not need to make an appointment. Come any morning at nine-thirty.' And I was gone before the other man arrived.

So day after day the search went on. Bit by bit, changing, refreshing, chiselling, adding new evidence, and above all maintaining obstinately the prime conception.

Clemenceau left Paris rather suddenly, but not before the fibre of my visual receptivity had taken up all it was capable of. I could not make any more discoveries of an important nature, I could only enforce and simplify. I improved the portrait quite a good deal, after I set it up in my New York studio, with greater distance, but anything done away from the magic of the rue Franklin was hard going.

I saw Clemenceau once again in Vichy. His hotel was not far from ours. His doctor made the appointment for me one afternoon. We were led along a dim corridor, down which le President advanced to meet us, holding out both hands, a kind welcome. He led us into a room where he had been writing at a table. We had a joyous visit, and when we were leaving, he put his hand on my shoulder and said a few words to me that I shall always be happy in remembering. He left the next day, and we did not meet again..."

Tomorrow Cecilia paints the last portrait of her commission: Admiral Lord Beatty of England.

* (War Portraits by Eminent Artists in The American Magazine of Art, March 1921) \
** (Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Portrait of Georges Clemenceau, Pt. 1

Painting Georges Clemenceau would prove to be one of the most difficult assignments that Cecilia Beaux would ever have. Here are excerpts from her account:

"Arriving in Paris in the spring of 1919, the artist upon whom had been placed the responsibility of producing an interpretation of this personality, in a painted portrait, had long to wait. It was nearly a year afterward that I had my first meeting with him.

But [before this meeting] while I was quietly nibbling at the great subject, there came one of those swift openings into the next 'Square' so enjoyed by Alice. There would be a seat for me [in the front row] in the Loge Diplomatique at the Chamber when Clemenceau was to appear.

When he spoke, I saw that the old man was young. He had had no dealings with age, an enemy who would have to wait. The top-light brought out only the large masses, the superb construction of his head and his rich healthy color. How thankful I was for the simple lighting, and even for the distance! - and I learned that the great should always be seen first, if possible, from a distance, and without contradictory detail, by those who wished to study them. In this way, the big forms and gestures become and remain predominant. I then and there determined that a study from memory of what I saw then, though probably incomplete, would be truer than if I attempted to do him directly from sittings, if I ever got them.

[A year later Cecilia finally was able - through the gracious solicitation of an American colonel - secure an interview with Clemenceau.]

"When the door of Clemenceau's study was closed behind us, the little old man - for he seemed this now - turned on me and shouted, almost savagely, "Vous parlez francais?" "Oui, monsieur," I said; "but you know English so well that, if you please, we will speak English." "Very well," he said, rather gently, and then, turning on me again, "Well, to begin with, we hate each other." "No, Monsieur," I said, "that's only half true." Whereupon he threw up his hands and laughed aloud, and I felt that the assault was over and the breach opened.

I was invited to sit...Clemenceau took his chair, and we at once became quite gay. Strangely enough, I have no recollection of this part of our interview. I suppose because all but my automatic faculties were engaged in seeing. The eyes of my vis-a-vis took my whole attention. The big modelling of the head had been conspicuous from a distance at the Chamber, but the eyes there were only caverns. Now I got their full dynamic power, though the general form of the head, seen so near, became, paradoxically, somewhat diminished. In a moment practical matters surged up.

"What do you want from me?" he said. I replied, "As much as I can have." He said, "I have just come back from Egypt. I have had pneumonia....I will give you a half hour tomorrow and the same on the two following days." "That would be of no use to me," I said, desperately clinging to the exact truth, and then went on to explain, he listening with a sort of curiously amused interest.

"I have seen you in the Chamber, Monsieur," I said. "I watched you for two hours last September. I decided on the composition then, and have not changed my mind. I have already made a sketch and laid in the composition, life-size. I have spent much time examining every bust and photograph of you to be found. I do not count on regular sittings form you which you would not have time for. "It would do me no good to come tomorrow, as I must work tomorrow on what I have seen today."

Clemenceau seemed to approve entirely of this method, not offering any objection to it, and another appointment was made. My mind fully assured that he would be generous, and that I must be short; that he would not endure an instant of boredom in such a cause..."

(to be continued - from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Portrait of Cardinal Mercier

Cecilia Painting a Small Study of
Cardinal Mercier in the Salle des Eveques

Cecilia had been commissioned to paint the portraits of three very different subjects. Her first picture was to be Cardinal Mercier who had had a key role in encouraging his countrymen during WWI. She traveled to Belgium and met him in Malines:

"When His Eminence Cardinal Mercier, Archveque de Malines, was asked to allow me, an American artist, to do his portrait for the United States Government, he consented at once; and I found in all our subsequent intercourse that His Eminence was eager, in every possible way, to show his gratitude and appreciation for what we had done for Belgium int the War.

It was for America, who had given bountifully to Belgium during the War that he accepted me, and my paraphernalia, as constant occupants of the Salle des Eveques [the room given for a studio], for two months (or as much time as I wanted), with perfect liberality and graciousness, before I had been in his presence five minutes. Of course, I never abused this trust, and, of course, he knew I would not.

Many times I was congratulated on the great opportunity for color that would be mine with a Cardinal for subject. I have never loved the strident values of red and black, as such, and had secretly hoped that in the splendid robes there might be some combination of red and violet. But after I had seen the Cardinal, all ideas of color for its own sake diminished in importance, as did the majesty of his official costume.

I thought of his will to defy Germany, and protect his country, his flock...the shepherd towering over the wolf, a father fearless before savages who are seeking the lives of his children. Moral grandeur in action. The Cardinal must be standing, the head slightly bent, and somehow to be attained, the semblance of a forward movement.

I had made a small color composition and fully decided on the pose before I asked for the first sitting. I had also started a color study of the head,. I never at any time worked on the big canvas from the Cardinal, but always from drawings and a color study: a very well-known and ancient method...

As I never allowed the Cardinal to be wearied, or kept him more than a short time, I think he found in his visits to the Salle des Eveques a momentary release from care and was always ready to be amused. Not to fatigue him, I made the sittings, so called, extremely short. They were really investigations, new facts accumulated, impressions corroborated or discarded. So when he came to the Salle - and he never excused himself- it was, I suppose, a little change from the toil and doubtless worry of the day.

He often entered looking grey and old, and with sunken eyes, and in a moment the change of scene, the work of the studio, so different from that of his study or reception room, would alter his mood, youth would spring up and glow in his eyes and bring color to his face, and he would drop off, not ten, but twenty-five years.

It was nearly the end of August and the Cardinal was to sail for America in a few days. He was to travel on a troopship, carrying five thousand of our boys. This was a great delight to him. More time would not have availed much for me, as the most important parts of the portrait were now advanced as far as I could hope to carry them. The next morning he brought three volumes of his works to the Salle, inscribed, and also a photograph. The next moment was one of the supreme moments of my experience, and I am glad to say that, even at the time, I knew this. The Cardinal looked at me very seriously and said:

"Mademoiselle, il y a beaucoup de portraits, de bel peinture, de beaux tableaux, mais vous etes la seule qui a fait l'Ame, vous etes la seule, qui a fait l'Ame."* To me came the words of Simeon, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." So that, although the hands were chaos, the background a mess, and there was very little really good painting on the whole canvas, I was glad to leave it to be taken up again in ensemble in Paris, where I had the promise of a fine studio."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

*Miss, there are many portraits, good paintings, beautiful canvases, but you are the only one who has created the spirit, you are the only one who has made the soul." (my attempt at a translation)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Commissioned to Paint Heroes

Cecilia Beaux was given an incredible commission. She was chosen along with four other American artists to paint the portraits of a group of European leaders who had inspired their countrymen during WWI. She was assigned Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, George Clemenceau of France and Admiral Lord Beatty of England. She would find that although it is exciting to be chosen to paint a famous person, there are a number of obstacles that can make the execution of the task quite difficult.

"In the spring of 1919, a committee was formed of men and women, prominent in our social and financial world, for the purpose of getting together a series of portraits of the outstanding figures of the War; these portraits to be presented, finally, to the United States Government. A group of artists, five in number, was chosen to do this work. To each artist was assigned three portraits, to be painted, for the most part, abroad, for the chief interest in the undertaking lay in the fact that most of the subjects were to be Europeans of whom only photographs were likely ever to appear in this country, or be owned here, at any rate, by our Government.

The secretary of the committee called on me, and asked me to undertake to go abroad and execute three of these portraits. I accepted with a full sense of the significance and interest of the commission. I was told that the three to be entrusted to me were Cardinal Mercier, Clemenceau, and Admiral Lord Beatty.

I realized the responsibility of this undertaking very keenly, and felt that I must approach it with the knowledge that there should be brought to it much more than my mere equipment as an artist. Great portraits of great people are very rare. Art is a jealous mistress when asked to divide the honors with a great personality, and refuses to wait on the scant times and seasons such persons are willing to spare - hurried half-hours here and there...

This is an apology. Whatever is lacking in the result - which of course fell far behind my hopes - I may lay the story of my adventure, a small wreath among the heaped tributes that lie along the pathway of the great..." (to be continued)

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux