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

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