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:
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)