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


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