When we think of the top portrait artists around the turn of the century the names John Singer Sargent or James McNeill Whistler often come to mind, but not that of Cecilia Beaux. Yet on the American scene at least, she was not just one of the best FEMALE artists working at the time, but amongst a select few first-rate portrait painters of EITHER sex to be found. Her work won awards in New York, Philadelphia, and Paris, she was a full-fledged member of the male-dominated National Academy, and in 1902, she set up her easel in the White House, painting Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and her daughter, Ethel. Her work is, in fact, often compared to that of Sargent but there is also notable influences from Manet and Degas as well. There are Impressionistic elements too, and also a thorough understanding of Japanese art in her tendency to flatten the picture plane and utilize strong, cropped, reductive masses in her portraits.
Cecilia was born in 1855, the daughter of a French father and an invalid mother. Her mother died during Cecilia's early childhood whereupon her father departed for his homeland, leaving his daughter's upbringing to her maternal grandmother and aunt, who just happened to be the painter, Eliza Lewitt, and a strong role model for her niece. Raised in a matriarchal family, and with their wholehearted blessings, she decided early on to become an artist (a circumstance rare for a woman at that time). By the time she was sixteen, she was studying with the historical/religious painter, Catherine Drinker (whose brother happened to be married to Cecilia's sister). From there she moved on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts where she studied under Thomas Eakins as well as William Sartain and a Dutch artist, Adolf Van der Whalen. Topping off her education in the best male tradition, she next traveled to Paris where she enrolled in the Academie Julian and studied under academicians, Bouguereau, Fleury, Dagnan-Bouvert, and Courtois. It was a rich pedigree for any artist and a very rare mix for a young woman barely into her thirties.
Back in New York, as many artist have done, she got her start painting portraits of friends and family. "The Dreamer" from 1894 is a typical, richly evocative example of her work from this period in which she goes far in achieving an overall mood, not just a good likeness from her sitter. Her work can be seen maturing in her "Ernesta with Nurse," also from 1894, and her portrait of "Henry Sturgis Drinker" from 1898. Art historian consider these years her peak as she gained popularity, and indeed, some degree of world renown. However with her growing popularity and no doubt increased demands on her time and talents, many consider her later work, while being extraordinarily adept technically, as lacking in insight and gradually more and more superficial. By the 1920s, styles and tastes had changed but hers hadn't. She died in 1942 in relative obscurity at the age of 87, having made her marks as an artist, and passed her brushes on to others of her sex to carry on in her place.