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Cecilia Beaux at The High Museum, Atlanta
If you are looking for an excuse for a themed travel package to Atlanta, here it is. “Cecilia Beaux: American Figure Painter,” at the High Museum, is an eye-opening exhibition that, in a just world, would be scheduled for a New York run, if not launched here.
|Cecilia Beaux, Dorothea and Francesca: The Dancing Lesson, 1898
The Philadelphia-born Beaux (1855-1942), internationally acclaimed in her lifetime, made her professional debut in New York in 1885. She later established a studio in New York and became a member of the National Academy. While her working life divided between New York and Philadelphia, New York remained critical for important commissions from Gilded Age entrepreneurs craving commemoration.
Frequently pitted against Mary Cassatt for the role of “most distinguished woman artist,” Beaux competed in two arenas: lucrative portraiture and the more complex, higher-status genre of figure painting. Her work won many honors and was favorably compared to that of John Singer Sargent, a friend and rival in the international portrait market. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had declared her “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the history of the world.” Yet within a decade or two after her death, she dwindled to a footnote in the history of American painting.
Intended to reposition Beaux in the canon of American art, the show does more than counter her present obscurity. In surveying her ambition and achievements, it opens a door onto the golden age of American portraiture, instrumental in publicizing the economic health of America’s elites. It touches on the challenges faced by a professional “woman artist” at the turn of the last century. Stretching between the post-Civil War to post-World War I eras, Beaux’s career traces an under-appreciated chapter in the history of American art and culture.
This is the most comprehensive, scholarly look at Beaux in more that thirty years. The retrospective spans forty-plus years, beginning with her early years in Philadelphia and her studies under Bouguereau at the Académie Julian in Paris. (Women flocked to Julian, who charged them double the tuition for men because they came from families that could afford it.) It extends to her last years on Cape Ann.
The exhibition showcases her most significant oils, including those that drew praise at the Paris Salon in 1987 and 1896. (“She paints like a man!” exclaimed one French critic.) A broad range of production, including still lifes, landscapes and drawings is on view. Entries touch on crucial family connections, and relationships with key historical figures: Teddy Roosevelt, Henry James, Ida Tarbell, and such Allied leaders of World War I as Cardinal Mercier and Georges Clemenceau. As Beaux herself observed: “It doesn’t pay to paint everybody.”
The entire ensemble is as entrancing as it is illuminating. Her portraits remain astonishingly alive, her paint handling enviable and fresh. Her drawings alone testify to high gifts. One, a full-size study for “Ernesta in a Plumed Hat” (c.1912) is an ethereal evocation of an individual human presence with the barest means. A graceful contour drawing gains volume and life from a gossamer wash of umber that delicately disperses the underlying grains of charcoal. Holbein might have kissed it.
Beaux considered “Dorothea and Francesca: The Dancing Lesson” (1898) her finest composition. Two sisters, a young woman and a girl on the cusp of adolescence, are caught in arrested motion. Each holds her skirt to the side to concentrate on the steps being learned. Tender but unsentimental, it is more than a double portrait or a genre scene. The composition is a shrewd study in the essential truth that adulthood is not simply a matter of age. It is an acquisition.
It is hard to reconcile the diminishment of Beaux as a “society painter” [a label appiied to Sargent also] with the psychological resonance and historical echoes within any one of her portraits. Each of them signifies more than a catalog of a sitter’s features. Following the example of Manet and Sargent, she looked to Old Master portraiture — particularly Titian, Velasquez, Rubens and Van Dyck — for precedents.
Her 1891 portrait of four-year old Cecil Drinker alludes slyly to more recent work: William Merrit Chase’s 1985 full-length portrait of Whistler. Little Cecil holds smartly in his right hand a walking stick in the manner of Whistler, who called Chase’s painting a “horrible lampoon”. A ribbon is tied around top of stick, mimicking Whister’s. The boy’s unease in his costume and pose is as much a reference to popular buzz over the Chase/Sargent tussle as it is a realistic depiction of a modern child.
Nina Auerbach’s catalog essay attributes Beaux’s eclipse to more than changes of style and class allegiances. It pins the tail on sexism: “In the arts, as in other fields, there is generally room for only one great woman per generation, and by the mid-twentieth century Beaux had been supplanted by her fellow Philadelphian Mary Cassatt.”
Feminist boilerplate is off-register here. Nineteenth century painting in toto went into steep decline under the advance of modernism. Sargent’s own reputation, among others, is still recovering. Cassatt’s formal innovations suited a modernist-driven art historical narrative that, in the words of curator Sylvia Yount, “finds little merit in the image of upper-class Americans for which she [Beaux] was celebrated.” Beaux was a luminous painter but not an innovator.
Nevertheless, the history of art is more than a Darwinian trail of innovation. History belongs as well to those who extend and fulfill received traditions. Cecilia Beaux fought hard for a place in her time. The intelligence and virtuosity of her work earns its own place in any generation.
The High Museum itself is an extraordinary phenomenon. Redesigned by Richard Meir in 1983 and expanded in 2005 by Renzo Piano, it is the sole American museum conjoined with the Musée de Louvre. An entire wing has been set aside for a series of nine exhibitions and curatorial exchanges over a three-year period under the auspices of Louvre Atlanta. Hundreds of paintings from the Louvre are scheduled to appear in Atlanta during this invigorating experiment in museum craft.
“Cecilia Beaux: American Figure Painter” at The High Museum of Art (1280 Peachtree Street, Atlanta, Georgia, 404-733-4400).
This review first appeared in The New York Sun, July 26, 2007.
Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey