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Cecilia Beaux, Portrait Goddess

Cecilia Beaux - Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) - Google Art Project
Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker), 1898

Born on May 1, 1855, Cecilia Beaux was an American portrait artist from Philadelphia. Often compared to John Singer Sargent for her loose brushwork, Beaux studied in Paris under Tony Robert-Fleury and William-Adolphe Bouguereau to craft a style that was distinctly her own. Beaux developed a less formal sensibility than Sargent, except in her commissioned portraits, yet she maintains a human warmth in her subjects that is more spontaneous at times, whereas Sargent composed his paintings with an austere elegance. Where Sargent experimented with light and costume Beaux held an empathy with her sitters that reveals a more relaxed style of portraiture. Beaux was known to be a very independent and headstrong woman who lived a full life with many lovers yet never lost her sensitivity for her subjects.

In Man with the Cat above, Beaux takes a rather ordinary pose and through her incredible brushwork transforms this painting into magic. Henry Sturgis Drinker was Beaux's brother-in-law and a mechanical engineer who was quite well known in his day. Look into Drinker's eyes and you can see a respect and even fear of Beaux as a strong, brilliant woman. The background, with open shutters reveals overcast light spilling into the room against those earthy olive greens of the wall behind him. It is the way Beaux injects color into his linen suit that is mesmerizing. Greens and ochres in the shadows with tints of yellow and purple in the folds, purely confident and without hesitation. Even Drinkers face has warm tones and smooth, quick brushwork where, in certain spots such as the forehead and cheek, she continues the purple and ochre tints while adding greens and greys into his muttonchops. Even his left hand poised on his thigh has those greens in the shadows.

detail, Man with the Cat
Beaux does not blend her strokes. Instead, her greys are the middletone which our eyes blend together and in certain areas she scumbles in a way that makes those strokes appear to dance.

detail of Henry Sturgis Drinker, Man with the Cat

Note even in the shadows which are not that dark contain scumbling of ochre tones. The way Beaux's creamy, vibrant highlights on the cheek under the eye, forehead, nose and chin bring this portrait to life cannot be understated. It is not known how long Beaux worked on this portrait but as a methodology in alla prima painting, it is genius.

Mrs Theodore Roosevelt and daughter Ethel, by Cecilia Beaux
Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and daughter Ethel, 1902

It is interesting here why Beaux chose a dark wine-colored background, but it does provide the complementary to the greens of the sofa these ladies are sitting on. Edith Roosevelt was the second wife of President "Teddy" Roosevelt and a devoted wife and mother, and quite a lovely woman. Here she is posed with her youngest daughter Ethel. Edith's dress vibrates with the brushstrokes of Beaux, once again using those tinted purples, greens and ochres. I like how she simplifies the frilly details of the dress with abbreviated yet accurate brushwork, while Ethel is merely suggested with a large brush and satiny folds. I also love the way they are holding hands, adding a tenderness to an otherwise formal portrait. Love those juicy green brushstrokes of the sofa, and the way Edith's hand rests, with green tones on top of her warm skin tone. This is unusual in how Ethel looks at us while Edith looks off into the distance, lost in her own thoughts...a magnificent portrait that reveals deep respect for the First Lady.

detail, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and daughter Ethel

Cecilia Beaux mrs Larz Anderson
Mrs Larz Anderson, 1901
Isabel Anderson was a wealthy Boston heiress and writer who was married to American diplomat and namesake of the painting, Larz Anderson. The influence of Sargent is much more clear in this particular painting, yet the spontaneous nature of the pose is fresh and feminine. This elegant dress is painted in basically two colors, yellow and grey, yet it elevates Isabel into a kind of American royalty, echoing the luxurious mirror on the wall behind her. I love the dim low-key light in this painting. And that beautiful, black table with brass trim adds a touch of class. The floor itself appears to shimmer under that soft light. Beaux proves that the subject need not look directly at us to create impact, rather the natural pose of the subject is what determines the success of the portrait.

Mrs. Stedman Buttrick and Son John, 1909

A very maternal painting and quite informal by Beaux's standards, she uses bold colors that is very atypical of her work. Although the young boy's white gown is white, Beaux deftly indicates shadows with faint purple tints on the chest while the bottom right has green-greys. The way she paints the face of the mother has definite Old Master influence that is more detailed and structured than her other portraiture, with a very soft shadow spilling on her face, and the way that swathe of hair is indicated with ochres and blues is beautiful. Beaux uses facial expression and hands to tell the tender story of love between mother and son here, and it works brilliantly.

Bertha Hallowell Vaughan by Cecilia Beaux 1901
Bertha Hallowell Vaughan, 1901
Beaux's genius for capturing spontaneity triumphs here. This is brushwork at its most dazzling. Look at the greens of that dress, a material that many artists would not know how to begin but under Beaux's confidence she renders it with a tactile elegance in yellow-greens and tints with darks under the chest. The jacket itself is unusual in its satiny quality with fur-trimmed collar and sleeves, while the inside material is a subtle pinkish hue that Beaux has no challenge in painting. That gloved hand holds a necklace that is removed from her neck and dangles curiously, yet Beaux makes it appear as natural as ever. The woman's face is even more curious, more abrupt than feminine yet the pose is still graceful.

Beaux was not only a rival or equal to Sargent, she was an innovator and had an honest eye for depicting strong women. Her sense of color and value under her brush makes her one of the best portrait painters in America, and a true inspiration for anyone seeking to paint the figure well. Beaux is a painter's painter.


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