American portraitist Cecilia Beaux painting on loan to WCMFA from Westmoreland Museum of American Art

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

 

Cecilia Beaux (American, 1855‒1942) Mrs. John Wheeler Leavitt (Cecilia Kent), 1885

Cecilia Beaux (American, 1855‒1942)
Mrs. John Wheeler Leavitt (Cecilia Kent), 1885

We hope that you enjoy this painting, which is on loan to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts from the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. If you visit, we encourage you to visit the Smith Gallery, where the work is on view through December 15.

Cecilia Beaux (American, 1855‒1942)
Mrs. John Wheeler Leavitt (Cecilia Kent), 1885
Oil on canvas
45 ½ x 34 in.
Gift of Mary Eliza Drinker Scudder and Thayer Scudder in honor of Philip Drinker and Susan Aldrich Drinker, 1996.10
On loan from Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA

In this poignant portrait, Cecilia Beaux depicted her grandmother, Cecilia Wheeler Leavitt, sitting in the patio garden of her west Philadelphia home, enclosed by a brick wall and separated from what was undoubtedly an urban setting. An enduring force in the artist’s life, she looks down reflectively and quietly, pausing for a moment from her knitting. Note the large green leaves of the bush (gradually turning yellow) and the red geranium blooms in the clay pot next to her; their spindly quality suggests that the growing season has likely concluded and perhaps autumn is on the way. Leavitt’s profile pose and choice of chair recall the renowned portrait by James McNeill Whistler (1834‒1903), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. I: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871), indicating that Beaux no doubt studied this work closely. At the same time, her interest in the human psyche and use of a dark, monochromatic palette reflects an awareness of Thomas Eakins’s (1844‒1916) objective, realist style. Later in her career, after several trips to France, Beaux abandoned darker colors in favor of vibrant pastel hues and compositions filled with fluid, gestural brushstrokes that eventually came to define her style.

One of the most significant American women portraitists of her generation, Beaux defied Victorian-era conventions by declining marriage proposals so she could pursue a full-time career as an artist. A student of William Sartain at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), Philadelphia, her portraits of high-society figures rivaled those of John Singer Sargent (just one year younger) when she moved to New York in 1900. Her portraits rarely flattered the subject and instead captured aspects of their inner character. Beaux became the first full-time female faculty member of PAFA, where she taught from 1895‒1916. In 1924, she was commissioned by the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, to paint a self-portrait for its collection, the first American woman to earn this distinction.

ames McNeill Whistler (American, 1834‒1903) Arrangement in Grey and Black No. I: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1871 Oil on canvas Musée d’Orsay, Paris

James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834‒1903)
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. I: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1871
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris