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Art of Cecilia Beaux

The elegant portraits of Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) found unanimous critical acclaim in Philadelphia, Paris, and New York. Her modern style of painting combined the best of academic training, European sophistication, and experimentation. Beaux successfully negotiated the gender separatism of the late nineteenth century while she gained international renown, allowing her to become the first full-time woman instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Beaux’s maternal relatives taught her how to copy lithographs and took her to exhibitions at the premier art venue in the city, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), as part of their tutoring. Cecilia was raised by her grandmother Cecilia Kent Leavitt and her aunt Emily and uncle William Biddle after the early death of her mother Cecilia Kent Leavitt Beaux (1822-55) and the return of her inconsolable father Jean Adolphe Beaux (1810-84) to France. Culture was a priority; relatives arranged tours of the private art collections of John S. Phillips (1800-76) and Henry C. Gibson (1830-91) and that were later donated to PAFA in 1876 and 1892, respectively.

[caption id="attachment_27484" align="alignright" width="229"]Self Portrait of Cecilia Beaux Beaux painted this self portrait after studying in Paris and returning to Philadelphia in 1889. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, image provided by Smithsonian American Art Museum)[/caption]

Beaux’s art instruction began in the Walnut Street studio of Catherine Drinker (1841-1922), a distant relative and later the first part-time woman instructor at PAFA. She then continued in the school of Francis Adolf Van Der Wielen (active in Philadelphia 1870-74). By 1874 Beaux began teaching. Self-directed and ambitious, Beaux sought further professional training at PAFA from 1876 to 1878. She took antique, portrait, and costume classes there, but did not join Thomas Eakins’s notorious figure painting classes. In her autobiography she explained her resistance to the magnetic Eakins: “A curious instinct of self-preservation kept me outside the magic circle.”  Instead she turned to Eakins’s less-controversial protégé, William Sartain (1843-1924), for instruction in painting the live model. In the midst of her academic training, she produced fossil drawings on commission from the U.S. Geological Survey (1877–79). After just one month at Piton’s Art School (1879), she obtained commissions for children’s portraits on china, much in vogue at the time. That same year she began her lifelong practice of exhibiting portraits at PAFA.

Family and Friends

Throughout her career, Philadelphia family and friends were essential to Beaux’s evolution as a portraitist. Her first major essay in oil was The Last Days of Infancy (1883-84), a double portrait of her sister Ernesta Beaux Drinker (1852-1939) and her nephew Henry S. Drinker Jr. (1880-1965). Beaux layered the informal scene with psychological and emotional overtones that transcended the formal influences of James A.M. Whistler (1834-1903) and Sartain. Exhibited to critical acclaim in New York, Philadelphia, and Paris, it won the academy’s Mary Smith Prize for the best work by a local woman artist. This distinction launched her career locally where there was a constant demand for portraiture, a Philadelphia tradition among old wealth, civic organizations, and the aspiring commercial class. Though not raised in a wealthy household, Beaux identified herself and was identified with the well-bred, cultured, and moneyed elite, who were interconnected through clubs, church, marriages, and business. In quick succession she painted the Reverends Chauncey Giles (1813-93) and William Henry Furness (1802-96); businessmen George Burnham (1817-1912), George M. Troutman (1811-1901),  and Frances Drexel Paul (1852-92); and lawyer John Cadwalader (1843-1925). Illustrious families, anxious to extend their legacy, also commissioned portraits of their children.

[caption id="attachment_26832" align="alignright" width="260"]Painting of George Burnham Beaux's prominent clients included George Burnham, chief financial officer of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, depicted here in 1887 on the porch of his summer home in Lake George, New York. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

Beaux went to study in the ateliers of Paris and on the coast of France from 1888 to 1889, widening her repertoire and techniques and absorbing new ways of seeing color and light while working en plein air. On a visit to Cambridge, England, she reunited with an old Philadelphia friend, Maud DuPuy Darwin (1861-1947), whose connections led to a few commissions, enhancing the artist’s recognition abroad. Though there were viable options for continued professional success in Europe, Beaux returned to Philadelphia in 1889. During the next decade her portrait practice thrived. In her best oeuvre from that period there was an intricate mix of precise craftsmanship, up-to-the-moment style, and a feeling of spiritual kinship with her sitter, as in Sita and Sarita, 1893 (Sarah A. Leavitt (1868-1930). With increased confidence she traveled and exhibited in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Paris, and Boston, winning numerous prizes and medals. In Philadelphia she garnered three more Smith Prizes, the Gold Medal of Honor at PAFA, and a gold medal from the Art Club of Philadelphia. One of her most lauded paintings of Philadelphia’s Quaker upper crust was Mother and Daughter, 1898, a portrait of Mrs. Clement A. Griscom (1840-1923) and Frances Canby Griscom (1879-1973). Beaux created a dramatic statement of expectation and pride in partaking of certain social and cultural rituals, to which she added focused lighting and dazzling brushwork.

In 1895 Beaux began to teach portraiture at PAFA, becoming the school’s first full-time woman instructor and confirming her importance in the city’s art world. She established a winter studio apartment in New York and built a summer studio home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, from which her social and professional spheres expanded immeasurably. She never severed her ties to Philadelphia, family, and PAFA, where she continued to teach until 1915, and was in constant demand as a juror at the annual exhibitions. One of her staunchest advocates was Harrison Morris (1856-1948), managing director of PAFA from 1892 to 1905, who helped her maintain her status as Philadelphia’s preeminent portraitist.

Distinguished Sitters

After the turn of the century, Beaux’s sitters included a distinguished array of international figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and French Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), yet she took equal delight in painting local acquaintances and family, especially her niece Ernesta (Aimee Ernesta Drinker Barlow, 1892-1981). Beaux’s feminist alliance with independent career women was conveyed through the serious demeanor seen in portraits of local activists Eliza Sproat Turner (1826-1903) and Marion Reilly (1897-1928), dean of Bryn Mawr College.

Beaux’s prolific painting career was curtailed by a fall in 1924. Unbreakable in spirit and energy, she penned her autobiography Background with Figures, in which fond reminiscences indicate that Philadelphia remained the emotional root of her multi-blossomed life. Considered by many “the greatest woman painter alive,” she was often compared to John Singer Sargent, the leading society portraitist. Her reputation far exceeded her phenomenal local success; she was named by Good Housekeeping “one of America’s most distinguished living women,” and she served the international community as an artistic ambassador.

Cynthia Haveson Veloric, M.A., is a research assistant in the American Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She has recently published articles on Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Alexander Stirling Calder, Hutchings California Magazine, and Martin Johnson Heade.

Andrew Diemer

Andrew Diemer is Assistant Professor of History and Director of Metropolitan Studies at Towson University. He is author of The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

Sarah Chesney

Sarah Chesney is a historical archaeologist who earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from the College of William and Mary in 2014. She has worked on several landscape archaeology projects in Philadelphia, exploring the intersection of archaeology, landscape, and early modern science. Her publications include “The Root of the Matter: Searching for William Hamilton’s Greenhouse at The Woodlands Estate, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” in Historical Archaeology of the Delaware Valley, 1600–1850, edited by Richard F. Veit and David G. Orr (University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

Cynthia Haveson Veloric

Cynthia Haveson Veloric, M.A., is a research assistant in the American Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She has recently published articles on Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Alexander Stirling Calder, Hutchings California Magazine, and Martin Johnson Heade.

Greek War for Independence

During the Greek War for Independence (1821-28), when the Greeks of the Morea (Peloponessus) rose in rebellion after almost four centuries of Ottoman rule, Philadelphians helped to arouse public sentiment and sympathy in favor of the Greeks, raised money and provisions to aid the cause, and lobbied their representatives to recognize Hellenic independence.  In Philadelphia and elsewhere in the United States, philhellenes (lovers of Greek culture) sought to convince the American public that Greece, as the birthplace of western civilization, deserved to be resurrected as a free and democratic state. And as the inheritors of this tradition of liberty, Americans had a duty to help Greece reclaim its birthright.

[caption id="attachment_25982" align="alignright" width="201"]Photo of the Second Bank of the United States exterior The columned Second Bank of the United States, located in Old City, was the first example of truly Greek Revival architecture in the early United States. Prominent Philadelphians supported the Greek independence effort, and the use of the Greek building style was a nod to that country's role as birthplace of Western civilization. (Photograph by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Often styled the “Athens of America” for its cultural richness and taking its name from the Greek words for love (phileo) and brother (adelphos), Philadelphia proved to be well-suited to lend its moral and material support to the Greeks. By the time of the Greek revolution, Philadelphia was in the midst of its own Hellenic renaissance with the building of the Second Bank of the United States between 1818 and 1824. Modeled on the Parthenon, the Second Bank was regarded as the first truly Greek Revival building in the United States.

On December 11, 1823, several of Philadelphia’s most prominent citizens met at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street to form a committee to help the Greeks. Foremost among them was Mathew Carey (1760-1839), an Irish immigrant and publisher, who was elected committee secretary. Having immigrated to the United States in 1784 after fleeing political and religious persecution in Ireland, Carey found a strong kinship with those fighting for freedom in Greece. Carey had long been active in charitable work in Philadelphia. In the 1790s, he formed the Hibernian Society for the relief of Irish immigrants, and in 1829 he helped organize the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. For the new committee to aid the Greeks, other members included Episcopal Bishop William White (1748-1836) as chairman; William Meredith (1799-1873), the president of Schuylkill Bank and future attorney general of Pennsylvania, as treasurer; Philadelphia Mayor Joseph Watson (1784-1841); George M. Dallas (1792-1864),  future vice president of the United States under James K. Polk; Thomas M. Pettit (1797-1853), city solicitor and later deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania; prominent physician Nathaniel Chapman (1780-1853), future founding president of the American Medical Association; Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), president of the Second Bank of the United States; local poet and playwright James N. Barker (1784-1858); and merchants and philanthropists Samuel Archer (1771-1839) and Paul Beck Jr. (1760-1844).  Biddle had visited Greece in 1806, becoming only the second American to visit that country. He became a renowned patron and promoter of Greek culture and architecture in the United States.

A Nationwide Movement

Similar committees formed in almost every region of the United States. New York was the leading center, coordinating the collection of funds throughout the nation. Philadelphia's failure to surpass New York was the result of strong Quaker objections. With a number of individuals reluctant to support measures that promised to aid military operations in Greece, the Philadelphia committee chose to act independently. Despite Quaker opposition, Philadelphia nonetheless came in second to New York in the amount raised, contributing $3,900 in aid.

[caption id="attachment_26079" align="alignright" width="248"] Vital to the fund-raising efforts in Philadelphia, Irish immigrant and publisher Mathew Carey sought to help refugees affected by the war in Greece. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

A new relief campaign began in Philadelphia on December 16, 1826, after Carey became committee chairman. Instead of soliciting donations to support the Greek government’s military operations, Carey now sought to provide exclusively for the thousands of civilian refugees left homeless by the war and suffering from famine. Supporters no longer invoked the names of ancient philosophers or spoke of the past glories of Marathon and Thermopylae. The new emphasis on humanitarianism proved more successful among Philadelphians previously reluctant to finance the Greek war effort, which could be perceived as compromising U.S. neutrality.

The campaign raised funds with several theatrical performances and special benefit concerts, and clergymen and politicians delivered fiery sermons and spirited panegyrics while they took up collections. Several other committees around Pennsylvania remitted contributions to the Philadelphia group, building to a total of nearly $23,700 in aid. Chester County sent donations totaling $3,362; Pittsburgh reported $1,800 in collections; Delaware County donated $485; Bucks County added $485; Lancaster contributed $350; York sent $432; Montgomery reported $400; and North Cumberland, $500. Philadelphia also received donations from outside the state, from such places as Spartansburg, South Carolina, and Greenville, Kentucky.

[caption id="attachment_26408" align="alignright" width="267"] In the 1820s during the war for Greek independence, the U.S. frigate Constitution was dispatched to aid Americans residing in Greece. One of its duties included ensuring the safe passage of cargo ships. The naval ship, nicknamed Old Ironsides, was retired from active duty in 1881, but in the early twenty-first century remained popular as a museum ship based in Boston. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Philadelphia committee, like those in New York and Boston, purchased cargoes of food and clothing, which an American representative accompanied to Greece and distributed to the needy. Philadelphians sponsored two cargo ships, the Tontine ($13,856.40) and Levant ($8,547.18). In all, philhellenes in the United States financed eight ships and cargo valued at under $138,000. Some of the cargo did not reach its intended recipients, however. The Greek provisional government wrote the Philadelphia committee in May 1827 to express its gratitude but also to request that some of the supplies be appropriated to the soldiery instead of noncombatants. When the Tontine arrived, Greek authorities seized its cargo. Afterward, the U.S. frigate Constitution arrived to ensure the safety of future cargoes. 

Greece Achieves Independence

The incident involving the Tontine and reports of Greek piracy may have adversely affected future subscriptions. On April 2, 1828, the Philadelphia committee officially folded its operation. By then the revolution in Greece was coming to a close. The destruction of the Turkish navy at the Battle of Navarino in October 1827 by a combined British, French, and Russian fleet assured a Greek victory. In May 1832, Greece was formally recognized as an independent nation. But this did not mean that efforts to assist the Greeks came to an end. After the revolution, religious outreach programs continued. In 1830, at the insistence of Bishop William White, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society embarked on an ambitious plan to establish schools in Greece.

By separating relief from the political and military affairs of Greece, supporters succeeded in linking their movement to broader patterns of benevolent, religious, and humanitarian interests during the 1820s. In these years an unprecedented number of Americans joined together in a far-flung network of benevolent, charitable, and religiously-oriented organizations that aimed to spread personal, intellectual, and moral improvement. Reformers embarked on an array of crusades. As these humanitarians began to address the social problems at home, they naturally became drawn to helping alleviate similar hardships overseas. The Greek campaign plunged American benevolence into the international arena.

Angelo Repousis received his Ph.D. from Temple University and teaches there as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of History.

Angelo Repousis

Angelo Repousis received his Ph.D. from Temple University and teaches there as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of History.

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