Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In 1885, when young Philadelphia artist Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) sent Les derniers jours d’enfance (1883) to the fifty-sixth annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, her goal to become one of the finest and most successful portrait painters in America was only a glimmering ambi­tion. Painted under the tutelage of artist William Sartain, Les derniers jours d’enfance not only represented the cumulative influences of Cecilia Beaux’s art training in Philadelphia but also exemplified the very different choices made by her and her older sister, Aimee Ernesta. Loosely translated as “The last days of infancy,” Les derniers jours d’enfance was a fitting tribute to Aimee Ernesta’s traditional marriage and motherhood, as well as a vigorous declaration of Cecilia’s creative life and professional aspirations.

With the death of the sisters’ mother Cecilia Kent Leavitt Beaux in May 1855, just twelve days after Cecilia’s birth, and followed not long after by her grieving father’s two year retreat to his own family in France, Cecilia and Aimee began life virtually as orphans. Raised by their maternal grandmother, Cecilia Kent Leavitt, their maiden aunt Eliza Leavitt, and their aunt and uncle Emily Leavitt Biddle and William Foster Biddle, the two sisters were devoted to each other despite their nearly opposite personalities.

Cecilia’s fiery, passionate tempera­ment, together with her restlessness and self-absorption, contrasted sharply with Aimee Ernesta’s shyness and quiet disposition, and her selfless and dutiful nature. As children, the sisters were kept busy with sewing, polishing furniture, home school instruction, and piano and voice lessons, and as they matured they drew upon this early discipline and training, as well as family influences, but in entirely different ways.

Aimee Ernesta followed the example of her family-oriented grandmother, fulfilling conventional expectations of marriage and motherhood by marrying Henry Sturgis Drinker, a mining engineer who was the brother of Cecilia’s first art teacher, and by bearing six children. Devoting herself to Henry and the children, Aimee Ernesta passed on to them the training she had received as a girl. Cecilia, 011 the other hand, emulated her unmarried Aunt Eliza, a gifted music teacher who used her skills to help support the family. She refused to marry, and applied the discipline and concern for perfection she had learned as a child to develop an art career that allowed her – through commissions she earned from the art work she pro­duced – to also contribute to the support of her family. Her decision to pursue an art career defied Victorian era standards. Her alternative path was acceptable only because she was supporting her relatives and working in artistic mediums that were sanctioned for women.

While Aunt Eliza was the fledgling artist’s first professional role model, William Foster Biddle, who had married her Aunt Emily in 1861, became her lifelong champion. A successful engineer and scion of a long line of Quaker Biddies, Will Biddle was the vice president of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company when he and Emily set up housekeeping in West Philadelphia in 1869, sharing a home with Emily’s mother, sister, and nieces. Will Biddle recognized young Cecilia’s nascent artistic gifts, and realized that her energy and creativity needed structure. Shortly thereafter he spirited her away from the domestic sphere, arranging for lessons with art teachers he believed could train her.

In 1871, when she was sixteen years old, Cecilia began studying with Catherine Ann Drinker, an accomplished artist and a distant relative of Will Biddle. Drinker’s studio, located at the top of an old house at 524 Walnut Place, was the first studio that Beaux had ever seen and it made a lasting impression. When the wide-eyed young girl sur­veyed the room, she saw a skylight, a faded gold Buddha in a distant corner, a richly draped mannequin posing for a work in progress, a sweeping curtain that closed off half the room, and partially obliterated figures drawn upon the walls. For a year she eagerly did copy work in Catherine’s cluttered and dusky studio, completing drawings from popular lithographic prints of Greek sculpture.

Beaux’s accomplishments prompted Drinker to recommend to Will Biddle that his niece continue her training at the recently established Van der Wielen School, an atelier located in the Artists’ Fund Building on Chestnut Street. Beaux enrolled in the school in 1872 and took lessons from Francis Adolf Van der Wielen, a young Dutch-Flemish artist and the school’s proprietor. Although hampered by failing eyesight and poor command of English, Van der Wielen managed to teach her the rudiments of painting. He introduced her to the techniques of enlarging, and linear and aerial perspective, the principles of light and shade and, when these skills were mastered, drawing from plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture. She also made pencil drawings from a complete set of skull bones that had been sent to a fellow classmate by her fiancé, a young physician.

Cecilia Beaux remained at the Van der Wielen School for two years. During her second term, Van der Wielen married one of his students and returned to Europe, passing the directorship of his school to Catherine Ann Drinker, who kept it open until the end of the school year. Once again Cecilia was working with Catherine, a woman whose unusual life experiences and creative activities were destined to play an important role in her young pupil’s future.

Drinker had spent her childhood in Macao, on the coast of China, where her father, a mariner in the merchant service, was stationed. Bright and quick-witted, she was educated in Macao, excelling in mathematics, navigation, language, literature, and Oriental art. At fifteen, she refused a marriage proposal from the son of a powerful Chinese tea merchant, Hukwa, who was her father’s friend and business associate. A few years later, when her father died from dysentery; brought on by an arsenic poisoning, the remaining family members returned to America and settled in Baltimore. ln 1860, her mother died from a uterine tumor, and Catherine, who was only twenty years old, assumed responsibility for the management of her mother’s academy for young girls, and for the care of her younger brothers and sister.

While deftly handling these various obligations, Drinker studied art at the Maryland Institute, and continued her training in the first women’s We class at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1868, three years after she had moved her family to Philadelphia. By the time young Cecilia Beaux had come to study with her, Catherine Ann Drinker was embarking on a career hallmarked by diversity. In addition to managing the Van der Wielen School, Drinker became the first woman, in 1878, to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy. She used her language skills in 1879 to translate from French into English, China Painting in America, a book written by a noted French ceramist, Camille Piton, then living in Philadelphia. She continued to paint and exhibit numerous genre scenes, figure studies, portraits, and still lifes, including Old Fashioned Music or The Guitar Player (1880), for which she won the Academy’s prestigious Mary Smith Prize.

As she observed the accomplishments of her multi-talented mentor, Beaux’s relationship with Drinker deepened into an abiding friendship. Besides a mutual passion for the arts, they discovered they had many other things in common. They shared the same birthday, they were both orphans of sorts, and both of their families had suffered financial difficul­ties, making it necessary for them to work. Indeed, when Drinker took over the Van der Wielen School in 1873 she recommended her young protege for her previous assignment.

Cecilia Beaux was just eighteen when she became the drawing instructor at Miss Sanford’s School, offering two courses one morning a week as a creative complement to the academic curriculum. Within a year or so her teaching had expanded to include a number of private students, but when her pupils failed to challenge her she turned her attention to lithography.

Beaux first experimented with “lithographic crayon on paper” while she was a student at the Van der Wielen School. Her Uncle Will noticed her interest and arranged a tour for her at the commercial printing estab­lishment of Thomas Sinclair and Sons, the largest litho­graphic company in Pennsylvania. Shortly after her visit the young artist received her first commission. Using a photograph to guide her, she drew the head of a young actress on a litho­graphic stone. It met the actress’s approval and Sinclair printed it as an advertisement.

This triumph was followed shortly thereafter by her first published work, the carefully drawn The Brighton Cats (1874), depicting the heads and paws of two similar­-looking tabby cats “in the famous act of feigned sleep while hanging gracefully over the back of a chair.” Flattering publicity in The Press, a Philadelphia newspaper, provided by Thomas Alliborne Janvier, Catherine Ann Drinker’s journalist friend and soon­-to-be husband, helped increase the print’s popularity. The original edition of one hundred impressions quickly sold out in Philadelphia and New York and was soon reissued in a “very creditable copy.”

The success of The Brighton Cats, which proved Beaux’s fine drawing ability, brought her commissions from the brilliant – but eccentric – paleontolo­gist and professor Edward Drinker Cope, a distant relative attached to the United States Geological Survey. Cope hired her to produce lithographic drawings of fossils, a precise reverse drawing technique, one-third life size, that Cecilia transformed into an artistic endeavor. She later recalled with pride that her mastery of “illustration by lithograph of scientific evidence” was a lesson that never had to be unlearned. Her plate, Cionondon Arctatus (1875), in Cope’s essay, “The Vertebrata of the Cretaceous Formations of the West,” for Ferdinand V. Hayden’s U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories (1875), depicts seventeen painstakingly drawn specimens.

While Cope paid her handsomely for these prints, the extreme concentration that was required, as well as Beaux’s limited knowledge of fossils, ultimately caused her to abandon lithography.

Beaux fled from fossil drawing to her next decorative arts venture – an endeavor that unwittingly launched her portrait career. In 1879, at Catherine Drinker’s suggestion, she took a month of lessons in china painting at the National Art Training School established by Piton. Quickly mastering what she called “the ignoble art of over-glaze painting,” Beaux immediately adapted the technique to portraiture, producing life-sized heads of children on large china plates. Since many of her commis­sions came from “mothers in the Far West,” she often used photographs, accompanied by snippets of ribbon that matched the color of the children’s eyes and small locks of their hair, to help her work out color schemes and composi­tions. Her companion portrait plates of Margaretta and Cooper Wood of Pittsburgh, the daughter and son of a vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, suggest photographic sources. The likeness of seven-year-old Margaretta Wood contrasts her blonde hair with the dark green rhododendron in the background, a popular motif in Beaux’s work in the 1880s.

China painting had become a fashionable craft for women in America after the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, and Beaux took sufficient pride in her first plates to exhibit them at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She later denounced these plaques as “the lowest depth I ever reached in commercial art,” acknowledging them “with shame” and a “sad confession,” and fervently hoping that some of them would wear out their “suspending wires” and be “dashed to pieces.”

During the 1880s, she began to move away from the commercial and decora­tive arts to concentrate on high style portraiture. This shift occurred for several reasons, not the least of which was the stifling, repetitive, and unimagi­native aspects of design work, with which she had become increasingly dissatisfied. Beaux had also surrepti­tiously resumed art training in 1876, studying in various classes at the Pennsylvania Academy until 1878, in defiance of her Uncle Will Biddle who did not want her exposed to the “rabble of untidy and indiscriminate art students and no one knew what influence.” Biddle particularly objected to Thomas Eakins’ controversial life and dissecting classes, a position heartily endorsed by his niece herself. While she often watched Eakins “from behind staircases and corners, at the Academy,” she refused to study with him because she feared “succumbing to [the] obsession of his personality.” She admitted that “a curious instinct kept me outside the magic circle,” and she shuddered at the thought of becoming a “poor imitation” of what was in some ways “deeply alien to my nature.” Her belief that she needed to protect herself from the influence of Thomas Eakins was substan­tiated when she attended one session of his life class for women in late January 1877. Two days later she fled to an antique class where she completed an anatomically detailed drawing of the Academy’s cast of the castrated Torso Belvedere (1877). The sketch reveals not only her ability to handle the subtleties of the human form, but also suggests her desire for a cooler, more detached, and less impassioned setting for learning human anatomy. While Beaux incorpo­rated in her work several of the realist and academic principles that Eakins espoused, her strong interest in the romantic and ethereal pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic styles asserted an equal influence. Upon joining a private art class in 1881, she began to experiment with these artistic approaches.

Three mornings a week, in one of the students’ studios, the class gathered to work from a model, preparing paintings and sketches to be critiqued by artist William Sartain, a native of Philadelphia, who traveled from New York every two weeks. The “Billy girls” – a nickname given to Sartain’s students to distinguish them from the women training with Eakins at the Academy – received instruction that included a mixture of their teacher’s personal and artistic experiences. Sartain began his career as an engraver and etcher, but later turned to painting, spending eight years in Europe and North Africa developing a style that ranged from Barbizon-like landscapes, inspired by his art training in Paris, to realist Oriental interiors, which echoed the Western Hemisphere’s fascination with Near East culture, absorbed while he was in Algeria.

Beaux joined Sartain’s class without ever having seen his work, finding his low-key personality and his casual approach to instruction compelling inducements for studying with him. Unlike Eakins, whose personal magnet­ism frightened her (and whose style she refused to imitate), Sartain did not overwhelm her and did not expect her to blindly mimic his style which, indeed, was of little interest to her. William Sartain’s ability to encourage Cecilia Beaux to develop her own style built the young artist’s confidence and prompted her to respect her teacher’s vision. Sartain taught Beaux to notice the various aspects of a model, a tremen­dous contribution to a young artist interested in portraiture.

Training with Sartain not only prompted Cecilia’s shift to high style portraiture, but it also signaled the beginning of her professional identity. Such changes had been set in motion by Catherine Ann Drinker’s marriage to Thomas Janvier in 1878 and by her sister’s marriage the following year to Drinker’s brother Henry (who had proposed to Aimee Ernesta after Cecilia had declined his offer of marriage). While delighting in her sister’s happi­ness, Cecilia saw Drinker’s marriage as the end of their relationship as student and teacher. Not long after her marriage, Catherine Ann Drinker Janvier aban­doned painting and teaching for writing and translating, a change she made to align her work more closely with that of her husband.

Observing the bliss and contentment of sister and mentor, Beaux responded to their marriages by creating several Elaine paintings, now lost, that suggest her temporary preoccupation with the plight of the unmarried female. Based on a character of the melancholy and roman­tic Arthurian legends popularized in the Victorian era, U1e tale of Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat, is the story of the unrequited love of an eternally virginal female. The thorny autobiographical issues that Beaux attempted to address through the creation of these pictures were ultimately resolved in the making of Les derniers jours d’enfance, a painting that celebrated marriage and mother­hood and marked a stylistic sophistication and single-minded professional ambition.

Completed under the guidance of William Sartain, Beaux’s last student work not only captured the art styles and techniques in vogue in Philadelphia in the late nineteenth century – precise drawing skills, Eakins’s inspired psychological realism, and Whistlerian tonal aestheticism – but it also illustrated her new understanding of the very different life choices she and her sister had made. Les derniers jours d’enfance won her the Mary Smith Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1885, it opened new opportunities for her in the Philadelphia art world, and its successful exhibition at the 1887 Paris Salon helped her to realize that she had turned “a very sharp corner … into a new world which was to be continuously mine.” When the painting returned from Paris in fall 1887, “bearing the French labels and number,” Beaux decided to enhance her credentials by completing her art training in Paris.

In January 1888, accompanied by heJ cousin May Whitlock, Cecilia Beaux set sail for Paris on the Red Star steamer, the Nordland. By the beginning of February the two young art students were happily ensconced in classes at the Academie Julian where they received instruction on a rotating basis from various academi­cians, including Tony Robert-Fleury and William Adolphe Bouguereau. Beaux benefited greatly from the school’s life classes, producing such figure studies as Standing Male (1888/1889). To her surprise, however, she generally found the atelier experience to be less than satisfactory. Accustomed to the intimate environment of the private Sartain class, not only was she amazed that schools such as the Academie Julian were principally commercial ventures, but she was frustrated by the crowded condi­tions and disappointed by the poor quality of student work. During her tenure at the Academie Julian, she produced sketches and compositions that were regularly awarded first place, a designation that gave her little gratification.

With the decampment of the Parisian art world to artists’ colonies during the summer months, the cousins traveled to Concarneau, on the coast of Brittany, where they joined a thriving group of American artists, including Thomas Alexander Harrison and Charles “Shorty” Lasar, from whom Beaux learned to paint en plein-air (or “in the open air”). Under the Americans’ guidance, her palette brightened and her brush work became more fluid. She also experimented with color values and light. Her successes that summer included Twilight Confidences (1888) and Thomas Alexander Harrison (1888).

Twilight Confidences was painted at the beach, and the portrait of Harrison was completed in September when she used a studio in the same building as Harrison. As she finished his likeness, Harrison told Beaux that she possessed the “right stuff” to become a painter, “the stuff that digs and thinks and will not be satisfied and is never weary of the effort of painting nor counts the cost.” Harrison’s encouragement, given at the time that Beaux painfully dee.lined a marriage proposal by Edwin Swift Balch, an eligible Philadelphia bachelor, gave her the necessary fortitude to fully commit herself to her art. She realized, too, that her talents were best applied to portraiture. To her Uncle Will, she wrote that “people do seem to me more interesting than anything else in the world and that is the bottom of my success in heads.”

Created for the 1889 Paris Salon, Louise Kinsella (now lost) was an idealized, aesthetic style, dark-toned portrait based on literary sources of parting lovers and death for the married females. Heavily layered with autobiographical meaning, her haunting portrayal of the ethereal blonde examined her decision to single-mindedly pursue an art career and offered a solution to her conflicted feelings concerning her relationships with men. Louise Kinsella was one of the few paintings in her oeuvre in which the artist pointedly addressed the personal and professional issues of her own life.

Cecilia Beaux returned to Philadelphia in August and quickly organized a studio to accommodate her many sitters. However, it was with the many portraits of members of her own family that she perfected her style and developed an ability to capture “like­ness” in the context of prevailing roles and characteristics of late nineteenth­-century American upper-class men, women, and children. While the serene portrayal of her sister, Aimee Ernesta Drinker (1891), and the cocksure image of her nephew, Cecil (1891), recall the precise dark-toned paintings she executed in the 1880s, her subtle incorporation of messages – such as the proper demeanor of a thriving matron and the self-confidence of a well-bred boy – suggested a new thematic direction.

By the time Beaux painted portraits of her niece, Ernesta with Nurse (1894), and a cousin, Sita and Sarita (1894), a facile impressionistic style had emerged, as had an even more sophisticated thematic content. Ernesta with Nurse depicts an innocent toddler in the safe guidance of a protective nurse; Sita and Sarita portrays the timeless contemplation of a beguiling beauty with her enigmatic cat. The following year, in New England Woman (1895), a portrait of an older second cousin, Beaux captured the various hues in the color white, and made a penetrating interpretation of a woman selflessly devoted to the values of a bygone era. She experimented with perspective and the illustration of a dimly rendered background setting in Ernesta and Philip (1897), a double portrait of her niece and nephew that portrays the relationship between an older sister and a younger brother. She also painted At Home or Man with a Cat (1898/1899), a brilliant white painting of her brother-in-law Henry Sturgis Drinker depicted as a genteel man at leisure.

The several double portraits Beaux painted during the last decade of the nineteenth century showcased her technical virtuosity but also revealed her own biases and interests. Mrs. Beauveau Borie and Her Son Adolphe (1896), an ambivalent rendition of the traditional mother and child theme, commented on the artist’s conflicting feelings about motherhood. In her striking portrayal, Mrs. Clement A. Griscom and Daughter Frances Canby (1898), a painting of an aristocratic mother and debutante daughter, the artist focused on the sumptuous fur cloaks worn for a social event rather than on the relationship of the two women. Of this painting William Merritt Chase remarked, “The composi­tion breathes with simplicity and freedom.” Dorothea and Francesca (1898), Beaux’s aesthetic interpretation of sisterhood, is a portrait that captures the elegant dance steps of the daughters of Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Century Magazine. The painting is a sensitive rendering, and one of the finest examples of her ability to combine portraiture and narrative.

Cecilia Beaux’s standing in the Philadelphia art world was fully acknowledged in 1895 when she was hired by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Pine Arts to teach its portrait classes. She was the Academy’s first woman to teach full-time and she remained on the faculty until 1916. In 1895, she showed six paintings, including The Dreamer, New England Woman, and Sita and Sarita, in Paris at an exhibition at Champs de Mars. Acclaimed by the critics, her artistic reputation escalated to an international level. Three years later she sent Mrs. Clement A. Griscom and Daughter Frances Canby to the annual international exhibition at the Carnegie Art Institute in Pittsburgh. At the Pennsylvania Academy’s Founders Day celebrations in November 1898, the portrait was awarded the institution’s highest honor, its Gold Medal of Honor, which carried a cash prize of fifteen hundred dollars. In his address following the announcement of the annual awards, William Merritt Chase pronounced Beaux “the greatest woman painter of modern times.” But for Cecilia Beaux, the Philadelphia years had ended.

By the turn-of-the-century, Beaux had moved to New York, shifting the focus of her life and career to winters in the city and summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she had built “Green Alley, ” her summer home and studio. She continued painting-and garnering awards for many of her works. In 1901, she was awarded a gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Begun 1901 and completed the following year in the White House, Beaux’s portrait entitled Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Daughter Ethel was one of her most cherished commis­sions. And the accolades and commissions reached an even higher pitch.

Cecilia Beaux was elected an academi­cian of the National Academy of Design in 1902, and a member the following year. In 1908 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Pennsylvania and received an honorary degree from Yale University four years later. The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, awarded Beaux a gold medal in 1926; in 1931, Good Housekeeping Magazine named her one of the country’s twelve most distinguished living women; and in 1934, she received the coveted National Achievement Award. A hip injury suffered in Paris in 1924 forced her to use crutches for the rest of her life, and after that she painted very little. However, according to Frank H. Goodyear Jr., who wrote the introduc­tion for Cecilia Beaux: Portrait of an Artist (1974), “Up to the day she died, on September 17, 1942, at the age of 87 she never lost her interest in anything …. Always on the ‘high road,’ Beaux’s conviction that art was the result of humanity, and not a gift of the gods, never changed. For her, art was more like a person than anything else.”


Following its run at the National Portrait Gallery, “Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture” will travel to the Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greensburg, where it will be on exhibit from Sunday, February 25, through Sunday, May 5, 1996. During its Pennsylvania venue, “Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture” will be supplemented by several special events, including a sympo­sium that will examine issues of gender, biography, and art historical canon in the early twentieth century. For more informa­tion, write: Westmoreland Museum of Art, 221 North Main St., Greensburg, PA 15601-1898; or telephone (412) 837-1500. Admission is free.


For Further Reading

Beaux, Cecilia. Background with Figures. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1930.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Family Portrait. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.

Drinker, Henry S. The Paintings and Drawings of Cecilia Beaux. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1955.

Goodyear, Frank H., Jr. and Elizabeth Bailey. Cecilia Beaux: Portrait of an Artist. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1974.

Huber, Cristine Jones. The Pennsylvania Academy and Its Women, 1850-1920. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1973.

Oakley, Thornton. Cecilia Beaux. Philadelphia: Howard Biddle Printing Company, 1943.

Tappert, Tara Leigh. Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1995.


Tara Leigh Tappert, a resident of Roanoke, Virginia, is an independent scholar who is serving as guest curator of “Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture,” on view at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C., through Sunday, January 28, 1996. Her 1990 dissertation on the life and career of the artist, for the American Civilization program of George Washington University, launched her study of Cecilia Beaux. She is the author of the catalogue accompanying “Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture,” which features eighty of the artist’s finest portraits of America’s Gilded Age aristocra­cy. The author is a contributor to the American Craft Museum’s exhibition and catalogue series, “The History of Twentieth Century American Craft: A Centenary Project.” Size has also researched and written resource lists for The Ideal Home: 1900-1920 (1993), Revivals! Diverse Traditions: 1920-1945 (1994), and Craft in the Machine Age: European Influence on American Modernism, 1920-1945 (1995).