The Woman Said No: Artist Cecilia Beaux

A talented painter in her own right, Beaux dodged a bullet in refusing to follow eccentric artist Thomas Eakins

Paula Sue Bryant
Sep 26, 2020 · 3 min read
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After the Meeting (1914) by Cecilia Beaux | Toledo Museum of Art

When painter Cecilia Beaux joined the famed Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1876 at age 21, she was already a career artist, and had been since age 18. When she came aboard, however, her career was in danger of derailment by an arrogant colleague.

He Urged Students to Strip for His Camera

Two years before Eakins’s dismissal for sexual misconduct, a striking portrait by 29-year-old Cecilia Beaux won attention in an Academy exhibition. In this early achievement, a woman’s bright, provocative face floats in darkness like a human moon.

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Portrait of Ethel Nelson Page (1884) by Cecilia Beaux | National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

Beaux was frustrated that credit for mentoring her went to Thomas Eakins. She’d been studying under quite a different teacher, the easygoing and enlightened William Sartain.

Annoyed, Beaux wrote Sartain that she owed “nothing whatever to Mr. Eakins” (Katharine Martinez and Page Talbott, eds., Philadelphia’s Cultural Landscape: The Sartain Family Legacy).

Not surprising. Eakins was known for his dictatorial style. He micromanaged students, known as “the Boss’s gang,” to the point of dominating them. He focused strictly on accurate anatomy. Personal vision had no place in his classroom.

Deeply Alien to My Nature

She added, “A curious instinct of self-preservation kept me outside the magic circle.” In avoiding Eakins’s overmastering, Beaux blossomed.

A “New Woman”

Her developing independence as an artist showed. In Dorothea and Francesca (1898), sisters choreograph their own steps.

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Dorothea and Francesca (1898) by Cecilia Beaux | Collection: Art Institute of Chicago

In After the Meeting (1914), shown earlier, Beaux’s niece continues an opinionated, intellectual discourse after a women’s rights meeting.

One of Beaux’s best-known portraits, Sita and Sarita (1894), features a spirited woman smiling mysteriously, a witch’s familiar of a black cat on her shoulder. The duo represent the essence of Beaux’s vision that a woman and her muse can amuse themselves, and inspire others, alone.

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Sita and Sarita (1921) by Cecilia Beaux |
Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund), National Gallery of Art

For his part, despite his obsession with gender equality in the classroom, Thomas Eakins drew the line at seeing women as men’s artistic equals.

Unfortunately, he wrote, “I do not believe that great painting … will ever be done by women.”

Fortunately, Beaux disagreed.

Another American painter with a similar outlook: Lilla Cabot Perry. And a Russian-born French painter whose paintings and diaries went together.

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Paula Sue Bryant

Written by

Follow your art! I write about artists, rebels and outcasts at flash points in history.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

Paula Sue Bryant

Written by

Follow your art! I write about artists, rebels and outcasts at flash points in history.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

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