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
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
Thomas Eakins was influential but eccentric. Obsessed with exposing himself and others, quite literally, for the sake of art, he outraged board members by yanking a loincloth from a male model in front of female students. He urged students to strip for each other, for him, and for his camera. In 1886, Eakins was fired.
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.
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
Beaux didn’t work that way. She had no interest in “succumbing to [the] obsession of [Eakins’s] personality.” His approach was “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”
A sensitive and original portraitist, especially of women, Beaux enjoyed commercial and critical success. She decided never to marry. Like her colleague Mary Cassatt, she was a “New Woman,” pursuing a serious career path judged socially appropriate for men only.
Her developing independence as an artist showed. In Dorothea and Francesca (1898), sisters choreograph their own steps.
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.
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.