One of the finest portraitists working in America at the turn of the twentieth century, Cecilia Beaux attracted a clientele of upper-class sitters in her native Philadelphia, as well as from Boston and New York. Characterized by fluent brushwork and harmonious color schemes, her portraits of prominent men, women, and children reveal her ability to capture a truthful likeness of her subjects, as well as aspects of their personality. The eminent painter William Merritt Chase once called Beaux the “greatest living woman painter;” however, having rose to prominence in a field that was dominated by men, Beaux took issue with matters of gender identification, feeling strongly that “success is sexless” (“Greatest Woman Painter,” Philadelphia Ledger, November 3, 1899; “Cecilia Beaux Dies: Portrait Artist,” New York Times, September 18, 1942).
The daughter of an American mother and a French father, Beaux was raised in Philadelphia by her maternal grandmother and aunts. A self-proclaimed “perfectionist who came of a family of perfectionists,” she received her earliest art lessons from her aunt, Eliza Leavitt, and later, as a teenager, she studied drawing with her cousin, Catherine Ann Drinker, a history painter whose brother later married Beaux’s sister. From 1872 to 1874, she attended classes at the art school of the painter Francis Adolf Van Der Wielen, where she copied lithographs and drew from antique casts. Although Beaux later denied having studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she was enrolled there during 1876–78, receiving instruction in portraiture and drawing. When Drinker became the director of Van Der Wielen’s school, Beaux replaced her as a drawing teacher at Miss Sanford’s School (also in Philadelphia), supplementing her income by drawing fossils for the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1879, Beaux studied china painting with Camille Piton at the National Art Training School, executing portraits of children on porcelain which she sold to Philadelphia collectors. She also painted child portraits in graphite, watercolor, and charcoal.
In 1881, Beaux established a studio at 1334 Chestnut Street, which she shared with fellow artists Stephen Parrish and Joseph Pennell. During the next three years, she received regular critiques from the painter William Sartain, going on to develop an approach influenced by the soft brushwork and subdued palette of James McNeill Whistler, as well as the pictorial concerns of the Aesthetic Movement. After her first notable portrait, The Last Days of Infancy (1883–84; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia), won the Pennsylvania Academy’s Mary Smith Prize in 1885, Beaux began receiving commissions from influential Philadelphians, attracting such noted sitters as George Burnham (1887; Philadelphia Museum of Art), an engineer and chief financial officer of the Baldwin Locomotive Works.
During 1888–89, Beaux honed her skills as a figure painter through further study at the Académies Julian and Colarossi in Paris, where her efforts were praised by such prominent artists as William-Adolphe Bougeureau and Tony Robert-Fleury. While spending the summer painting en plein air in Concarneau, Brittany, she loosened her brushwork and turned to brighter colors in response to her growing familiarity with Impressionism. Upon returning to Philadelphia, Beaux turned down a marriage proposal in order to pursue a career as a professional painter. She subsequently painted spirited portraits of her family and friends while undertaking private commissions from affluent local patrons, as well as wealthy clients in New York, where she fraternized with a circle of artists, writers, and intellectuals that included the poet and editor Richard Watson Gilder, his wife, the painter Helena de Kay, and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. By 1895, Beaux’s renown in the art world was such that she was invited to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, taking the job formerly held by the American impressionist painter, Robert Vonnoh. The Academy’s first full-time female faculty member, Beaux remained in that position until 1915, during which time––in addition to teaching drawing and portrait techniques––she often served as a juror for its annual exhibitions.
In 1896, Beaux exhibited six of her recent portraits at the annual exhibition of the Champ de Mars in Paris, an event that contributed to her growing recognition at home and abroad. Three years later, she established her studio at 64 Washington Square in New York, where, along with Chase and John Singer Sargent, she was considered one of the foremost exponents of the “international” style of portraiture, which synthesized the fluent handling of Old Masters such as Diego Velázquez with the chromatic strategies of Impressionism. Beaux’s election to academician of the National Academy of Design in 1902 enhanced her status in the art world even further, while the steady income from her portrait work provided her with the means to build a summer home and studio, “Green Alley,” in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1905.
Failing eyesight, arthritis, and a hip injury suffered in 1924, eventually curtailed Beaux's activity as a high-style portraitist. She subsequently spent three years working on her autobiography, Background with Figures (1930). Following her death in Gloucester, Beaux was hailed not only as a major artist, but as one of the nation’s greatest women.