Walter Langley the Social Realist painter and the Newlyn Art Colony

Walter Langley, from a chalk drawing by Hubert Vos. From Newlyn and the Newlyn School, Magazine of Art, 1890

In eighteenth century France, Rococo was the popular style of art. Painters such as Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher had given art lovers a highly ornate and decorative form of art with its elegant, delightful, if somewhat voyeuristic, depictions of the good life. There was a playfulness about the depictions and all thoughts of seriousness was substituted by eroticism. The minority who were able to live the lifestyle shown in the Rococo paintings were pleased with what they saw but of course this was not real life for many of the citizens. Change had to come, and it did in the form of Realism. One of the leaders of this movement was the French artist, Gustave Courbet and he set out a manifesto, La Réalisme which stated that art should be about truth and depictions must be objective records. Realism was to be an art in which the painter put on his canvas what he saw, “warts and all” and not be concerned as to whether it was appropriate or inappropriate. This new form art was to move away from bourgeoise tastes.

The Artist’s Studio by Gustave Courbet (1855)

Probably Courbet’s most famous painting was pure Realism. It was entitled The Artist’s Studio, which he completed in 1855. The work baffled many, so much so Courbet clarified the ideas behind the depiction, declaring:

“…It’s the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death…”

The group to the right……..

The painting depicts two groups of men and women. In the first group on the right, there is the bearded profile of the art collector Alfred Bruyas, and behind him, facing us, the philosopher Proudhon. Jules François Felix Fleury-Husson, who wrote under the name Champfleury.  He was a French art critic and novelist, and a prominent supporter of the Realist movement in painting and fiction, and is seated on a stool, while the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire is absorbed in a book. In the right foreground we see a couple who exemplify a pair of art lovers, and in the background, near the window, we see a couple unashamedly wrapped in a loving embrace and they have been included to symbolise free love.

…………….and to the left

However, the group on the left symbolise the reality of life. There is a priest, a merchant, a hunter, and even an unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolising poverty. These last two insertions were controversial. Look on the floor by the dog and you will see a dagger, a guitar and large hat with a black plumed feather. Courbet added these items alluding to what was often seen in Academic art.

Courbet and the landscape painting

In the centre, Courbet sits at his large-scale painting of a beautiful landscape with its blue sky and verdant background and this is in direct contrast to the depiction of his grimy and crowded studio. This is a reminder of the difference between real life and an idealised life. This work was destined to be exhibited at the 1855 Universal Exhibition but was rejected on the ground of it being too big but maybe it was because it was too controversial. Courbet, however, was determined that the work should be seen by the public and so, not to be deterred, Courbet, at his own expense, built a Pavilion of Realism close to the official Universal Exhibition site and showed this work and thirteen others including his famous A Burial at Ornans.

Hope by Frank Holl (1883)

From this eighteenth century Realist movement came Social Realism which developed to pictorially arouse concerns about the squalid living conditions suffered by urban poor, and farming and fishing communities. In Britain, artists such as Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkomer, Frank Holl, and William Small were at the forefront of this movement. In America the beginnings of Social Realism started life with the Ashcan School painters, who in the early 20th century depicted through their art, the everyday, stark, and unglamorous truths of city life. Artists such as John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and George Luks were prominent members of this diverse group who painted scenes from everyday life.

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin (1870-1873)

In Russia, Social Realism came in the form of paintings by Ilya Repin who declared that the reason for his art was to show and criticize all the monstrosities of our vile society of the Tsarist period.  One of his most famous Realist paintings was his 1883 work entitled Barge Haulers on the Volga.

Waiting for the Boats by Walter Langley (1885)

The reason for this introduction regarding Realism and Social Realism is that the artist I am looking at today is an English Social Realist painter. His name is Walter Langley. He was born in Birmingham, England on June 8th, 1852. Although attending normal school, because of his interest in drawing and painting and artistic ability, at the age of ten, he was also enrolled for evening classes at the Birmingham School of Design. He left school at the age of fifteen and was taken on as an apprentice to a lithographer, August Heinrich Biermann, but still continued with his classes at the School of Design. Langley began to teach himself to paint, and first exhibited three water colours at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists in 1873. His wish was to become a professional artist and that year, at the age of twenty-one, he won a scholarship to the National Art Training School in South Kensington, now known as the Royal College of Art. It was there that he took part in a two-year design course and began to exhibit his works of art.

Photographic portrait of Clara, Walter Langley’s first wife, taken in the studio of Robert Preston photographer

It was also around this time that he married Clara Perkins, with whom he had four children.

Hard Times by Hurbert von Herkomer (1885)

In 1875, when his course had ended he had to decide whether to stay in London or return home. The decision was made for him as August Biermann, his former employer, offered Langley a partnership in his lithographer business and so he returned to Birmingham to resume his career as a lithographer. However, Langley did not give up his love of painting and, because he decided that he needed to make progress with his artwork, he enrolled in classes firstly at the Midland Art Guild and then at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. It was during this period that Langley became influenced by the works of Realist painters and one who had his works exhibited at the Birmingham Society  was the German-born British realist painter, Hubert Von Herkomer, who took a realistic approach to the conditions of life of the poor.

A Reverie by Walter Langley (1883)

Langley would have probably continued his career as a lithographer but in 1876 the demand for such items fell drastically and he soon realised that his artwork was needed to bring him a living wage. In 1877, Langley married Clara Perkins and the couple went on to have four children. In 1879 he left Biermann’s lithographer business and concentrated on his art. In his early years Walter Langley painted rural scenes close to his home in Birmingham and it was not until the summer of 1880 that he first visited Newlyn in Cornwall with his friend William Pope whilst on a sketching holiday.

Memories by Walter Langley (1906)

In 1881 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, which is one of the oldest Art Societies in the United Kingdom. The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists played an important part in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and Sir John Everett Millais and Sir Edward Burne-Jones both served as presidents. Other eminent presidents were the painters, Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Between the Tides by Walter Langley (1901)

Whilst plying his artistic trade in Birmingham a well-known and wealthy Victorian photographer, Robert White Thrupp, approached him and offered him a commission of £500 to go to Cornwall and paint a series of twenty pictures of the local Newlyn scenes and so in 1881 Langley left his wife and family behind in Birmingham, and rented a property, Pembroke Lodge. The Penwith Local History Group wrote about Langley’s new home:

“…Pembroke Lodge was a grand house that had been home to bankers and gentry since it was built in 1791.Langley’s first year’s rent of £62 (payable in advance) gave him two parlours, two kitchens, a dairy, pantry, four good bedrooms, and a dressing room. It also had a studio in the garden. The house was a good size for Langley, his wife Clara and their four children who moved into their new home in March 1882. Clara had not long given birth to her fourth child, a son Cecil born in February that year. The other children were son Lorraine (born September 8, 1877), daughter Eleanor (born March 15, 1879) and son Gabriel (born November 21, 1881)…”

Thoughts Far Away by Walter Langley

Once settled in, Langley began to paint local scenes and portraits featuring the people of Newlyn, most of which depicted the women and their role in the community. Langley could empathize with the plight of the fishermen and their families because 0f his own working-class origins in Birmingham and his socialist beliefs.

Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves, by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his first paintings he completed after his arrival at Newlyn was his 1882 watercolour work entitled Time Moveth Not, Our Being ‘Tis That Moves. It is a depiction of a local woman, believed to be Grace Kelynack. It is a portrait of great compassion and one that detects Langley’s understanding of the plight of the elderly. There is a sense of loneliness and solitude in this depiction of the woman as she ponders the hardships she has had to endure during her long life. In the painting we see her sitting at a table, with her right elbow on an open Bible. She rests her cheek on her fist as she gazes downwards, lost in her own thoughts. It was the first work that Langley exhibited in London and was widely acclaimed by both critics and the public. The watercolour painting led to Langley being elected to the prestigious Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour.

The Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Forbes (1885)

Walter Langley soon became a leading figure in the Newlyn School, which was an art colony of artists based in or near Newlyn. Another of the founding members of the Newlyn School was Stanhope Forbes who arrived at the Cornish fishing village in 1884.

Amongst the Missing by Walter Langley (1884)

Like other artist colonies such as the Barbizon and Skagen Schools, as well as the artist colonies scattered along the coast of Britany, the attraction of Newlyn was its fantastic light, and mild climate which made it an ideal location for plein air painters. It also provided many opportunities to paint seascapes, and for the Realist painters, the chance to record the harsh life endured by the fishing community. Another attraction was the ability to live there cheaply and employ local people as models at much lower rates than would have been the case in big cities. This magnetic pull towards Newlyn was summed up in the Victorian writer, Mrs Lionel Birch’s 1906 book, Stanhope A. Forbes, and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, in which she quotes Stanhope Forbes’ take on Newlyn:

“…I had come from France and, wandering down into Cornwall, came one spring morning along that dusty road by which Newlyn is approached from Penzance. Little did I think that the cluster of grey-roofed houses which I saw before me against the hillside would be my home for many years. What lode-some of artistic metal the place contains I know not; but its effects were strongly felt in the studios of Paris and Antwerp particularly, by a number of young English painters studying there, who just about then, by some common impulse, seemed drawn towards this corner of their native land… There are plenty of names amongst them which are still, and I hope will long by, associated with Newlyn, and the beauty of this fair district, which charmed us from the first, has not lost its power, and holds us still…”

The Old Book by Walter Langley

Walter Langley was always an advocate of the working class and was noted for his left-wing views. Whilst a young man in Birmingham, he was influenced by the stance taken by the firebrand politician and advocate of trade unionism, Charles Bradlaugh, a radical socialist who fought for the rights of the working class. It was these strong-held beliefs of Langley that ensured he empathized with the harsh life of the Newlyn fishing folk and their families. It was through his paintings depicting their hard life and their worries that classed him as a Social Realist painter.

For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep by Walter Langley (1882)

One of his most poignant paintings is a watercolour entitled For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep which he completed in 1883 and focuses on the plight of wives and mothers who are left behind when their husbands and sons head out to sea. The title of the painting comes from a line of a poem by Charles Kinsley, The Three Fishers:

Three fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Though the harbour bar be moaning.
Three wives sat up in the light-house tower,
And they trimm’d the lamps as the sun went down;
They look’d at the squall, and they look’d at the shower,
And the night wrack came rolling up ragged and brown!
But men must work, and women must weep,
Though storms be sudden, and waters deep,
And the harbour bar be moaning.
Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
And the women are weeping and wringing their hands
For those who will never come back to the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep—
And good-by to the bar and its moaning.

Old fisherman at Newlyn Harbour (c.1906)

Newlyn was a mix of the good and the bad. The good was the picturesque landscape and the bad was the terrible poverty suffered by the local people who struggled to eke out a living from the fish they caught. Add to this the ferocious storms and tumultuous seas which brought death to many of the fishermen and made widows out of many of the women.

His one-year commission was completed at the end of 1885 and he moved back to Birmingham to be with his wife and children. He returned for a brief visit to Newlyn in 1886 to complete his unfinished watercolour which was shown at the Institute’s Spring Exhibition that year. In the Spring of 1887, Walter Langley, along with his family, moved permanently to Newlyn,

But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand by Walter Langley (1888)

Another title of one of Langley’s paintings was based on a poem. His 1888 work, But O for the Touch of a Vanished Hand was a line from Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break which he wrote in 1835 and was about his sorrow at the death of his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Hallam, who tragically died at the age of twenty-two:

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O well for the fisherman’s boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead,
Will never come back to me.

Fradgan, Newlyn in 1906

On his return to Newlyn with his family, he was unable to secure suitable accommodation in Newlyn and decided to live in Penzance but as his work and models lived in Newlyn he bought a small cottage in Fragdan, the old part of the coastal village, which he converted into his studio.

Cornish Light, The Nottingham 1894 Exhibition

In June 1890, he brought his family back to Newlyn, and took a two-year lease on Pembroke Lodge. When the lease expired Langley moved his family to Penzance. In 1894, along with other Newlyn artists, he exhibited his work in the exhibition Painters of the Newlyn School at Nottingham Castle. In David Tovey and Sarah Skinner’s 2015 book, Cornish Light – the Nottingham 1894 Exhibition Revisited they discuss the exhibition:

“…The 1894 Nottingham Castle exhibition of Cornish painters was, in its way, ground-breaking. It brought a burgeoning new style and range of subjects to a much wider public and fostered awareness of painters from Newlyn, St Ives and Falmouth.
Much of the work was, in typical Victorian style, both art and social commentary and much of it is romanticised – craggy-faced fishermen gaze knowingly towards the horizon and the young women working on the shore have suspiciously lustrous complexions…”

This was the high-point of the Newlyn Colony’s achievements.

Self-portrait by Walter Langley
Courtesy of Archivi Alinari, Firenze

In 1895, forty-three-year-old Langley was invited, by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, to contribute a self-portrait to hang alongside those of Raphael, Rubens, and Rembrandt in their Medici Collection of portraits of great artists.

That same year, Langley’s wife Clara died at the young age of 45. This left Langley a widower with four children. Two years later, Langley married his second wife Ethel Pengelly in St Johns Parish Church Penzance on June 24th, 1897. The couple went on to have one child. During 1904 and 1905, Langley made visits to Holland and a trip to Belgium in 1906.

Walter Langley in his studio

Walter Langley died in Penzance on March 22, 1922, a couple of months before what would have been his seventieth birthday. Today his work is described as being fundamental to the representation of the Newlyn School and he was, together with Stanhope Forbes, the most unswerving in style and his large output of works depicting life around Newlyn.


Besides the normal internet sources I gained a lot of information from the websites of the Penlee House Museum and the Penwith Local History Group.

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Eilif Peterssen

Self portrait by Eilif Peterssen (1876)

My featured artist today is one who produced many paintings of differing genres, such as history paintings, landscape and seascape paintings and portraiture.

 Hjalmar Eilif Emanuel Peterssen was born on September 4th, 1852 in Christiania, (known as Oslo since 1925), and spent his early life in the Christiania borough of Frogner.  He attended the local schools and at the age of seventeen enrolled at the city’s Johan Fredrik Eckersberg School of Painting.  This painting school, on Lille Grensen in Christiania, had been established in 1859 by the Norwegian artist, Johan Fredrik Eckersberg. After Eckersberg’s death in 1870, the running of the school was taken over by two Norwegian painters Knud Bergslien and Morten Müller.

Eilif Peterssen by Peder Severin Kroyer (1883)

From there, in 1871, Peterssen went to Denmark and studied briefly at the Art Academy in Copenhagen.  Later that year, Peterssen travelled to the German city of Karlsruhe where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts and was student of Ludwig des Coudres, the German history and portrait painter and first director of the academy, and the German landscape painter, Wilhelm Riefstahl.  Also resident professor at the Academy was Hans Gude, who was considered to be one of Norway’s foremost landscape painters.  Another painter who influenced Peterssen during his stay in Karlsruhe was the history painter Carl Friedrich Lessings and his richly landscaped landscapes with historical scenes.  Lessings was a director at the Academy.

 In the Autumn of 1873, Peterssen moved to Munich he became a pupil at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts and one of his tutors was Wilhelm von Diez, the German painter and illustrator of the Munich School.  He also spent time studying under Franz von Lenbach.

Christian II signing the Death Warrant of Torben Oxe by Eilif Peterssen

Every successful artist needs to have had a breakthrough painting, one which announces his arrival on the art scene.  For Peterssen his breakthrough work was an historical painting he completed in 1876 entitled Christian II Signing the Death Warrant of Torben Oxe.  The story behind the depiction is from sixteenth century history of the Nordic countries.  Christian II was the last Roman Catholic king of Denmark and Torben Oxe was a noble who was appointed Governor of Copenhagen Castle. In the summer of 1517, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, the king’s mistress, fell ill and died and Torben Oxe was accused by Dyveke’s mother of her daughter’s murder by poisoning her through a box of cherries. Christian II believed the accusation and condemned his friend Oxe to death.  In the painting we see Christian, unmoved by the momentous event, signing the death warrant.  His wife, is at her husband’s left and is seen pleading with her husband for Oxe’s life.  Oxe was beheaded, and his body burned.

Three Women in Church by Wilhelm Leibl (1878-81)

Eilif Peterssen’s portraiture had become very popular and besides his commissioned works he would paint many un-commissioned portraits of people.  In my Daily Art Display of March 1st, 2011, I showcased an oil on mahogany masterpiece by the acclaimed German realist artist Wilhelm Liebl entitled Three Women in a Church.  He started the work in October 1878 and did not complete it until December 1881.  It is a depiction of three women of three different generations, dressed in regional costumes, sitting in a church.

In the Church by Eilif Peterssen (1878)

In 1878 Peterssen completed a very similar depiction, Under Salmesangen (In the Church).  Again, like Liebl’s work, Peterssen has depicted three women of different generations sitting together.  The old lady, dressed in widow’s garb is seated in the centre with her hands clasped in prayer and rosary beads dangling from her wrists.  She looks upwards as she prays. Maybe she is asking for divine strength to carry on with life. To her right sits a young girl, curls of her red hair lay across her forehead and to the old lady’s left sits a young woman, who with folded hands, demurely peruses her hymn book.  I like the way Peterssen has depicted the facial expression of the young woman – shy and demure, and lost in thought.

Judas Iskariot by Eilif Peterssen (1878)

In the same year he painted a religious work entitled Judas Iskariot which is housed in the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in Tromso.  The light from the lamp that Judas is carrying lights up the face of Christ.  I am fascinated by Peterssen’s depiction of Christ’s facial expression in the painting.

Mary, Christ’s Mother by Eilif Peterssen (1877)

The previous year, 1877, Peterssen was invited to participate in a competition to produce an altarpiece for the newly built church of St Johannes in Oslo.  He was then commissioned to paint a crucifixion scene part of which would be his depiction of the Virgin Mary entitled Mary, Christ’s Mother.  The brown and red tones he used in this portrait were similar to the ones he used in his depiction of Judas Iscariot and was influenced by the brownish palette of the Munich School painters.

In 1879, aged twenty-seven, Eilif Peterssen married Nicoline Gram, the daughter of Major General Johan Georg Boll Gram, the Court Marshal.

Breakfast in Sora by Peder Severin Krøyer (1880)

Peterssen and his wife Nicoline visited Sora, a town in the Italian commune of Lazio, in 1880 together with the Danish painter Peder Severin Krøyer, and this was captured in Krøyer’s painting Breakfast in Sora which depicted himself with Nicoline and Eilif Peterssen, and the painter Christian Meyer Ross.

Siesta i et osteria i Sora by Eilif Peterssen (1880)

Peterssen also documented his stay to the mountain village of Sora with his 1880 painting set in an Osteria, a place for serving wine and simple food, Siesta in an Osteria in Sora.

Kunstnerens hustru Nicoline Peterssen, født Gram (The Artist’s Wife Nicoline Peterssen, born Gram) by Eilif Peterssen

Sadly, the Peterssen’s marriage to Nicoline lasted just three years as Nicoline died in 1882, aged thirty-two.  Eilif painted a picture of his wife entitled Kunstnerens hustru Nicoline Peterssen, født Gram (The Artist’s Wife Nicoline Peterssen, born Gram).  I think it is a somewhat unflattering depiction of his wife.

Moonrise over the Dunes by Eilif Peterssen (1883)

A year after his wife’s death, Peterssen went to the Danish artist colony of Skagen in the summer of 1883.  Since the 1870’s, the Northern Danish coastal village of Skagen was a summer meeting place for a group of Scandinavian artists, such as the husband and wife pair, Michael and Anna Ancher, Christian Krohg and Peder Severin Krøyer.  The area around the village attracted the plein air artists because of its scenic delight and the quality of light.  It was often compared to what the Barbizon School of painters found in and around the Forest of Fontainebleau.  One painting completed during his stay at Skagen was his moonscape, Moonrise over the Dunes.

Landscape from Meudon, France (1884)

Petersen travelled around Europe, visiting France and Italy during the next couple of years including visiting Venice in 1885 accompanied by Frits Thaulow.  Whilst visiting Paris in 1884 he completed a beautiful landscape work entitled Landscape from Meudon, France which is a depiction of the Seine riverside by the town of Meudon, a municipality in the southwestern suburbs of Paris.

Portrait of Edvard Grieg by Eilif Peterssen (1891)

Peterssen eventually returned to Norway in 1886 and established himself as a skilful portrait artist.

Portrait of Norwegian Author Henrik Ibsen by Eilif Peterssen (1895)

Two well-known Norwegian personalities featured in portraits by Peterssen, the composer Edvard Grieg and the writer Hendrik Ibsen.

Summer Night by Eilif Peterssen (1886)

It was in 1886 that Peterssen completed his most famous work and one which caught my eye and one that made me research into his life and other works.  The oil on canvas painting was entitled Sommernatt (Summer Night), which is housed in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design – The National Gallery, Oslo, came about when Peterssen along with a group of artist friends, including Norwegian painters Christian Skredsvig, Gerhard Munthe, Kitty Kielland, Harriet Backer, and Erik Werenskiold, some of whom he had met whilst a student in Munich stayed at a farmstead in Fleskum, just outside of Oslo which was owned by painter and writer, Christian Skredsvig, who like Peterssen was a pupil at the Eckersberg drawing and paint school in Christiania and a student at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.  In the history of Norwegian art, the Fleskum artists’ colony was a significant breakthrough of plein-air painting in Norway and heralded the arrival of Neo-Romanticism in Norway.   Peterssen’s Summer Night was the most important to come out from that 1886 Fleskum gathering.  As observers we stare down at the still water of the lake during the last light of a summer’s day.  Strangely, there is little shown of the sky, but the reflection of the crescent moon is a reminder of the clear sky above.  Some have suggested at a hint of symbolism with this painting with the contrast between the sturdy upright tree in the right foreground and the dead birch tree, to the left, which has died and rotting, having fallen lifelessly into the lake.  Is this symbolic of life itself, from sturdy youthful growth to inevitable death?

Nocturne by Eilif Peterssen (1887)

The following year, 1887, Peterssen completed his painting Nocturne, which was the same view of the lake as in his Summer Night painting, but this time he has added some flowers, and a nude.

In 1888, six years after his first wife died, Peterssen re-married.  His second wife was Frederikke Magdalene (“Magda”) Kielland, daughter of Lieutenant Commander Jacob Kielland.

Sunshine, Kalvøya by Eilif Peterssen (1891)

Like many painters in the late nineteenth century Peterssen was aware of the work of the French Impressionists.  One of his works which is often likened to Impressionism style, with its broad-brush strokes used to depict the foliage, was his 1891 work entitled Sunshine Kalvøya, which is one he painted whilst he and his wife were on the island of Kalvøya, which lies off the town of Sandvika, about twenty miles west of Oslo.  This is a depiction of Peterssen’s second wife and so the painting is often referred to as Magda Sewing. We see her absorbed in her needlework surrounded by a lush green landscape, lit up by the full summer sun.  It is a veritable depiction of peace, tranquillity, and contentment

From the Norwegian Archipelago by Eilif Peterssen (1894),

One of Peterssen’s favourite haunts was Sele on the west coast of Norway and the views of the many small islands separated by the branchlike Inner Leads which separate the small islands.  His 1894 painting, From the Norwegian Archipelago, depicts a view of these inner leads.  In the right foreground of this exquisite work we see a woman standing amongst the low vegetation.  She is wearing traditional clothes and is busy with her knitting.  She leans back against a low multi-coloured dry-stone wall.  On the other side of the lead we see several red roofed houses and crofts.  A sailing boat in full-sail goes past, navigating the blue waters.

Kveld, Sele (Gedine on a Hillock) by Eilif Peterssen (1896)

Another painting completed by Peterssen in 1896 was set in Sele.  It is entitled Kveld, Sele (Gedine på haugen) – Evening, Sele (Gedine on a Hillock).  The painting takes in the beautiful colours brought on by the setting of the sun at dusk.  In the foreground we see a young girl, Gedine, a friend of Peterssen sitting on a hillock made of large grey stones.  She is lost in contemplation as she gazes out across the flat landscape towards the sea.

On the Look-out by Eilif Peterssen (1889)

A third painting completed by Peterssen and set on Sele which I really like, is his 1889 work entitled On the Look-out.  In the painting we see five men, four lying on the sand and one seated, all gazing seawards, almost certainly trying to catch a glimpse of the returning fishing fleet.

Old House in Normandy by Eilif Peterssen (1896)

Eilif Peterssen, during his lifetime, made several trips to France and Italy. In 1896 he went to Arques-la-Bataille, a small commune in the Seine-Maritime department of Normandy, a few miles south of Dieppe.  It is a beautiful area where three rivers, Eaulne, Varenne and Béthune converge and in close proximity of the Forest of Arques.  It was during his time here that he completed several landscape paintings including Old House in Normandy.

At the start of the twentieth century Peterssen became interested in Symbolism and was influenced by the colourful work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Around this time, he completed a number of works focused on French medieval legends. Even during his later life Peterssen continued to travel tirelessly around his own country and even though a few years from his seventieth birthday he was still able to make the long journey to the South of France visiting the small towns of Cagnes and St Paul in Provence.
Hjalmar Eilif Emanuel Peterssen died in Lysaker, a town close to Oslo, on December 29th 1928, aged 76.

The New Year Puzzle

I will start my first blog of 2018 with a question, a puzzle for you to solve.

What is the connection between an anonymous group of feminist, female artists dressed up as gorillas, the twentieth century American author, journalist, and philanthropist, Jane Fortunea and the sixteenth century nun and talented artist, Suor Plautilla Nelli ?

Guerilla Girls poster

The Guerrilla Girls, a play on the word, gorilla, are an anonymous group of feminist activist artists who are dedicated to fighting sexism and racism in the art world. They want to bring to the attention of the public the domination of white males in the art establishment. They only appear in public wearing gorilla masks. It’s important for them to remain anonymous as most of them are practising artists and their use of pseudonyms, instead of using their own names, is so that people focus on what they stand for and not concentrate on their true identity. The group members adopt the names of dead female artists, including Frida Kahlo, Zubeida Agha, Diane Arbus, Georgia O’Keeffe and Rosalba Carriera.

An anniversary recount sticker showing numbers from 1985 and 2015

The Guerilla Girls was formed in New York in 1985, the year after the MOMA,  the Museum of Modern Art  in New York City held a large exhibition entitled An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture.  This international exhibition of contemporary painting and sculpture  inaugurated the newly-renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art and intended to demonstrate the museum’s commitment to the work of living artists.  This exhibition had been organized by the curator Kynaston McShine, and, according to him, it presented the most important 169 artists in the world at that time. One prerequisite for selection in the survey was that an artist’s reputation had to have been established after 1975.  However, only 13 of them were women, and as for the ‘international’ part of the exhibition title, there wasn’t a single artist of colour due to have their work exhibited. According to the curator the exhibition presented a survey of contemporary art, but largely left female artists out of consideration. To make things worse, Kynaston McShine was quoted as saying:

“…Any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink his career…”

This disparity and the fact nobody seemed to care, became the impetus for the formation of the Guerilla Girls.

Jane Fortune with her 2013 Emmy Award

The second part of my puzzle was the name Jane Fortune. Jane was born in Indianapolis in 1942. She is a journalist, acting as cultural editor of The Florentine, an English-language newspaper in Tuscany in which she contributed many articles regarding the art and culture of the Tuscan city.

Of equal importance Jane was Founder and Chair of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) which is an organisation committed to safeguarding art by women and rediscovering a vital part of Florence’s forgotten cultural and creative heritage. She is a tireless advocate for art preservation.

Invisible Women by Jane Fortune

Jane is also an author of several books, having written about art and the city of Florence, including her very popular 2007 guidebook reflecting on Florentine culture, To Florence, Con Amore: 77 Ways to Love the City. In later books she championed art by female Florentine artists, such as her 2009 book, Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, in which she talks about how the many paintings by Florentine women of the past lie languishing and deteriorating in basement storerooms of galleries.

Art by Women in Florence by Jane Fortune and Linda Falcone

On a more proactive note, in 2012, she and Linda Falcone, a California-born university professor and member of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, wrote a guidebook entitled Art by Women in Florence: A Guide through Five Hundred Years, which described where to view artworks by women artists in the public collections of Florence. From this book followed a five-part television documentary, which described the six-year project to research, restore, and exhibit works of art by women in Florence’s museums and storage covering the restoration of works by three artists: Plautilla Nelli, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Irene Parenti Duclos. On June 1, 2013, the documentary won an Emmy Award as Best Documentary in the Cultural/Historical Program category.

Of the award Jane said:

“…Winning the Emmy is a new boost to my project, which aims to restore and exhibit artworks by women in Florence. To achieve these goals, it takes technology and skill. It takes the commitment of the city’s museum directors, its restorers and its citizens in general, who are eager to finally learn more about these lesser-known works…”

To Florence Con Amore – 90 Ways to Love the City
by Jane Fortune

In Florence, she is also on the Board of Trustees of the Medici Archive Project (MAP), one of the world’s leading Digital Humanities research organizations for research on history, art, and material culture in the period of the Renaissance through the Enlightenment. Under the auspices of MAP she has endowed a pilot program dedicated to researching women artists in the age of the Medici. It is the world’s first archival research program dedicated to women artists.

The Florentine – an English language monthly arts magazine

As a philanthropist and art collector (particularly works of women artists), she has served on several museum boards and is currently a member of the Board of Governors of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a member of the National Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington D.C.), an honorary member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at Herron School of Art and Design, Indianapolis, a founding member of the Women’s Philanthropy Council, Indiana University, a National Advisory Board Member of the Indiana University Museum, Bloomington, IN.

And so, I come to the third piece of the puzzle – Sister Plautilla Nelli. How can a sixteenth century woman have a connection with the Guerilla Girls and Jane Fortune? To find the connection one needs to know more about Sister Plautilla Nelli.

Possible portrait of Plautilla Nelli

Pulisena Margherita Nelli was born into a wealthy family in Florence in 1524. Her father was a prosperous fabric merchant. At the age of fourteen she became a nun at the convent of Santa Caterina da Siena, and took the name Suor Plautilla. Her older sister Costanza, also became a nun and took the name Suor Petronilla.

Saint Catherine by Plautilla Nelli

The convent was managed by the Dominican friars of San Marco, who were led by Girolamo Savonarola, the Italian Christian preacher, reformer, and martyr, who was renowned for his conflict with despotic rulers and a dishonest and immoral clergy. Nelli was heavily influenced by his teachings. Through the words of he encouraged devotional painting and drawing by religious women to avoid sloth and thus the convent Nelli was a member became a centre for artistically-inclined nuns. According to Jane Fortune in her 2010 book Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, Nelli is looked upon as the first-known female Renaissance painter of Florence and one who was influenced by the work of Fra Bartolomeo.

Lamentation with Saints by Plautilla Nelli

Dr. Catherine Turrill, the American art history professor and renowned expert on Plautilla Nelli, believed that many of the nuns at Santa Caterina were daughters of Florentine artisans, and the convent was known throughout Italy as a place where women could dedicate themselves to art, as well as serving God. Nelli was self-taught, and would spend time copying paintings by the mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino and the high Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto but the artist who influenced her the most was Fra Bartolomeo. She drew particular inspiration from the work of Fra Bartolommeo and his pupil Fra Paolino, both from the Dominican monastery of San Marco. After Fra Paolino’s death she was given his collection of drawings by Fra Bartolommeo.

Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata by Plautilla Nelli

So now you may be a little closer to solving the puzzle. The Guerilla Girls wants greater recognition of the work of female artists. Jane Fortune of the Advancing Women Artists, who has connections with Florence was of the same mind, and Plautilla Nelli was a sixteenth century forgotten painter but there is just one more piece needed to solve the puzzle.

In the March 18th, 2013 edition of the Harvard Art Museums Index magazine, Cheryl Pappas wrote:

“…She [Jane Fortune] heard the call to find works by “forgotten” women artists when she, with help from the Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts, funded the restoration of a painting by a self-taught 16th-century nun, Suor Plautilla Nelli, who is considered the first woman painter of Florence. When Fortune saw the figures in Lamentation with Saints come to life in the midst of its restoration, she was moved, especially by the women in the painting: “Their tear drops became visible and their emotion touched me. It was then that I knew—Plautilla Nelli deserves to be discovered, studied, and appreciated. I will do all I can to rediscover and protect the works of this incredible woman artist and others like her, who have yet to get their proper due…”

There are over 2,000 paintings, sculptures, and drawings by pioneering women artists, stored in the Florence museum storage facilities which have been overlooked for hundreds of years. They have deteriorated and in urgent need of restoration. The Advancing Women Artists Foundation is committed to safeguarding this art and by so doing, revive an essential part of Florence’s forgotten cultural and creative heritage.

Plautilla Nelli’s painting Last Supper in the restoration lab

In the 1570’s Plautilla Nelli completed her large-scale (6.7metres long) masterpiece depicting the Last Supper. Her depiction of the event was the first done by any female artist and is the only signed work by Plautilla Nelli known to survive.

Detail of left-hand side of Last Supper canvas

Plautilla Nelli completed the work for the refectory of her own convent. However, in the early 1800’s, when Napoleon subjugated the monasteries and convents, the work was rolled up and put in storage for a while. Later it was hung back in the private (not open to the public) refectory at Santa Maria where a small group of Dominican friars would take their meals. However, the currents state of the painting, even after earlier restoration attempts, was causing concern. The Advancing Women Artists Foundation which regularly sponsors the restoration of works by women artists, has now taken on the task of organising the restoration of Nelli’s huge canvas which they hope will be completed in 2018. On completion people will be able to see the restored work at the Museum of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

As for works by Plautilla Nelli and other female artists of the distant past, things are looking up. In March 2017, the Uffizi Galleries in Florence began a long-term strategy for promoting female artists. One of the first initiatives was the Uffizi exhibition, Sister Plautilla Nelli. Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola exhibit, curated by Dr. Fausta Navarro which is devoted to Sister Plautilla Nelli, considered the first female Florentine painter.

If you are still somewhat unconvinced about people’s knowledge of female artists of the past, ask a friend to name five artists of the past and see how many include the name of a female artist.

 

Happy New Year to you all.

Winter landscapes

For many of you, the sight of snow is a curse, for others it is a sight of wonderment. Maybe the falling of snow, like Christmas presents, is just a meaningful event for children. Many believe snow should only be enjoyed if seen in a photograph or postcard and not deep on the ground in front of one’s house or in one’s driveway. For all you snow-sufferers, let me offer you some works of art which highlight the beauty of snow depicted by different artists, some of whom may be better known for other artistic genres.  Artists love to see the trees in winter, devoid of their foliage, leaving just exposed skeletons. Such winter scenes have their own exquisiteness.

Sunset scenery with snow-covered road and a small farmhouse by Harald Julius Niels Pryn

Sunset Scenery with snow-covered road and a small Farmhouse was one of many paintings featuring wintery conditions by the Danish artist Harald Julius Niels Pryn. Pryn was born on April 11th, 1891 in Frederiksberg, Denmark and lived and worked in Bagsværd, a northern suburb of Copenhagen. He was a self-taught artist and eventually developed the skill to be considered one of the great landscape artists of his time. In his own country he was a well-known Danish landscape painter. His specialty and main subjects were light-filled winter landscapes.  Look at the many colours he used to depict the snow.

Winter Caravan on the Road by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, but baptized as Hovhannes Aivazian, was born in July 1817 into an Armenian family in the Black Sea port of Feodosia in Crimea and spent most of his life there. He was a Russian Romantic painter and although this work, Winter Caravan on the Road, is a winter landscape, he is deemed to be one of the greatest masters of marine art with the vast majority of his works being seascapes. He also often depicted battle scenes, Armenian themes, and portraiture. He was educated at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, Aivazovsky travelled to Europe and lived briefly in Italy during the early 1840s. He then returned to Russia and was appointed the main painter of the Russian Navy. He was sponsored by the state and was well-regarded during his lifetime. The saying “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush”, popularized by Anton Chekhov, was used in Russia for describing something lovely.  It is the haunting image of the horse-drawn procession emerging from the forest mist which appeals to me.  It gives the painting a mystical quality.

Christmas Eve along the Hudson with the Palisades across the River by Samuel S Carr (c. 1879)

Christmas Eve along the Hudson with the Palisades across the River, was painted by the American artist, Samuel S Carr around 1879. Carr was born in England in 1837. He trained at the Royal School of Design in Chester, and around the age of twenty-five immigrated to America and went to live in New York where he studied mechanical drawing. He never married and moved to Brooklyn in 1879 where he lived with his sister Annie and her husband, and remained there for twenty-eight years. He became the president of the Brooklyn Art Club. Much of his work were pastoral scenes which were quite popular in the 1890s and Carr would vary the times of day and seasons in his work.  In the background seen between the large houses we can just make out the steep cliffs on the Jersey side of the Hudson River known as the Palisades.

Winter Landscape by Louis Apol (c.1885)

Probably because of the inclement winter weather in the Low Countries many of the Dutch and Flemish artists painted winter landscapes. Lodewijk Frederik Hendrik (Louis) Apol was a Dutch painter and one of the most prominent representatives of The Hague School. He was born in September 1850 and as a young man received private art lessons. In 1868, aged eighteen, he received a scholarship from the Dutch King Willem III in 1868. He specialized in winter landscapes and this painting, entitled Winter Landscape, demonstrates his extraordinary talent. This painting, like many of his other landscape works are devoid of people and other figures (except the black crows). In 1880 Louis Apol went on an expedition on the SS Willem Barents to Spitsbergen (Nova Zembla) in the Polar Sea. This sea voyage proved to be a great influence on his work.

Winter Morning by Ivan Choultsé

Ivan Fedorovich Choultsé, a Russian realist landscape painter, was born in St Petersburg on October 21st, 1874. After finishing school, he became an electrical engineer and painted in his free time. It was not until he was thirty-years-old that he seriously studied art. Like our previous painter, Louis Apol, Choultsé travelled to Spitzbergen where he completed a number of depictions of the Arctic landscape. By 1916 Choultsé was already known for his art and members of the Tsar family bought his paintings. He painted spectacular snow scenes in which the light seems to come from behind the canvas and glow. The critics were not as complimentary with regards his art and called them photographic and, as such, non-art. However, the public did not agree, and his intricate style of painting is termed “magic-realism”.  Look carefully at his depiction of the snow.  Look how powdery it seems.  It is so life-like. His fame spread across Europe and as far as America and Canada where his paintings sold well. Toronto art dealer G. Blair Laing wrote in his book Memoirs of an Art Dealer, 1979:

“…He painted spectacular snow scenes in which the light seems to come from behind the canvas and glow. The critics scorned these pictures as photographic and called them non-art – but today this style of painting is called “magic-realism” and is much admired by critics and museum..”

Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (1811)

If ever you wanted a haunting winter scene, none could probably surpass the 1811 painting, Winter Landscape, by the nineteenth-century German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, who many believe is the most influential German artist of his generation. This is not just a winter landscape there is an element of religious symbolism. Look carefully at the foreground and you will see a crippled man sitting on the ground with his back against a large rock. Often at first glance observers miss the figure who seems to blend with the rock.  His crutch lies abandoned in the snow.  It appears he has given up on life.   He looks upwards at the crucifix, hands clasped in prayer. It is thought that the evergreen trees symbolise faith and the Gothic cathedral which looms out of the mist in the background, symbolises the promise of life after death.

The Magpie by Claude Monet (1868-69)

Claude Monet worked on his painting La Pie (The Magpie) during the winter of 1898/9. Monet tackled the great challenge of a snow-covered landscape. The setting for this work is near the commune of Étretat in Normandy. Monet lived in a house near here with his girlfriend, Camille Doncieux and their one-year-old son, Jean. This painting of a place in the countryside near Etretat, was painted en plein air by Monet and uses very unusual pale, luminous colours. In the work we see a solitary black magpie perched atop a gate. The light of the sun shines upon freshly fallen snow creating blue shadows. The work is hailed as one of the best winterscapes by Monet and is part of the Musée d’Oresay permanent collection.  It is said to be one of its most popular.

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

One of my favourite sixteenth-century painters is Pieter Bruegel the Elder and I am particularly fond of his painting Hunters in the Snow.  The painting is one of a series of works that featured different times of the year. This is a depiction of a wintry scene in a flat-bottomed valley. Three hunters, with little to show for their labours, are returning from an expedition accompanied by their dogs who also appear tired and demoralised after their fruitless outing. The hunters’ backs are bent as they trudge wearily through the snow. It appears to be a cold, yet calm overcast day, and Breugel has used whites and greys to convey the state of the weather. As we look down into the valley we see a number of frozen lakes and a river, on which we can see the silhouettes of the villagers enjoying the weather by skating and playing on the ice.

Skating in Central Park, by Agnes Tait (1934)

Another painting featuring winter pastimes on frozen lakes is the painting Winterscape, Skating in Central Park which was painted in 1934 by the American artist Agnes Tait. I particularly like this work as whenever I visit New York I always visit this beautiful park. Agnes Tait was born in 1894 and was a “Jill of all trades” being a painter, pen-and-ink artist, lithographer, book illustrator, muralist and dancer. Tait depicted the park in late afternoon as the low sun produces a beautifully coloured sky. Her modus operandi for this work was to complete the painting of the landscape first and, only then, add the figures which she would forge into small groups and by doing this she achieved a colourful pattern against the snow and ice. The very dark, almost black tree trunks  is in contrast to the white snow on the ground and the white mist atop of the background trees.

Winter Landscape with Skaters by Hendrick Avercamp

Many of the Dutch and Flemish winter paintings focus on how the people enjoyed the winters when lakes and canals were frozen over and they were able to go out on them and skate. One great exponent of that genre was Hendrick Avercamp. Avercamp was born in Amsterdam in January 1585, a time of the The Little Ice Age, which brought colder winters to parts of Europe and no doubt as a child he had spent the winters skating on the frozen lakes and canals. He later moved to Kampen, a town to the east of Amsterdam. Averkamp, who was mute, was known as “de Stomme van Kampen” (the mute of Kampen).  I particularly love this type of work.  I specifically like the busyness of the depiction.  Everywhere you look there is something going on.

The Drum Bridge and Yuhi Hill at Meguro by Utagawa Hiroshige (1857)

Utagawa Hiroshige was born in Edo in 1797 and originally it was envisioned that he would follow the career of his father, who was a fire-watchman. Both his parents died in 1809. Hiroshige is one of the two great masters of the Japanese landscape woodblock print, the other being Hokusai. Hiroshige’s forte was for his depictions of scenes which featured snow and rain, and has led him to be known as “the artist of rain, snow and mist”. For me, there is something special about Japanese woodblock prints and so one which incorporates a winter scene such as Drum Bridge and Yuhi Hill at Meguro, from the series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, had to me in my list of favourites.

Riverside near Mustio by Victor Westerholm

Two contrasting paintings, both depicting winter conditions and yet so different you would not believe they were from the same artist. In his painting Riverside near Mustio, look how Westerholm has, with just a few brushstrokes, and use of tones of grey and green, depicted the glass like surface of the water with its reflective quality.
Victor Axel Westerholm was born in Finland on 4 January 1860, at Nagu island in the Turku archipelago. He was the son of Vicor Westerholm, a ship’s captain, and Maria Westerholm (née Andersson). At the young age of nine, he attended the Finnish Art Society’s Drawing School in Turku. Later he would go to Germany and study under Eügen Ducker in Düsseldorf and then later enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris. In his late twenties, he became a teacher at the school of the Society of Art in Turku, and in 1891 became the director of the Turku art museum.

Evening Sun by Victor Axel Westerholm

He often painted winter landscapes and sunsets in the archipelago of Åland, where he had his summer residence, Tomtebo, close to the Lemström Canal. It was here that he founded and artists’ colony.  In his work, Evening Sun, look how the red colour of the buildings draw your eyes to focus on them.

Christmas Moonlight by Thomas Kinkade

I don’t suppose I could give you an insight into winterscapes and the hint of Christmas without including a painting by the American artist Thomas Kinkade who was the King of homely, some would say syrupy depictions. His painting Christmas Moonlight certainly evokes a feeling of happiness, serenity and contentment, all of which are things we strive for in life. It is sad to think that the artist himself, in the latter days, could not achieve these feelings for himself.

Poor Woman of the Village by Gustave Courbet

In complete contrast to the Kinkade painting, I thought I would look at a work by the Realist painter, Gustave Courbet. Gustave Courbet was a French painter who came from an affluent family but preferred the company of the ordinary folk. Courbet led the Realism movement in 19th-century French painting and was unswerving in his belief that his depictions of life must be truthful, “warts and all” and by so doing, rejected Academic teachings and the Romanticism movement.
In his painting, Poor Woman of the Village, we see his realistic attitude to a winter scene. The snow-clad landscape is no different to most but the main subject, an old woman, is a study of hardship. In the foreground we see a young child accompanied by an old woman dragging along her goat. This is not a painting oozing with symbolism. It is a painting which evokes a sense of realism as to the plight of the woman and the child as they battle the elements. It is a depiction of the unforgiving severity of winter.

It is for you to choose whether you like the Kinkade style or the Courbet style.  Do we need a period of escapism to make us feel better about life?  Whatever your choice, I wish you all a Happy Christmas.

 

Cecilia Beaux. Part 7 – The final years

Cynthia Sherwood by Cecilia Beaux (1892)

Upon returning to the United States, Beaux became one of the most sought-after portraitists in Philadelphia and New York. One of the first paintings by Cecilia Beaux, which was acclaimed by the critics for its gentle innocence, was a portrait she did for her friend and fellow artist, Rosina Emmet Sherwood in 1892. It was a portrait of her friend’s daughter Cynthia Sherwood. Rosina Emmet Sherwood was a book illustrator and one of the foremost female painter of that time and was a close friend of Cecilia’s. The two women had met through their connection with the arts, and in 1892 they wanted to celebrate their friendship by swapping portraits. Cecilia gave Rosina a portrait depicting her second child and eldest daughter, three-year-old Cynthia. The painting is made up of a tonal mixture of lilacs, crimson, and whites. In the work we see Cynthia sitting on a red sofa. She has a white ribbon in her hair and is wearing a white pinafore over a blue-grey dress and her arms rest in her lap. Rosina was delighted with her daughter’s portrait which was exhibited at the 1895 Society of American Artists’ annual exhibition. In a letter to Cecilia, Rosina wrote about how her daughter’s portrait was well received by fellow artists and critics alike:

“…My dear — you and Cynthia were the lions of the Exhibition yesterday. Really, much as I admired the picture, I was startled at its brilliancy and force…. It never looked so like Cynthia before. The artists all moved about it…. Mr. Chase said he would give anything to own it and Robert Reid, after extravagantly praising the big picture [Sita and Sarita] said he liked Cynthia’s portrait much the best. Kenyon Cox said that for the sort of portrait painting you chose to do, you do it better than any man he knew except John Singer Sargent. So there Madame!…”

Cecilia by Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1892)

In return Rosina painted a portrait of her close friend. Cecilia was so enamoured with the portrait that she kept it all her life and, on her death, it passed down to her great-niece.

Ernesta (Child with Nurse) (1894)

Two years later, in 1894, Cecilia completed another portrait of a young girl, her two-year-old niece, Ernesta Drinker, entitled Ernesta (Child with Nurse). In the painting, we see the young girl holding the hand 0f her nurse, Mattie. The portrait of Cecilia’s young niece reveals the well-to-do world of the advantaged child. It is a sentimental portrait focusing on the first tentative steps of the young girl and if we look closely at the tightly clasped hands of adult and child, we see how Cecilia has depicted the partnership between the dependent child and the caring protective adult. We view the painting at the child’s eye-level. The figure of the nurse is cropped at the waist, and so we just see the arm and skirt of the nurse which makes us aware of the size of the diminutive child. From where we stand viewing the portrait, we soon realise that it is all about the world of the child. The portrait of young Ernesta was shown at the Society of American Artists in their spring exhibition in 1894. In 1896 the painting was awarded a third-place bronze medal at the Carnegie Art Institute’s first International exhibition.

Reverend Matthew Blackburne Grier by Cecilia Beaux (1892)

Cecilia Beaux’s child portraiture was very popular and in much demand, but this was just one “string to her bow”. During the year in which she completed the portrait of Cynthia Sherwood she completed a portrait of an eminent man, The Reverend Matthew Blackburne Grier, who lived just two doors away from Cecilia’s family home. The subject of the painting is the retired Presbyterian clergyman and former editor of The Presbyterian who had come to live in West Philadelphia. Cecilia had approached him and asked if he would sit for her. In the portrait, we see him sitting in the tricornered Chippendale chair which was a much-used accoutrement of her studio. Within a year of its completion the painting became a prize-winning portrait, winning her the Philadelphia Art Club’s Gold Medal in 1893.

Self portrait by Cecilia Beaux (1894)

In May 1894, Cecilia Beaux was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design. Admission to this academy was conditional on her agreement to the Academy’s Constitutional rule that she must submit a portrait of herself for the Academy’s permanent collection. For Cecilia it was a moment in time that she must decide how she wanted to portray herself. She was now thirty-nine years old and had the self-confidence to believe that she was both good-looking and cultured and she decided that those characteristics needed to be depicted in the finished portrait. The completed Self Portrait also shows off her beauty. Her lavender, beige and white striped silk dress accentuated her elegance appearance. This is not a depiction which in any way exudes her sexuality. It is all about her professionalism and serious dedication to her art. Nobody could question her beauty but for Cecilia, she wanted to be remembered not for her physical attributes but for her exceptional artistic talent.

In 1895 Cecilia was appointed the “Instructor of the Head Class of the Schools,” at the Pennsylvania Academy with a salary of $1,200 a year. This appointment given to a female was the talk of the local newspapers. One newspaper commented:

“…Never before, either in this country or abroad, has a woman been chosen as a member of the faculty in a famous art school. It is a legitimate source of pride to Philadelphia that one of its most cherished institutions has made this innovation…”

Beaux taught at the Academy for two decades in either a “Head Course” or a “Portrait Class”. Her classes were mixed, and she was constantly pressing her female students telling them that they had to work twice as hard as their male students if they wanted to achieve success.

At the height of her long career, Beaux painted the cream of the American elite. She received commissions to paint portraits of the “great and the good” including college presidents, businessmen, socialites, eminent medical men and women, and political notables.

Mrs. Thomas A. Scott (Anna Riddle) by Cecilia Beaux (1897)

In 1897 she accepted a commission to paint a portrait of the former Anna Riddle, who was the wife of Thomas Alexander Riddle, an American businessman, railroad executive, and industrialist. He was the fourth president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  In this sumptuous portrait we see the fifty-eight-year-old lady adorned in a shimmering ivory-satin gown and white-lace cap. Her left hand holds on to a parasol which rests against her knee. Her right hand, suitably bejewelled as was becoming for such a wealthy lady, rests on a marble side table. On top of the table we can see a silver tea tray, a blue bowl of red geraniums, and a brown porcelain Chinese export teacup all of which help to portray the status and wealth of the sitter and her family. In the background we can just make out a faint sketching of a round table and chair.

Mrs. Clement B. Newbold by Cecilia Beaux (1896)

Cecilia Beaux had received the commission to paint the portrait of Mrs Thomas Alexander Scott on the strength of her previous year’s bridal portrait of her daughter, Mary Dickinson Scott (Mrs. Clement B. Newbold), at the time of her wedding to Clement Buckley Newbold the wealthy banker and financier in 1896.

Portrait of Dr. John Shaw Billings by Cecilia Beaux (1895) in the National Library of Medicine

In the autumn of 1895 Cecilia was commissioned to paint a portrait of Dr. John Shaw Billings, a renowned surgeon and librarian, who had made significant contributions to the American medical profession. He sat for Cecilia at her Chestnut Street studio. It was his testimonial year and at a dinner honouring him he was presented with a silver box containing a check for $10,000, “in grateful recognition of his services to medical scholars”. The sum of money had been raised by 259 physicians of the United States and Great Britain. Money was also set aside for the commissioning of his portrait by Cecilia Beaux and it was later presented Beaux’s work to the Army Medical Museum and Library in Washington, D.C.

By 1900 the Cecilia Beaux’s work was in great demand and clients came from all over the east coast to sit for her and she decided she needed to base herself in New York. Richard and Helena Gilder were very close friends of Cecilia’s whom she had met through her former tutor Catherine Drinker and her husband Thomas Janvier. Richard Watson Gilder was a poet and editor of the periodicals Scribner’s Monthly and The Century Magazine, and the Gilders were leading lights of an artistic literary and music circle in New York and it was through Cecilia’s friendship with them that she had received many portrait commissions from the rich and famous. The Gilders lived in New York and during her protracted stays in the city she would stay with them. Eventually she got herself a studio on the corner of South Washington Square and Broadway, which was close to the Gilder’s house on East 8th Street.

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Daughter Ethel by Cecilia Beaux (1902)

Cecilia’s portraiture was so popular that she could be very circumspect on which commissions she chose to accept. She was once quoted as saying that it doesn’t pay to paint everybody, and by adhering to that rule she ensured that she became one of the most famous late nineteenth century American portrait artists whose clientele was mainly drawn from the upper class. One of her most famous sitters was, Edith Roosevelt, the second wife of the United States president, Theodore Roosevelt who sat for Cecilia 1n 1902.
Cecilia recalled the sittings for the portrait:

“… A number of visits to Washington were needed for the work, and the portrait was painted in the White House. It was to have been of Mrs. Roosevelt only, but her daughter Ethel consented to literally ‘jump in,’ greatly enlivening, I hope, her mother’s hours of attention to posing. This attention was constant and sympathetic, but not static, and did not need to be. They generously devoted the Red Room to me for a studio……………..… I chose — and upholstered — a covering for the broad seat on which Mrs. Roosevelt and Ethel could dispose themselves easily; the warmth of the Red Room got somehow into the picture, and fortunately we proceeded without many changes. I understood from the first that it was not to be an official portrait, and I think every one was satisfied that, as it was created among intimate circumstances, its spirit might be the same…”

Cecilia Beaux and Thornton Oakley at Green Alley (1907)
Thornton Oakley was an American artist and illustrator

With all the pressure of work, Cecilia decided that she needed a sanctuary away from her hectic city life. In her biography, she wrote:

“…I began to dream of a change, of’ a pied-a-terre even then — of a shift of the year’s divisions — for work, and rest. Why not, I thought, have the summer for my working time, and take my rest in a short winter period? I had never looked on painting as toil, but I had sometimes felt that the city winter contained too much of everything, and that the summer, if considered as a holiday, was boring in being desœuvre [at a loose end]. Why not have long, unhurried bouts of painting, when off hours would be spent in delicious air — morning and evenings of thrilling loveliness — a long, long summer…”

Green Alley
Cecilia Beaux’s home at Eastern Point, Gloucester, Mass.
Photograph, ca., 1920, by T. E. Morr.

Cecilia decided to rent a place in East Gloucester on Cape Ann in Essex County, Massachusetts. She, along with her Aunt Eliza, Uncle Will, and other relatives first visited the idyllic New England fishing village in July 1887, staying at the Fairview Inn and returned there on a regular basis. In 1903, she decided not to stay at the inn but instead rented a cottage on Eastern Point for the summer. She used to refer to it as the Rock of Calif and whilst she spent the summers there her companion on her first Parisian trip, her cousin, May Whitlock, acted as her housekeeper, and would do so for almost forty years. Whilst at the cottage Cecilia looked for some land where she could build her own house. She finally found the perfect spot, a thickly wooded space on the harbour side of the road, part-way between the lighthouse and the town of Gloucester. She then commissioned the building of a house and studio on the plot of land and was finally able to move into her new house on August 7th, 1906. She named her house Green Alley.

Cardinal Mercier by Cecilia Beaux (1919)

In 1910, her beloved Uncle Willie died. She was devastated by the loss, as William Biddle was the foremost male in her early life after her father left the family home after the death of his wife. William Biddle was just fifty-five years of age when he died.

Georges Clemenceau by Cecilia Beaux (1920)

With the backing of the Smithsonian Institution in 1919, the National Art Committee devised, and were overseers of a project by which American artists would paint the portraits of prominent World War I leaders from America and the allied nations. The National Art Committee selected Cecilia as one of eight painters commissioned to execute portraits of the war heroes. The committee set aside $25,000 for each artist to paint three portraits. Cecilia’s task was to paint the portraits of Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, the Belgian Cardinal who was renowned for his staunch resistance to the German occupation of his country during the Great War. She was also to paint a portrait of Admiral Lord David Beatty, who led the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron during the First World War and Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, who was a French politician, physician, and journalist and who was Prime Minister of France during the First World War.

Admiral Sir David Beatty (also known as Lord Beatty) by Cecilia Beaux (1920)

Cecilia Beaux continued with her regular visits to Europe accompanied by various companions. One such trip in the summer of 1924, with a young Boston artist, Aimée Lamb, ended disastrously when Cecilia, who was sixty-nine-years-old at the time, whilst out walking in Paris along the rue St. Honoré, caught her heel on the pavement, fell and broke her hip. The accident  occurred on June 30th and after ten weeks in a clinic she still was not allowed to return home until November. The terrible accident was a devastating blow to Cecilia, as it crippled her for the rest of her life and necessitated her to wear a heavy steel brace and walk with a crutch. It badly affected how she was able to paint and her output dwindled.

Cecilia Beaux received numerous awards and accolades for her work which was exhibited many times in many countries. She died of coronary thrombosis at her beloved home, Green Alley, on September 17th, 1942. She was aged eighty-seven. Following her cremation in Boston, her ashes were buried in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

This is my seventh and final blog looking at the life of this amazing artist. So much is missing from what I have written. So many of her paintings have not been shown and yet maybe it will tempt you to read her autobiography (Background with Figures) or read the many excellent essays written about Cecilia Beaux by Tara Leigh Tappert.


Most of the information for the blogs featuring Cecilia Beaux came from two books:

Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux

Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen

and the e-book:
Out of the Background: Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture by Tara Leigh Tappert.

Extracts from letters to and from Cecilia Beaux came from The Beaux Papers held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art

Information also came from the blog, American Girls Art Club In Paris. . . and Beyond, featuring Cecilia Beaux was also very informative and is a great blog, well worth visiting on a regular basis.:
https://americangirlsartclubinparis.com/

Photographs came from an article I found entitled The Only Miss Beaux, Photographs of Cecilia Beaux and her Circle by Cheryl Leibold of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Cecilia Beaux. Part 6 – Visits to England, the Return Home and Family Portraits.

Cecilia Beaux (c.1888)

……………….Cecilia Beaux finally returned to Paris in December 1888 after her summer in Concarneau and her six week European journey and the first thing she had to contend with was to find some new accommodation.  Her one priority was that her new “home” had to be better than the dismal and dire Pension Villeneuve which she and her cousin May Whitlock had had to put up with on their arrival from America in January. They eventually settled for a “room-only” fifth-floor attic apartment in a Latin Quarter maison meuble (furnished house) at 30 rue Vaugirard, situated in the 6th arondissement across the road from the Luxembourg Gardens.  Cecilia was delighted with her new home, writing:

“…There were five flights for us, but easy, broad, spotless, and without taint of late decades. I would like to boast openly that I have lived in an attic in Paris, a tiny chamber in the mansard, with a dormer window opening its croissee eastward and sunward. The window would hold a plant or two, and outside was the leaden ledge that took the rain on stormy days. Leaning out one could look down upon the Senate, grey and dignified, and the Luxembourg Gallery was very near. The iron railing of the garden was across the way…”

However, it was still winter, still cold and the accommodation was still damp so one of her first purchases was a stove, for which she paid four francs.

Portrait of Henry Sandwith Drinker by Cecilia Beaux (1901)
(Cecilia’s nephew)

Cecilia returned to the Académie Julian to study art but this time she attended  the original branch of the academy which was at the Passage des Panoramas, which meant she had to make the two-mile journey crossing the Seine each day. It is interesting to read in her 1930 autobiography, Background with Figures, that she was less than enamoured with the teaching at the academy and although she could have attached herself to an atelier headed up by a well-known artist she was not convinced of the benefit of such a move. She wrote:

“…I might have delivered myself, of course, to an individual master. There were several of high repute who admitted disciples. By an instinct I could not resist, I shrank from the committal, although there would have been contacts resulting from it of high value and interest. I saw no special direction in any exhibited work (I fear to say it), among the living, that I felt like joining…”

Cecil Kent Drinker by Cecilia Beaux (1891) (Four-year-old nephew of Cecilia Beaux)

Cecilia was also unhappy that there were few critiques by the tutors which would have given her some constructive criticism. All the tutors would tell her that she should just “keep on as I was going”. It was not that she was simply negative about the teaching at the Julian for she had definite ideas of how art should be taught and how the tutors should act:

“…What the student above all needs is to have his resources increased by the presence of a master whom he believes in, not perhaps as a prophet or adopted divinity, but one who is in unison with a living world, of various views, all of whose roots are deep, tried, and nourished by the truth, or rather the truths that Nature will reveal to the seeker. He is the present embodiment of performance in art, better called the one sent, representing all. He is serious, quiet, a personality that has striven…”

Cecilia’s room in rue Vaugirard was too small for it to be used as a studio and for her a studio was a primary requisite not just to carry out painting but it was a place for quiet contemplation. With that in mind she managed to secure a nearby small ground-floor working place at 15 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs which was situated at the southern end of the Luxembourg Gardens. Later Cecilia and her cousin and companion, May Whitlock would give up their room at the rue Vaugirard house and move their belongings into the studio.

Newnham Grange in 1890

In May 1889 Cecilia made a solo trip to England. She had been invited by her one-time Philadelphia friend Martha Haskins “Maud” du Puy, now Mrs Maud Darwin, to come up to Cambridge and stay with her, her husband George Darwin, who was the eldest son of the naturalist, Charles Darwin, and their four children. George Darwin was the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and the family lived at Newnham Grange, which was situated in an idyllic location perched on the banks of the River Cam. Cecilia had to endure a very rough Channel crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven and then a long train journey through London to Cambridge. However, despite the inauspicious start to her English adventure, her short stay at Newnham was all she could have hoped for. Beautiful house to stay in with a comfortable bed, a completely different scenario in comparison to her room in Paris. In her autobiography she remembered her first morning at Newnham Grange:

“…My first waking in the big, chintz-hung guest-room at Newnham Grange is one of the jewel-set markers of memory………… The sun poured in, and through its beams I could see across a meadow and under huge trees. Another window was hung, without, by a rich drapery of lilac wistaria, in full bloom, and when I sprang from my bed and put my head out, there was a cherry tree full of ‘ripe ones,’ just outside, also bird song; and a robin, making the best of the feast, superseded the cuckoo, and children of English voice and speech were in the garden below…”

She also had a taste of university and English countryside life with an invite to dinner at the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge, Sunday morning service at King’s Chapel and even a visit to Charles Darwin’s eighty-one-year-old widow, Emma, who was Cecilia’s friend’s mother-in-law. She even was invited to the hallowed Master of Trinity College Cambridge’s garden party, remembering the event well:

“…An English garden-party differs from all others especially in the domain of the University. The Master of Trinity, who is the King of Cambridge, has a garden which occupies one bank of the river for a long distance. Acacias in full bloom hang over the wall during May week, tall dark yews associating as background. The Master himself, large, brown-bearded, and urbane, looked his part to perfection, and I was proud to have a share of his gracious attention…”

Lady Geoge Darwin by Cecilia Beaux (1889)

Such was the frequency of invitations to lunches and dinners that Cecilia hardly had time to think about sketching and painting but she did complete one work, a pastel portrait of her host Maud. Maud’s husband George was made Knight Commander of the Bath in 1905, and so the title of this portrait is now known as Lady George Darwin.

Cecilia and May Whitlock cancelled their plans to return to America and instead went to Cambridge in June, where they were to have stayed as guests of George and Maud Darwin, not in the main house but in The Mill, a small residence at the end of the garden of Newnham Grange. However Cecilia decided as it may not have been big enough for two ladies Cecilia and Maud took lodgings, at Ashton House, a small brick dwelling in a shady street, only a stone’s throw from Newnham and used The Mill as her artistic studio.

After that second visit to Cambridge,  Cecilia left the comfort of Newnham Grange and returned to Paris only to find that her cousin had vacated their fifth-floor attic room and moved all their possessions and clothes into Cecilia’s small one-room studio with skylight. This was now to be their living quarters, their bedroom, as well as Cecilia’s studio. It was a terrible shock to the system for Cecilia who had just sampled the height of comfort in Cambridge. To make things worse for her and May, as summer approached, the once cool room had become a “hot-house” as the intense sunlight streamed through the skylight. Reading a passage in her biography, one can be in no doubt as to how Cecilia regarded her new “home”:

“…The circumstances of my return to Paris should be mentioned only by way of warning and contrast, and I shall always regret that I returned to the adored place, by way of my own blunder and a very squalid experiment. When I entered the shaky door of the studio, I found it filled with a helter-skelter collection of our belongings. There had been no preparatory cleaning or arranging. A bed had been put in. The toilet arrangements were simple, but for use required a complicated process. A tin basin, which I had used for washing brushes, was uncertainly disposed on the corner of the bookshelf, the soap saucer scarcely holding beside it. A chair-back was all there was for towels, and, if one wished to sit down, books and dresses had to be put somewhere else. It had become scorching hot. I insisted in rigging up some sort of Screen under the skylight for decency’s sake. Squalor, wretchedness, into which no gleam of fun entered; I sympathized with royalty and was ‘not amused.’…”

SS Anchoria

Cecilia and May’s time in Paris and England had come to an end in August 1889 and the pair boarded the steamship Anchoria at the Scottish port of Greenock Harbour on the River Clyde. On the twenty-second of August, the pair set sail ploughing their way through rough seas and a blanket fog. The intrepid pair finally arrived back in Philadelphia at the beginning of September 1889 after almost nineteen months away from home. Once home, her family bombarded Cecilia with questions about her European adventure and her plans for the future. Cecilia was unequivocal about her future life. It would be dedicated to her art and from the sale of her paintings she would shore up the family finances. She was also equally definite that her future life and plans would not be hampered by relationships with possible suitors. The family accepted her views and her plans for the future and set about trying to help her.

A photograph of Cecilia and Emma in the Chestnut Street studio (1890)

Her uncle, William Biddle, found a new studio for her at 1710 Chestnut Street, and then helped her arrange it so that she could set herself up as a professional artist. She and her cousin Emma shared the studio.  At the same time her family relieved her of all household duties. The sense of family loss was two-sided, for not only did her sister and aunts miss Cecilia, but she also missed her family despite the good times she experienced in Europe. Maybe it was the happiness of being back, once again, in the family fold that enticed her to complete many portraits of her sister’s family and other relatives. She also received many portraiture commissions from the Philadelphia “elite”. In the five years after her return home she completed over forty portraits.

Sita and Sarita by Cecilia Beaux (1894)

Probably her most famous family portrait was completed in 1894 and was entitled Sita and Sarita (Jeune Fille au Chat). It is a depiction of her cousin, Charles W. Leavitt’s wife Sarah (Allibone) Leavitt and the mysterious title of the painting comes from Beaux’s use of Spanish diminutives, Sarita for Sarah and Sita, meaning “little one,” for the cat. Sarah is dressed in white, with a small black cat perched precariously on her shoulder. The eyes of both the woman and the cat are green and almost lined up horizontally in the depiction. The combination of the whiteness of her dress and the palid complexion of her face are in direct contrast to the black furry animal standing on her shoulder. Both human and animal stare out enigmatically. Cecilia Beaux donated this painting to the Musée de Luxembourg and it is presently housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Twenty-seven years later she painted another version of the painting which is now housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, part of the Corcoran Collection.

Dorothea and Francesca by Cecilia Beaux (1898)

Another of her well-known portraits, Dorothea and Francesca, was that of the two eldest daughters of Helena de Kay and Richard Watson Gilder. Richard Watson Gilder was a poet and editor of the periodicals Scribner’s Monthly and The Century Magazine, and his wife Helena, who was artistically trained at The Cooper Union in Manhattan, was a portrait, still-life, and flower painter, and also a writer. The Gilders, who were very good friends of Cecilia, were leading lights of an artistic literary and music circle in New York and they played a central role in the founding of the Society of American Artists in 1877. Cecilia recalled in her biography the setting for the painting which took place in the Gilder’s Four Brooks Farm in Tyringham, Massachussets:

“…The big and little sisters, Dorothea and Francesca, used to execute a dance of the simplest and all too circumscribed design, invented by themselves, and adorned by their unconscious beauty alone. This was the subject. I built a platform with my own hands, as the girls could not move easily on the bare earth. When it rained hard, in September, the orchard let its surplus water run down the hill and under the barn-sill, so that, as my corner was rather low, I put on rubber boots and splashed in and out of my puddle, four inches deep. October was difficult, for it grew bitterly cold. But valiant posing went on, though the scenic effect of the group was changed by wraps. Summer, indeed, was over, when on a dark autumnal night, in the freezing barn, the picture was packed by the light of one or two candles and a lantern…”

Charles Wellford Leavitt by Cecilia Beaux (1911)

Cecilia Beaux’s cousin, Charles Wellford Leavitt, featured in another of her works. She completed the painting, Charles Welford Leavitt, the Artist’s Cousin in 1911. The sitter, who was forty at the time of the sitting, was a successful engineer and pioneer in the field of city planning. To acknowledge his profession Cecilia has added some of the tools of his trade on a table next to him. She has portrayed him with his arms crossed in front of him and his demeanour oozes a sense of importance and confidence.

In my final blog about the life of Cecilia Beaux I will look at her later years and the many portraits she did of the rich and famous.

…………………………………to be concluded.


Most of the information for the blogs featuring Cecilia Beaux came from two books:

Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux

Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen

and the e-book:
Out of the Background: Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture by Tara Leigh Tappert.

Extracts from letters to and from Cecilia Beaux came from The Beaux Papers held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art

Photograph from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts archive

Information also came from the blog, American Girls Art Club In Paris. . . and Beyond, featuring Cecilia Beaux was also very informative and is a great blog, well worth visiting on a regular basis.:
https://americangirlsartclubinparis.com/tag/catherine-ann-drinker/

Cecilia Beaux. Part 5 – Concarneau, the summer of 1888.

The Lady Artist by Charles “Shorty” Lasar

……………………..Cecilia Beaux and her cousin May Whitlock had arrived in Paris in the last week of January 1888. The weather had been typical January weather – wet, cold, and thoroughly miserable, rarely catching a glimpse of the sun. Add to this their insalubrious and uncomfortable pension and the way they had to dress in warm but shabby winter clothes, it is possible that Cecilia’s dream of the French capital may have been wavering. However, she had her course at Académie Julian and numerous art galleries to visit which, for her, made life worth living. She revelled in her visits to the Salon not only viewing the paintings but also “people-watching” the visitors circulating the galleries. In her autobiography she recalls such a time with great excitement:

“…The Salon drew crowds of all kinds. To Vernissage [a preview of an art exhibition] flocked the elite of Paris, the aristocracy of Society, of the Stage, of Music, and Literature, as well as of the Plastic Arts: in other words, the French Crowd, always intelligent, always amused, always disputive. How new to me to see a group of forceful, middle-aged, or old men, masters in some field without doubt, stooping over a small picture, arguing with heated insistence, denouncing, eulogizing! Never had I seen assembled so many men of ‘parts’ — real men, I would have said — so absorbed, so oblivious, greeting each other warmly, and with absolutely no general curiosity; pausing a moment, with great deference, before some quiet lady, or obvious beauty, but really there through profound interest in contemporary art. I longed to get closer — not to meet them, but to hear their talk, their dispute about the supreme Subject…”

And later describes how she witnessed one special visitor to the Salon:

“…Into the gallery one day, as our obscure party moved about,- there entered a Personage; a charming figure, with a following of worshippers. The lady was dressed in black lace, strangely fashioned. Though she was small, her step and carriage, slow and gracious as she moved and spoke, were queenly. She was a dazzling blonde, somewhat restored and not beautiful, as one saw her nearer. The striking point in her costume — and there was but one — was that the upper part of her corsage, or yoke, was made entirely of fresh violets, bringing their perfume with them. Every one, artists and their friends, ceased their examination of the pictures, and openly gazed, murmuring their pride and joy in their idol, Sarah Bernhardt…”

Head of a French Peasant Woman by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

All artists at one time or another make a choice about what medium they prefer to use but also what is to be their artistic style. Cecilia Beaux was no different. She had arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1881, the same year as the sixth Impressionist exhibitions. However, she was not seduced by Impressionism, writing:

“…The enthusiasm I felt for Monet’s iridescent pigments, his divided rays to reach the light of Nature by means of color only, left me with no desire to follow. Landscape, genre, I could pore over with no desire to take a white umbrella into the sun…”

For Cecilia, her Gods of art were the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, and Veronese, but she admitted there was even one thing that could seduce her away from art:

“…If there was anything that could have drawn me off my feet entirely, and divorced me from painting, it was to be found in the lower galleries of the Louvre, on some of the upper landings and among the isolated examples of Greek and Italian Renaissance sculptures. Mystery again. Sculpture for me was surrounded by the never really comprehended glamour of its creative act, as well as the absolute power of its beauty, on emotion…”

Country Woman, Concarneau, France by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

April was a welcome month for Cecilia as winter had almost been forgotten and the all the beauty of Springtime in Paris had arrived. With the improvement in the weather came the improvement in her disposition. She remembered the joy that this change in the weather brought to her spirit:

“…One morning in early April, we met, and saw, the first of Spring in Paris. All of youth, hope, and joy seemed to be in those shafts of sunshine, pouring through virgin leaf and violet shadow, and in the voices that called this and that from cleverly manipulated push-carts, heaped with flowers, vegetables, fruit, whose fresh moisture the sun touched with rainbow hues. Every French heart bounded with the hour’s happiness, and I knew that my heart was French, too…”

For Cecilia Beaux the summer of 1881 began with a new adventure. The academy had closed for the summer break and she and her fellow students were free to go off and paint. She and her American companions decided that the de rigeur destination for aspiring artists, especially Americans, was the artist colonies of Britany and specifically the coastal town of Concarneau.  Cecilia’s intrepid group set of on a late June afternoon by train bound for Concarneau.

South façade of the present day Château de Vitré

Because of the distance the party needed to break their journey and have an overnight stop-off at the town of Vitré famous for its twelfth century stone chateau built by the baron Robert I of Vitré, which the party visited before completing the second part of their journey. The party stayed at the little Hôtel de France. Cecilia Beaux had only sampled one French town, Paris, since her arrival in France and was amazed by the beauty of Vitré. She wrote:

“…It had been raining, I remember, and everything had all the color that moisture and a breaking sky, full of light, not sunshine, gives. When we looked up or down the steep little winding streets of mossy, grey, toppling houses, there was always a burning spot of red, a geranium in an upper window, or a white-coiffed woman, in a deep blue or green skirt, knitting in a doorway, coppers shining inside, or an old woman in sabots clattering down toward us over the rough stone pavement, or a tiny cherub in grown-up garments supping its bowl of pot au feu on a doorstep, and three children’s heads in a narrow window under the eaves, looking down at us…”

Seaside Inlet, Concarneau, France by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

The party continued their onward journey to Concarneau and arrived the next evening. They took a cab to the upmarket hotel, Les Voyageurs where they had dinner with friends before setting off to find and secure some more modest accommodation. They eventually settled on a small propriété owned by Papa and Maman Valdinaire, who were local florists. Cecilia loved the property, describing it in her autobiography:

“…a house and garden with an eight- or nine-foot wall entirely enclosing the estate, which was about an acre, and was in a garden full of flowers only. The walls were covered with carefully trained Bruit, pears and apricots, and a number of small trees, perhaps for blossom only, cast flickering light and shade over the flower-beds…”

Head of a Woman by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

However, there were some drawbacks to their stay with the Valdinaires. The owners lived on the ground floor of the property and to gain access to the road or the garden they had to go through their accommodation which was also home to their chickens and their precious goat, which had freedom of the house but fortunately for them, couldn’t climb the stairs!! Also, according to Cecilia, the lady of the house “lacked character”. Cecilia described their accommodation:

“…The house was one room deep, and we were offered the two rooms on the second floor; also an attic for our kitchen. This had a large dormer window with lovely view toward the sea and a hosier for cooking on the hearth, really perfect in our eyes — but the fact that only one of the bedrooms was for the moment habitable was temporarily discouraging. They were at the top of the bare stairway, on — I called it — the second floor. There were windows on both sides, the sunny ones looking on the garden and within easy sight of the pigeons, and the garden, which was, with all its varied charms, to be our painting ground and studio…”

The Wave by T Alexander Harrison (1885)

One of the main reasons for Cecilia choosing Concarneau that summer was that two other important painters from Pennsylvania had studios in the area. They were Thomas Alexander Harrison and Charles “Shorty” Lasar. Harrison was mainly a marine painter and one of his most famous works was one he completed in 1885, entitled The Wave, which depicts waves rolling in on the beach. His mastery of light and colour in this painting is spectacular.

In Arcadia by T Alexander Harrison (c.1886)

One of his “non-marine” works, In Arcadia, was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1885 and it received “an honourable mention” and it was to be the first of many awards Harrison received for his artistic works. The painting is now housed in the Musée d’Orsay.

Cecilia completed a portrait of T Alexander Harrison in 1888, whilst she was at Concarneau. Harrison was pleased with the completed work and commented about Cecilia’s painterly stating:

“…she had the “right stuff” to become a serious 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…”

Tobias Returning to His Family by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

Whilst at Concarneau Cecilia Beaux complete several grisaille paintings. Grisaille paintings are those done entirely in shades of grey or another neutral greyish colour. The set of grisailles she completed all depicted biblical themes  and they were a distinct, if not fleeting, departure from her beloved portraiture. One such work was entitled Tobias Returning to His Family and is based on an Old Testament story about the blind man Tobit and his son, Tobias’ return home with his dog and how he cured his father’s blindness. In the Old Testament Book of Tobias 11:9 it describes the coming of Tobias preceded by the delighted dog:

“…and coming as if he had brought the news, shewed his joy by his fawning and wagging his tail…”

In the depiction we see Tobias’ dog bounding through the central doorway ahead of his master, “announcing” the son’s arrival.

Landscape with Farm Building Concarneau by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

Whilst in Concarneau that summer, Cecilia Beaux also unusually strayed away from her usual portraiture to complete a couple of landscape works. One such work was entitled Landscape with a Farm Building.

Twilight Confidences, by Cecilia Beaux (1888}

However, by far the most memorable works produced by Cecilia whilst in Concarneau was her 1888 painting entitled Twilight Confidences and the number of studies which led to the finished work, all of which are held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia and the completed work was exhibited at their 1890 Annual Exhibition. This finished work is looked upon as her first foray into plein air painting. It is a juxtaposition of the two figures and the seascape and all are lit by the light of the setting sun. Cecilia recalled the sketches and painting:

“…I attempted two life-size heads, at dusk, on the beach; two girls of the merely robust type in conference or gossip — the tones of coiffe and col mingling with the pale blue, rose, and celadon of the evening sky…”

The coiffe is the decorative headdress and col is the decorative collar associated with Brittany.

In his 1983 book, Americans in Brittany and Normandy 1860-1910, David Sellin quotes Cecilia Beaux’s thoughts about the preparatory stage of this work:

“…if I succeed with my two heads it will be the opening of a new era for me, that of working from pochades [sketches] for large simple outdoor effects. I can see that the strongest part of what gift I have is my memory of impressions…”

Above is one of the many preparatory sketches held by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art is a small (14 x 15cms) oil on cardboard grisaille sketch.

Good Samaritan by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

Their summer sojourn in Concarneau eventually ended and Cecilia and her friends, with the help of their landlady, Madame Valdinaire, decided to host a going-away party for their friends. On the menu was to be chicken which delighted Cecilia until she was told by her hostess that she must choisi le poulet. She remembered the incident well, writing:

“…It was a dark night in October. The chickens had retired early, and it was my lot to follow Madame V. and her lantern to the sleeping-quarters of her brood. Of course they had heard us coming, and when the door was opened and the lantern shone upon a row of dusky, perching bundles of feathers, a dilated, circular eye scintillated with terror in each sideways-turned head. A few sleepy, guttural croakings came from the back row, but those in front were silent and fixed. Madame Valdinaire, with cruel liberality, asked me if I preferred the brown or the speckled, or both, and seized one at random by its yellow legs, holding it upside down for me to palper [feel] its shrinking body, the one eye always turned up and fixed in the struggling bunch of squawks. Here I turned and fled, bidding Madame V. choisir herself, and stumbled into the house and up to our room, where my cousin sat placidly writing a letter…”

Cecilia Beaux and her companions left Concarneau in October 1888 and set off on what was to be a six-week trip around Europe by train. They went through Switzerland and crossed the Alps via the St Gothard Pass on their way to Venice, where they stayed for six days. From there they journeyed to Florence, stopping in the Tuscan city for six days. Sadly for Cecilia most of those days she was laid low with an illness. They then went across to France and called at Avignon and Nimes, the home town of Cecilia’s late father who had died in 1874. The journey ended back in Paris in December 1888 and Cecilia was proud of how frugal she had been during this six-week adventure saying:

“…It may be of passing interest to present-day tourists to know that in our six weeks’ journey we were only by way of second- and third-class, by train; and pension, never hotel; we spent just $107 apiece and had no sense of being penurious…”

……………………………….to be continued


Most of the information for the blogs featuring Cecilia Beaux came from two books:
Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux
Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen
and the e-book:
Out of the Background: Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture by Tara Leigh Tappert.
Extracts from letters to and from Cecilia Beaux came from The Beaux Papers held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art
Information also came from the blog, American Girls Art Club In Paris. . . and Beyond, featuring Cecilia Beaux was also very informative and is a great blog, well worth visiting on a regular basis.:
https://americangirlsartclubinparis.com/tag/catherine-ann-drinker/