My featured artist today is looked upon as one of the greatest portrait painters of her time. Of her, the American painter, William Merritt Chase said:
“…[she is] the greatest woman painter that had ever lived…. She is a painter as Velasquez and Rembrandt were, and like them, she infuses the subtle quality of life into her work…”
She is the nineteenth century American society portrait painter, Cecilia Beaux (née Leavitt). This initial blog looks on her life before she became a professional painter but maybe to understand her better, one must understand the trials and tribulations of her early life and one has also to go back to the turn of the eighteenth century and her maternal grandparents John Wheeler Leavitt and his wife Cecilia Kent Leavitt. John and Cecilia were both born in the last decade of the eighteenth century and were married in 1820. Their ancestral history could be traced
back to seventeenth-century New England and before that to England. John was a prosperous textile merchant who founded the New York based family firm John W. & Rufus Leavitt Company, and was one of the most prominent businessmen of his age. He and his wife had eight children and as the saying goes “money was no object” for this family. The children were all home-tutored in all the academic subjects and taught to play the piano at which the second youngest, Eliza became a brilliant musician.
However, the good times ended abruptly in 1846 with problems in the cotton industry and debts that could not be serviced, and the company filed for bankruptcy. The Leavitt family owed their creditors so much money they had to sell their New York town house and their country estate on the Palisades in Hoboken and John and Cecilia Kent Leavitt were forced to move to a small house in a “rough” suburb. Their two eldest daughters, Cecilia (the mother of Cecilia Beaux) and Eliza had to go out to work to help with the family finances. Cecilia worked as a music teacher and Eliza worked as a governess. It is noted in Cecilia Beaux’s autobiography Background with Figures, that the sons were of little help. As she put it, they were dreamers and not doers! As is often the case when one is subjected to financial pressure, John Leavitt’s health took a turn for the worse and his wife had to take over the running of the house and manage the family finances.
Cecilia and Eliza moved from the family home in New York to Philadelphia around 1848 where they had distant relatives. With the help of friends, they were soon socially accepted. Financial help for John Leavitt and his family materialised in the form of a foreigner, Jean Adolph Beaux. He came from the city of Nimes in France, in 1848 and was from a family of French Huguenots, long engaged in the silk manufacture business. In 1848, aged thirty-eight, he emigrated to Philadelphia to set up an American branch of his family’s business, J. P. Beaux & Co., Sewing Silks.
Although there were many eligible women for the Frenchman to choose a companion, he had fallen desperately in love with Cecilia Leavitt, maybe partly because she had an excellent grasp of the French language, which certainly helped as John-Adolph’s grasp of the English language was poor. Cecilia also fell for the charming and handsome French gentleman and wrote home to her family in New York saying she had met a French gentleman with beautiful blue eyes. However, she made sure her relationship with Jean Adolphe progressed slowly and it was some time later that he headed to New York to meet her father and ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Cecilia father was satisfied that Jean Adolph could provide for his eldest daughter and so agreed. John Adolph Beaux and Cecilia Leavitt were married in a society wedding at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York on April 3rd, 1850 and soon after a branch of the Beaux family silk business was set up in Pine Street, New York, which was managed by John Wheeler Leavitt and once again the Leavitt family finances were on an even keel.
It was not long before Cecilia and Jean-Adolph started a family. Their first child, a daughter, Alice Zepherine was born in February 1851 but sadly only lived for eleven months. The couple’s second child, Aimée Ernesta, nicknamed Etta, was born on October 26th, 1852, just ten months after the death of Alice. By 1854 Jean-Adolph, his wife Cecilia and their daughter Etta had moved to Philadelphia and on May 1st, the following year, a further addition to the family arrived – a daughter whom they named Eliza Cecilia, the names of her aunt and mother. This should have been a joyous time but in fact it was a traumatic and sad time with Jean-Adolph’s wife dying twelve days after giving birth due to puerperal fever, a bacterial infection following childbirth complications.
Jean-Adolph was devastated and inconsolable by his wife’s death, so much so, he could not endure the heartache and returned to the comfort of his family in Nimes, leaving his company to be run by his brother Edmund and left his two children to the care of his mother-in-law, Cecilia Kent Leavitt, who had also lost a dear one two years earlier, with the death of her husband, John Wheeler Leavitt. Can you imagine how this all affected the two children, Etta and Cecilia? Aimée Ernesta (Etta) Beaux had witnessed the birth of her sister, quickly followed by the death of her mother, and then the departure of her father back to France. Can you understand that the irrevocable change in the structure of her family must have been a frightening and confusing event? Jean-Adolph stayed away from his children for two years, not returning to Philadelphia until 1857, at which time Cecilia and Etta were two and five years of age and living with their maternal grandmother and her four remaining children, who hadn’t flown the nest, Eliza, Samuel, Charles, and Emily. On his return to America, Jean-Adolph had much to repair in his relationship with his children and his mother-in-law as well as attempt to set himself in business, once again. He achieved little on both these fronts although he did work for his old family company, J.P. Beaux & Co., Sewing Silks. Although the company prospered his charm offensive with the Leavitt family failed. They never forgave this “foreigner” for abandoning his children and his mother-in-law whom he was living with never considered him a fit father to his children and slowly took charge of the future of her two grandchildren, despite having had to rear eight children of her own. Rightly or wrongly, Cecilia’s grandmother probably never held back on her adverse comments with regards her son-in-law and later in life, Cecilia commented on this:
“…We didn’t love Papa very much, he was so foreign. We thought him peculiar…”
The relationship between Jean-Adolph and his third child Cecilia was a troubled one as he found his new-born daughter to be little more than a sad reminder and pale substitute for his cherished but sadly departed wife. One believes that when he looked upon her, he immediately thought about the death of her mother in childbirth. It had even reached the point that he could not bear to call her Cecilia (also his late wife’s name) as it brought up too many sad memories of deceased wife and so despite the family’s dislike of the idea, she was referred to as Leilie and not Cecilia. Although this may have comforted her father, in a way it stigmatised the child herself who as she grew older believed that in a way she had caused the death of her mother and was now unfit to bear her name.
Things went from bad to worse for Jean-Adolph. His business was failing and finally collapsed in 1860. His brother and partner in the firm, Edmund, went back to France but Jean-Adolph stayed with his children and in-laws albeit they had to move to a smaller house. Now having no business and the bringing up of his children having been “usurped” by his mother-in-law, Jean Adolph believed there was nothing left for him in Philadelphia and so he went back to France in 1861 and did not return to America for twelve years, which gives one an idea for the regard he had for his children.
With the collapse of the J.P. Beaux Silk Company there was now little money coming into the Leavitt household. For Leilie it was a very sad time without a mother and father. Although she asked her grandmother and her family about her mother, their sadness meant that they were never forthcoming with information and so Leilie began to invent romantic images of her mother. Maybe her memory of her father was slightly tainted by the views of her grandmother and aunts.
It must be said that Leilie and her sister Etta who lived with the Leavitt family received vast amounts of love from their grandmother and their two aunts Eliza and Emily. Both girls were also very fond of their uncle Charles but often found their uncle Samuel annoying.
In 1860, Emily Leavitt, Leilie’s favourite aunt, married William Foster Biddle, an engineer by profession, and the two of them set up home. She was twenty-one and he was twenty-five. A year after their marriage, Biddle left his wife and began his military service with the rank of captain and rather than live alone, Emily returned to living with her mother, her siblings and the two Beaux girls. After completing his military service at the end of the Civil War, William Biddle was employed as a mining engineer and he and his wife Emily moved back to their own home.
Cecilia Kent Levitt ran the Leavitt household which now just comprised of her maiden daughter Eliza, and her two grandchildren, Etta and Leilia Beaux. Their aunt Emily looked after her two nieces’ education and their grandmother saw to their religious needs ensuring both girls, when they reached twelve years of age, were confirmed in the Presbyterian faith.
Cecilia Kent Leavitt, her daughter Emily and the two Beaux girls re-located on several occasions. Their frequent moves were due to Leavitt family’s deteriorating financial situation. However, through the good auspices of the son-in-law William Beadle, who rose to become vice president of Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, their financial situation improved and this in turn lifted the family spirits of the four females. In 1873 Cecilia Kent Leavitt finally settled her family down in a house in Spruce Street, West Philadelphia. In her 1930 autobiography, Background with Figures, Leilie remembered that as a young fourteen-year-old how her Aunt Emily had shaped her life. She wrote:
“…My aunt had assisted in my education, and my uncle [Emily’s husband Walter Biddle] was to be, after my grandmother, the strongest and most beneficent influence in my life. I know that my Aunt Emily’s contribution to my bringing up had several channels. My lessons, with her, took place in the dining-room, rather a gloomy spot by day, on winter mornings, and we sat at either end of the green-felt-covered table. I am sure she labored over the sums and geography we bent over, but what remains consciously of these hours are the periods devoted to dictation. The use of the pen did not trouble me. Spelling was not one of my difficulties, and the appearance of new words, and of phrases far from anything I could have dreamed of, were a delight. Above all, and the real source of the living word enduring in this episode, was the choice…”
Later in life Leilie told how the two greatest influences on her life were her grandmother and William Biddle. For Leilie, William was the main man in her teenage years and she relied on him for guidance and William Biddle recognised the energy and creativity of Leilie and he believed it was his job to channel this dynamism…………………………………..
……..to be continued