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.

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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 4 – The Parisian student and past and present romantic problems.

Cecilia Beaux and Enna Leavitt reading in their studio on Chestnut Street,
Philadelphia. Photograph, 1889-90.

………………….the year is 1887 and Cecilia still worked in her Chestnut Street studio completing many portraits. The pinnacle of this year as far as Cecilia was concerned was the exhibiting of her painting, Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance, at that year’s Paris Salon. This portrait of her sister and her nephew had been a labour of love and had taken two years to complete. It was not just its inclusion at the Salon which had excited her but as she looked at her returned painting, it was the thought of life in Paris which excited her. In her autobiography she recalled how she felt at that time:

“… After months it came back to me, bearing the French labels and number, in the French manner, so fraught with emotion to many hearts. I sat endlessly before it, longing for some revelation of the scenes through which it had passed; the drive under the sky of Paris, the studio of the great French artist, where his eye had actually rested on it, and observed it. The handling by employees; their French voices and speech; the propos of those who decided its placing; the Gallery, the French crowd, which later I was to know so well…”

Cecilia Beaux and May Whitlock (1888)

She decided that she had to go and sample life in France, especially Paris. Her family were a little disconcerted about her proposed adventure, but they realised that as a thirty-two-year-old woman it was her decision. Her uncle William Biddle helped part finance the journey and sorted out a ticket for her ocean-going passage, passport, and letter of credit. He also persuaded a cousin of Cecilia, May Whitlock, to accompany her on the trip.

Cecilia also received a “farewell gift” from her good friend and fellow artist, Henry Thuron, who had once proposed to her. He gave her a set of monochrome drawings of paintings Cecilia was likely to see and sketch in the Louvre which could be used as preparation sketches or as she referred to them – ‘Springboards for the Galleries’.

S.S. Nordland

Cecilia and May Whitlock boarded the steamship Nordland in New York in January 1888 for a voyage which would terminate in Antwerp. The sea passage across the Atlantic Ocean was not a pleasant one. The vessel was battered by gales and bobbed unceremoniously on the ferocious sea, with many of the passengers, including the two women suffering from mal de mer for the first week of their journey. It took twelve days to reach their Belgium destination, arriving in Antwerp in late January on a freezing cold day with the dockside covered in snow.

Descent from the Cross by Rubens (1612-14)

Despite the inclement Belgium weather Cecilia and May managed to do some sightseeing and visited The Cathedral of Our Lady where she saw the Rubens triptych Descent from the Cross. She was mesmerised by Rubens work, writing in her autobiography, Background with Figures:

“…No one who has not met the material opposition of pigment and its allies can gauge Rubens’s power to command it. What his religious compositions lack in the subtler side of holiness, they gain in the presentment of human emotion, as it appears, humble, adoring, and abandoned to sorrow, even in the ignorant gazing upon the uncomprehended manifestations of Divinity…”

The two ladies visited Brussels and their stay in Belgium lasted just three days before they set off by train for Paris, arriving at the Gare du Nord during the last week of January 1888, where they were met by another of their cousins. The ladies moved into a pension at 12 rue Boccador, which was situated between the Seine, where it is crossed by the Pont de l’Alma, and the Champs-Élysée.  Their room at the pension was by no means salubrious but worse still it was cold and damp. Cecilia described their circumstances:

“…Our room was, of course, unheated, though it had a pretty chimney-piece and a clock, and what heat the previous summer had left behind had died long since between the closed windows and door. I was not pampered, and of course Steam heat was unknown to me at home. Our house had a small furnace, whose efforts were entirely devoted to the aged, the invalid, or the very young, but I had never known the damp, penetrating chill of never-heated houses in winter. Of course, a wood fire was impossible for us, but they wheeled us in a Schoubersky, a black charcoal stove, which could travel from room to room and never demand a chimney. Our chimney was a very retiring one, but with the Schoubersky approximately near it, we might avoid suffocation…”

Mother and Daughter by Cecilia Beaux (1898)
This was a portrait of Mrs. Clement Griscom and Frances C. Griscom.
Frances Canby Griscom was an American amateur golfer from Philadelphia and the daughter of shipping magnate Clement Griscom who owned the 7,000-acre hunting plantation in Bradfordville north of Tallahassee, Florida

Soon after her arrival Cecilia enrolled at the Académie Julian. The Académie Julian was a private liberal art school, founded in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian, a painter and art administrator and in his early days, a prize-fighter. The academy was especially popular with Americans, and several exponents of American Impressionism studied at the Julian. The École des Beaux-Arts was considered the premier Parisian art academy, but Cecilia could not enrol for study at that establishment as women were not accepted as students there and that ruling did not change until 1897.

The Studio by Maria Bashkirtseff (1881)
Maria Bashkirtseff was a student at the Académie Julian in 1887

The new Académie Julian accepted her. Because of its fine reputation, it soon became recognised as one of the best private art schools in Paris. Two decades after it first opened, the number of students attending courses at the establishment numbered about six hundred and it necessitated the opening of four more branches, one of which was in the 8th arrondissement at No. 5 Rue de Berri where Cecilia Beaux studied.

Tony Robert Fleury

Her first assignment at the Académie Julian was to produce a full-length drawing which would be commented upon by the tutor. Her tutor was Tony Robert Fleury, the French historical painter. She remembered how nervous she was when he entered the room. She wrote:

“…’Tony’ — that is Tony Robert Fleury — was to criticise that week, and at the hour entered a young-middle aged and very handsome man, with a face in which there were deep marks of disappointment; his eyes, grey and deeply set, smouldered with burnt-out fires. How un-American they were! As I observed him from behind my easel, I felt that I had touched for the first time the confines of that which made France and Paris a place of pilgrimage. Into the room with him came something, not perhaps a quality of his own, but of what he had come from and lived in. The class, although accustomed to him, was in a nutter. I was still and icy with terror, fearing other qualms that I might not understand him and blunder hideously…”

There were no exhibitions held at the Académie, but a regular routine was set which awarded the best students with prime painting positions in the atelier. Cecilia described the routine:

“…Every week subjects for composition were given out. The compositions were handed in on a Saturday, and the student who had produced the best in the opinion of ‘le Maitre’ had the privilege of first choice of place on Monday morning, for the new pose. This, in such a crowded room, was an immense advantage, but punctuality was also the price, for without it one’s chance was given to the next. I had the good luck to win it pretty often…”

Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt

The students would often have to copy biblical scenes and one of the earliest tests was to copy the painting Supper at Emmaus, Cecilia had already seen Rembrandt’s version of the work at the Salon Carré in the Louvre and so what she produced was an imitation of that of the Dutch Master. The efforts of all the students were placed on the walls of the atelier prior to the inspection by Fleury. Cecilia recalled what happened next:

“…He stood growling before them with folded arms. Pointing to mine, he said savagely, ‘Qui est-ce qui a fait ca?’ [Who did that?]
Mdlle C. dragged me out and thrust me, quaking, before him, for he was often bitterly ironical.
‘Humph,’ he said, ‘c’’est vu?  Je n’ai pas vu les autres, mais je sais bien que c’est la meilleure.’ [I have not seen the others, but I know it’s the best]…”

Within weeks of Cecilia and her cousin arriving in the French capital they had joined up with a group of expatriate artists including Florence Este, Gabrielle Clement, and Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown, who were all friends of Cecilia’s from the Pennsylvania Academy.

In Philadelphia, Cecilia’s love life never really took off despite the amorous attentions of suitors such as Henry Thuron who always put his rejection of marriage down to being both Catholic and poor!  It was Henry who had given Cecilia the monochrome drawings on oil-sketch boards in preparation of her sketching visits to the Louvre. She wrote to him just prior to her ocean voyage, letting him down gently:

“…try to be my friend still……………….I am going to keep your beautiful gift to prove how much I desire this — and for the roses I never thought there could be so much pain with such beauty and sweetness…”

 

Portraits in Summer by Cecilia Beaux (1911)
This is a double portrait of Beaux’s nephew, Henry Sandwith Drinker, and his wife, Sophie Hutchinson Drinker. Henry was the son of Cecilia’s sister, Etta and her husband Henry Sturgiss Drinker. The painting was painted at Cecilia Beaux’s home (Green Alley) in Gloucester, Mass. during the couple’s honeymoon. Looking through the portico one can see sky, water, and sailboats in the distance.

During her stay in Paris she did enjoy the company of men and although she did go out with a couple of suitors, she would never commit to them. There was Leonard W. Bacon, a doctor whom she may have met four years earlier in Philadelphia when she sketched a posthumous portrait of his father. When his wife died he had, unbeknown to her, cast his eyes towards Cecilia as a possible “substitute”. He was on a visit to Paris in June 1888 and met up with her and had great hopes for their future and a replacement for his much-loved, late wife, Sarah. Unfortunately for him, he looked on Cecilia’s art as a mere hobby and something that would be forgotten when she became his wife and mother to his children. On his return to Philadelphia the following month Bacon came across Cecilia’s aunt Emily and told her about his hopes with regards Cecilia. She was “flabbergasted” by his aspiration that Cecilia would become the new mother to his children and told him that in her mind, he had no chance of success with his plan. Emily told her husband William Biddle about the conversation and he thought the whole situation was hilarious. He wrote a letter to Cecilia on July 24th 1888 and in it he commented on Bacon’s misguided plans for Cecilia:

“…”my logical mind insists on including the other consequence, which he didn’t mention, of your being a grand mother to his young grand children, & then I roar, — every time — Oh! dear me!” Dr. Bacon had “fallen from the pedestal” on which the aunts had placed him, and the “interview” with Aunt Emily “sav[ed] Cecilia from all further worry and trouble from that source…”

Young Woman by Ceclia Beaux (1909)

A more serious romantic issue for Cecilia was one that had begun back in Philadelphia with Edwin Swift Balch. Balch was ideal husband material. He was young (a year younger than Cecilia). He was a wealthy bachelor and part of the Philadelphia elite. He painted miniatures and was a writer, scientist, and an authority on polar history and exploration. He had met Cecilia as he had a studio in the same building in Philadelphia as Cecilia’s, and the tender shoots of romance began to appear. However, whilst in France, Cecilia realised that her great passion for her art was far greater than her passion for Balch. This realisation caused her to review her life. The whole process must have caused her great heartache as witnessed in the letter she wrote to her uncle, William Biddle, on September 30th, 1888:

“…And now prepare your dear mind for the real and serious thing I have to say. You will not perhaps believe the struggle that it costs me — because I know that this is the real end. It is all over between me and Mr. Balch. It is not his fault, but I believe now that he is reconciled to it. He speaks of it as “the break which I foresaw” and at the end — “I have written more but tore it up as it is silly to reproach you.” He will never know how much I cared for him and still do. What I admired in him, what attracted me, and what I really loved — time and distance could not, and have not changed, but what was not satisfied has grown more imperative and for the first time I know that it will not do. I have expanded here and I could not get into the place I might have got into before. Though even then I should have had to stifle something. You will say that I ought to have known this before. That if I had listened to reason I should have saved many people much pain. To which I can only say that no one but myself can know how I clung to what I found in him. I know that it was selfish, but I hoped to make up for it. Of one thing I feel sure that he does not suffer now more than I do, and he has, as regards this side of life, a much more hopeful future than I. All the same I ought to have made the sacrifice and taken the risk of losing. Do not think I am not paying for it — that is all.
I am waiting anxiously now to hear what you think about my staying over here a few months longer. You will easily understand that now I wish to stay as never before. It would be very painful for me to go home now, and for him too. He would almost be driven away himself if I did. Besides I must allow to the weakness of its being safer for both of us. I am besides very anxious to paint something for next year’s Salon…”

Biddle was concerned with what he had read and on October 10th, 1888, wrote back to Cecilia:

“…You do flit about pretty fast, — physically, — & perhaps Emotionally — but I trust not morally or mentally. With those departments of one’s being it is wiser & safer to “go slow”…. In regard to Mr. B. I can only say that if you really feel sure about yourself we all rejoice in your decision, — & unless you were prepared to accept now, or at least very soon, it was your duty to so decide anyway. Even if you were not sure of yourself, — or were sure, the other way…. Judging from what you have written me, his attitude in the affair seems manly & dignified & raises him in my estimation. I’m sorry for him, — but do not think his life will suffer…. If there is no change in our family status at 4305, I can see no valid reason for your hurrying home in May or June & leaving the Salon & Exposition unseen or only half seen…”

…………………………..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 alsocame 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/

and

Cecilia Beaux: The Power of Paris (1888)

Cecilia (Leilie) Beaux. Part 2 – the beginning of an artistic career.

Self-portrait, Cecilia Beaux (1885)

The early childhood and teenage years of Cecilia (Leilie) Beaux were challenging. She and her elder sister Etta lived with their maternal grandmother Cecilia Kent Leavitt and their maiden aunt Eliza. Leilie and Etta were completely different in character. Etta was the more placid and was happy to accept traditional domestic life and probably modelled herself on her grandmother who had nurtured her own eight children. Leilie, on the other hand, was both stormy and impassioned and hankered for her independence and believed that financial security would achieve that status. She would, like her late mother and aunt, Eliza, go out to work and earn money. Leilie was a perfectionist and suffered like all perfectionists tend to do. In her personal diary which she started at the age of fourteen, she wrote:

“…It seems to me that I haven’t progressed at all. I do believe that it is harder for some people to be good than others, a great deal harder. Some people seem to be good naturally like Etta…but as for poor me why I’m nothing absolutely nothing, able only to do wrong. Sometimes it seems to me as if I were tied in a spiritual way to a string of a certain length. I get on very well at first and feel so free and happy, feel as if I really was getting better, when suddenly I come to the end of my string, and am thrown back to the old place again…”

Leilie was often rebellious as a teenager, frustrated with her life and often aspiring to do something different. In her autobiography she remembered that in her teenage years she wrote a poem expressing her exasperation:

“…Lost hope, lost courage, lost ambition,
What’s left but shams of these to hide my true condition?
Feigned peace and joy, feigned happy effort,
False tongue, proclaiming, “Art’s my comfort.”
Nought’s left but bones, and stones and duty that’s not pleasure,
But grinding, ceaseless toil, whose end’s the measure
Of the short web of life the Fates have spun me.
What’s this… I’ve uttered words of treason.
What’s lost? My time, my daylight, and my reason…”

Leilie also suffered mentally from the departure of her father from the family home. Sadly, she blamed herself for his departure, as her mother had died giving birth to her.  She began to make excuses for him abandoning his daughters. Despite his untimely and devastating departure she still managed to put him on a pedestal, someone to be almost adored.

Little Lamerche by Cecilia Beaux (c.1900)

Leilie was brought up in a family environment where music was an essential part of life. Her aunt Eliza was a highly talented musician and earned money for the family by giving music lessons. The family owned a Chickering grand piano and there would be frequent family recitals in the evenings with performances given by Eliza and William Beadle, Emily’s husband, who also acted as organist at the local Presbyterian church the family attended. When Leilie was eleven years old, she learnt to play the piano but never reached a level of accomplishment which satisfied her and so, as a perfectionist, she gave it up.

Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker) by Cecilia Beaux (1888)
Henry Sturgis Drinker, was Cecilia Beaux’s brother-in-law (Etta’s Leavitt’s husband). He was a railroad executive and president of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Up to the age of fourteen Etta and Leilie were home-tutored, mainly because of the high cost of formal schooling.  Leilie’s early interest focused on literature and poetry and at one time she believed she would like to become a writer. William Biddle’s arrival on the scene as Emily Leavitt’s husband meant that the Leavitt’s finances improved, so much so, that it was decided that Etta and Leilie could afford to receive formal education at Misses Lymans’ School. It was an all-female school run by Catherine and Charlotte Lyman. This was the first time the two girls were able to absorb life outside the family. Leilie began to sketch and was pleased with her efforts. In her autobiography, Background with Figures, she wrote:

“…Long before it was discovered that I had more proficiency with a pencil than I had on the piano, I accompanied my aunts on visits to what picture galleries and special exhibitions there were…”

Henry James by Cecilia Beaux (1911)
The portrait depicts the America author Henry James during his final trip to the United States, when he was recovering from a nervous breakdown and the death of his brother, William.

Leilie began to develop and interest in the Arts and her aunts and uncles would take her to various art galleries to encourage her. It was during the 1870’s that there was a sudden desire of wealthy Americans to buy works of art especially by French painters. It was a status symbol for these wealthy households to have works by the emerging French masters hanging on the walls so that they would impress visiting dinner guests. One such person, a wealthy and successful businessman, was Henry C. Gibson, an art collector, banker, real estate developer, and distiller. His Philadelphia house on Walnut Street housed many works of art and Leilie’s uncle was fortunate to receive an invite to view the works of art and he took Leilie with him. They must have re-visited the house on several occasions for she wrote in her autobiography:

“…Very few of the pictures were large, and all could be easily seen. Of course, I knew nothing of these virtues of presentation; I knew nothing but my own happiness. I must have been taken several times to the gallery, for I had my favorites and was unembarrassed by the difference of schools…”

Harold and Mildred Colton by Cecilia Beaux (1887)

Her family decided that Leilie should pursue her interest in drawing and painting and needed to find someone who could nurture Leilie’s talent. The person chosen to guide Leilie was the talented artist, and painter of historical and biblical scenes, thirty-one-year-old Catherine Ann Drinker, who had a local studio. Coincidently, she would later become Etta’s sister-in-law in 1879 when Etta married her brother, Henry Sturgess Drinker. In 1871, sixteen-years-old Leilie remembered her first visit to Catherine Drinker’s Philadelphia studio which was at the top of an old house at Fifth and Walnut Streets on Independence Square. In her autobiography she wrote:

“…I am glad that the studio was typical, traditional, and not to be confused with any ordinary or domestic scene, for it was the first studio I ever entered. On its threshold, everyday existence dropped completely out of sight and memory. What windows there were, were covered with hangings, nondescript, as they were under the shadow of the skylight, which was upright, like a broad high window, and without glare. There was a vast sweeping curtain which partly shut off one side of the room, and this, with other dark corners, contributed to its mystery and suggestiveness. The place had long been a studio, and bore the signs of this in big, partly obliterated figures, outlines, drawn in chalk, upon its dusky wall, opposite the light. Miss Drinker had spent her early life in China, whence her family had brought many examples of Chinese art and furniture. The faded gold of a large seated Buddha gleamed from a dark corner. There was a lay figure, which was draped for a while in the rich robes that Miss Drinker had used for her ‘Daniel…”

Old-fashioned Music (Guitar Player) by Catherine Drinker (1880)

In 1880, Catherine Drinker won the prestigious Mary Smith Prize for her painting Old Fashioned Music.  This prize was awarded to women artists by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The award recognized the best work by a Philadelphia woman artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts annual exhibition — a work that showed “the most originality of subject, beauty of design and drawing, and finesse of colour and skill of execution”.

Charles Sumner Bird and His Sister Edith Bird Bass by Cecilia Beaux (1907)
Many of Cecilia Beaux’s portraits were of New Englanders, including this elegant image of Charles Sumner Bird and his sister Edith.
The Bird family had made their fortune in the manufacture of paper, and they owned a 194-acre estate, called “Endean,” in East Walpole, Massachusetts, overlooking the Neponset River.

For Leilie, Catherine was not just an art teacher, she was a friend despite their fourteen-year age difference, a friendship which would last over fifty years. Leilie spent a year learning about art under the watchful eye of Catherine until Catherine decided that Leilie should move to a formal art school. She spoke to William Biddle, who, as the husband of Leilie’s aunt Emily, had been acting as Leilie’s unofficial guardian. Catherine suggested that the finest art school for his charge was the Van der Wielen School. It was run by a young Dutch-Flemish artist, Francis Adolf Van der Wielen, who had immigrated to Philadelphia in 1868 after he had trained at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Art. He opened his art school as a way of countering the fact that he had begun to find it difficult to paint due to his failing eyesight. In 1872, seventeen-year-old Leilie Beaux enrolled at the school.

Most of Van der Wielen’s female students had come to him to learn about art and looked upon it as a delightful hobby but some of his students, like Leilie, looked upon art as a skill that would eventually earn them money. Although Leilie had doubts about her tutor, due to his poor grasp of the English language and the fact that his eyesight was starting to fail him, thus making his visual criticism of his students’ work questionable. However, she remained at his school for almost two years gaining knowledge of linear and aerial perspective and the principles of light and shade. In 1873, Van der Wielen married one of his more mature students and the couple left America for a new life in Europe. His art school would have closed but for Catherine Drinker stepping in and taking over the teaching.

In 1873 Cecilia(Leilie) Beaux reached the age of eighteen and decided that it was time to put her artistic skills to work to earn money for herself and thus gain a modicum of independence and also to bolster the family’s finances. In her autobiography she wrote:

“…My grandmother’s house was my home, and in it I was the youngest born, but I wished to earn my living and to be perhaps some day a contributor to the family expenses…”

Plaque by Cecilia Beaux (1880)

For a month she took lessons in china painting and found that in a short time she had mastered the delicate technique. She would produce portraits on large china plates. One of her early successes was a china plaque featuring a young gold-haired girl, the parents of the child were delighted.

Plaque painted by Cecilia Beaux (1883)

From this came many commissions featuring paintings of young children.  However, she never really took to this type of work saying:

“…Without knowing why, I am glad to say that I greatly despised these productions, and would have been glad to hear that, though they would never ‘wash off,’ some of them had worn out their suspending wires and been dashed to pieces. This was the lowest depth I ever reached in commercial art, and, although it was a period when youth and romance were in their first attendance on me, I remember it with gloom and record it with shame…”

Catherine Drinker had taught art at Miss Sanford’s School for young ladies for many years but now, with taking over at Van der Wielen’s school she had to give up her post at the Sanford School and she recommended her protégé, Leilie to take her place. Leilie was taken on as a part-time drawing instructor at the school, teaching two classes, one morning a week. She would teach her young pupils how to draw, how to enlarge and how to shade. She taught there for three years and this led to her also giving private art lessons which earned her more money. In 1874, William Biddle introduced Leilie to a printer, Thomas Sinclair, of Thomas Sinclair and Sons. He and the Leavitts knew each other as they were fellow members of the Woodland Presbyterian Church and she was offered her first professional illustration job. Leilie had now finally launched herself into the art world and she decided that she needed to have a definite artistic identity and chose to revert to using her mother’s name. From thenceforth she was to be known as Cecilia Beaux.

As an aspiring artists Cecilia wanted the best artistic tuition that she could receive, given by the most talented tutors, and for her, this meant attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (P.A.F.A.) which was a museum and art school in Philadelphia, and was founded in 1805. In 1871 it had been closed for major reconstruction and was not re-opened until 1876. Another reason for Cecilia wanting to attend classes at this prestigious art academy was that in 1878 Catherine Drinker became the first woman to teach there. However, Cecilia’s uncle William was dead set against the idea of his “charge” attending the academy. Cecilia remembered her uncle’s argument for his decision:

“…I was a seemly girl and would probably marry. Why should I be thrown into a rabble of untidy and indiscriminate art students and no one knew what influence? So reasoned his chivalrous and also Quaker soul, which revolted against the life-class and everything pertaining to it. He put a strong and quiet arm between me and what he judged to be a more than doubtful adventure…”

William Sartain in his studio

Cecilia’s next step on the artistic ladder came by way of a former school friend from Miss Lyman’s School. Her friend, who had come from a wealthy background had spent her years after finishing her schooling  “immersed in social gaiety” as a debutante but had now decided to take painting more seriously and had taken a studio and organised a class to be held three times a week to sketch and paint using a model. She invited Cecilia to join the class and her uncle, William Biddle thought this was a good idea and funded his wife’s niece participation. The work of all at the class was overseen on a fortnightly basis by the New York-based American painter William Sartain. Cecilia remembered the time well writing:

“…There were a few, only, in the class, all young, but all respectful toward what we were undertaking. It was my first conscious contact with the high and ancient demands of Art…”

…………………………to be continued


A lot of the information for the blogs featuring Cecilia Beaux came from two books:
Backgorund 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

Cecilia (Leilie) Beaux. Part 1 – Ancestors and the early years

Portrait of Cecilia Beaux by John Lambert (1905)

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…”

John Wheeler Leavitt

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

Cecilia Kent Leavitt

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.

Mrs. John Wheeler Leavitt by Cecilia Beaux (1885) Cecilia Beaux’s maternal grandmother.

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.

A Little Girl (Fanny Travis Cochran), by Cecilia Beaux (1887)

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.

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

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.

Helen Bigelow Merriman by Cecilia Beaux (1908)
Painter and art collector, and one of the founders of the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts

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.

Clement B. Newbold by Cecilia Beaux (1912)

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.

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

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.

Portrait of Mrs. Samuel Hamilton Brooks by Cecilia Beaux (1911)
Founder of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

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.

Portrait of Mr. Samuel Hamilton Brooks by Cecilia Beaux (1911)

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.

Half-Tide, Annisquam River by Cecilia Beaux (c.1905)
A rare example of Cecilia Beaux’s landscape work.

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…”

Mr. and Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes by Cecilia Beaux (1898)
He was a wealthy American merchant, property developer, banker, and philanthropist.

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

Mary Dawson Elwell

Bedroom, Bar House, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire by Mary Dawson Elwell (1935)

In a recent blog (My Daily Art Display, October 15th, 2017 – The Alma-Tadema Ladies. Part 2 – The Two Daughters, Anna and Laurense), I highlighted the artwork of Anna Alma-Tadema, the daughter of the great painter, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and marvelled at some of her interior paintings. In today’s blog I am going to look at another female painter who had mastered the art of depicting the interior of houses. She is the nineteenth century artist, Mary Dawson Holmes Ewell. I had featured her in a series of blogs about her husband, Frederick Elwell but for this blog I want to concentrate on her outstanding ability as an artist.

The Landing in Summer by Mary Elwell (1930)

Mary Dawson Bishop was born in Liverpool on August 13th, 1874. Her father, John Bishop, was a ship broker. Her mother, Mary Ellen Dawson, was the daughter of a Liverpool boot maker, Thomas Candlin and his wife Sarah who was a milliner and dress maker. Mary and her younger sister, Elsie, lived in the Fairfield district of Liverpool. Tragedy struck the family in 1879 when Mary’s thirty-six-year-old father died. Shortly after the death of her husband, Mary and her two daughters moved to Heaton Chapel, Manchester to live with her bachelor brother Henry who was fifteen years her senior. It was here that Mary and Elise went to kindergarten and primary school.

The Front Door by Mary Elwell (c.1940)

Having completed her primary schooling in 1885, eleven-year old Mary enrolled at Manchester’s prestigious Ellerslie College and it was here that she received her early artistic tuition, to ensure she had this “must-have” social skill for young Victorian ladies. The pupils attending this school were mainly from merchant families and it was probably due to Mary’s Uncle Henry and his business connections that allowed her to gain entrance to the college. Mary Bishop completed studies at Ellerslie around the early 1890’s. Not much is written about her life after leaving college but it is believed she carried on her art studies influenced by two of her uncles, Henry and Walter were not only successful business men but avid art collectors.

The next we hear of Mary Dawson Bishop was that she married George Alfred Holmes at the Church of All Saints, Heaton Norris, Stockport in June 1896. Mary was twenty-one years old and her husband George Alfred was forty-one. So why did Mary marry a man twice her age? This has been the topic of much speculation. George Alfred Holmes lived and had his office in Hull and was a prosperous oil broker and so there was the element that on her marriage to him, Mary would be financially secure. Hull, like her birthplace, was a seaport and maybe Mary looked on the prospect of living in Hull with her husband. Maybe she looked upon her husband as a father figure, having lost her own father at the age of five. But, of course, it could simply be that Mary fell in love with George Alfred Holmes.

Mary and Alfred Holmes set up their home in the small inland market town of Beverley which was just ten miles north of from Hull, a town where she would stay for the rest of her life.

It was in 1904 that Frederick Elwell was to enter the life of Mary Bishop Holmes. Following a somewhat unsuccessful period in London as far as his art sales were concerned, Fred Elwell had left London, a somewhat defeated man, and returned to Yorkshire. In the capital there were just too many artists chasing a small amount of commissions and this sudden realisation that the London streets were not paved with gold affected Elwell and there was a suggestion that he had suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by his financial situation. On hearing of his son’s state of health and financial predicament, his father travelled from Yorkshire and brought his son back to Beverley where his family and friends were and where he could expect a more profitable future.

Portrait of Frederick William Elwell by Mary Elwell (1913)

His year in London and his struggle to survive had taken a toll on him so the first thing the family had wanted him to do was to relax and enjoy the tranquillity of the Yorkshire countryside. Elwell also enjoyed the freedom offered by sailing and he would often take a small boat and cruise along Beverley Beck which joined the River Hull. Many like-minded painters would do the same as the clarity of light and the beautiful countryside including the East Riding flatlands surrounding the river was an idyllic setting for landscape artists. On occasion he would tie up the boat alongside a jetty and would welcome visitors to look at his artwork and, by so doing, would often receive commissions. Elwell’s love of landscape painting coincided with the English public’s change of attitude of what they wanted to see in a work of art. Depictions of city life were becoming less popular, displaced by depictions of the tranquillity of the countryside. This was a period when people wanted to “go back to nature”. They worked in cities but hankered for the fresh air of the countryside. They wanted to soak up country life by sailing along inland waterways or get themselves horse-drawn caravans and lose themselves in the peacefulness and serenity of the rural areas.

Self Portrait by Fred Elwell (1911)

For complete tranquillity Elwell made his home on a houseboat which he had borrowed from a friend. Not only did he travel up and down the river he would tie up alongside a local hostelry, the Brigham Arms, and his boat acted as his own selling gallery. He also had a “gypsy-type” horse-drawn caravan in which he would wend his way around the country lanes, sketching the beauty of the area. His artwork which depicted the tranquillity and the beauty of the Yorkshire countryside sold well and soon both his health and his finances had improved significantly.

Fred Elwell would also take on portrait commissions and often would visit the client rather than have them come to his studio. It was in 1904, that he received a visit from Alfred Holmes, a luminary of the Beverley community. Holmes asked Elwell to paint a portrait of his wife, Mary. Elwell agreed and went to the Holmes’ family home where he met Mary Holmes for the first time.

Mary Dawson Holmes by Frederick William Elwell (1904)

Elwell completed the Portrait of Mary Dawson Holmes that year and had it exhibited at the Royal Academy. It is a beautiful work of portraiture with Mary shown as a lady of gracious elegance. Her clothes remind one of the French fashion of the time. We see her adorned in a tight-fitting dress finished off with a fine white lace collar. She tilts her head to one side but holds an upright stance. Her eyes are dark and almond-shaped. Her expression teases us into imagining her thoughts. Does she look a willing participant as a model for this portrait? There is a hint of reticence in her facial expression. Was she unwilling to sit for Elwell or was it simply that she was shy and slightly embarrassed with all the attention.

Les Parapluies by Renoir (c.1886)

The depiction of Mary has often been compared to Renoir’s 1886 work Les Parapluies, which Elwell would have seen, because of the similarity between the way Mary stands, tilts her head, and similarly carries a basket.

In the Trossachs by Mary Elwell (c.1900)

Alfred and Mary Holmes became good friends of Fred Elwell and they even had joint ownership of a sailing boat and the three of them took many trips on the Beverley Beck to the upper reaches of the River Hull, a tributary of the Humber. The three of them would often travel to Europe, visiting Venice and Switzerland where Fred Elwell and Mary Holmes would take the opportunity to sketch and paint the local landscapes.

The Wreath by Mary Elwell (1909)

Mary had her work exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1904 onwards and in 1908 she completed one of her most famous works, The Wreath, which was on display at the 1909 Royal Academy annual exhibition. It depicts a recently widowed woman grieving for the loss of a loved one. Queen Victoria had died in 1901 and this solemn period and the Victorian period prior to her death saw many artists concentrate on human loss and the grief felt when a loved one died. Queen Victoria suffered the loss of her beloved husband, Albert in 1861, and continually wore mourning clothes for ten years after he died. Many paintings compared the happiness of life before the death of a loved one with the inconsolable grief of those left behind. Violet Prest, a local girl, a costumier of Minster Moorgate West, in Beverley, modelled the woman in the painting. Ironically, six years after the painting was completed, her husband was killed in the Great War.

Chamonix, France by Mary Elwell (1938)

She was a much-admired artist and her popularity as an artist and that of Fred Elwell rose amongst the public and the art critics. Mary, and her future husband, Elwell, as far as their artistic ability was concerned, should never be looked upon as pupil and master as was the dictate of social expectation in the early twentieth century. They were truly equals.

A Quiet Hour by Mary Elwell (1942)

The health of Alfred Holmes began to deteriorate in 1910 and he sold his business and gave up his part ownership with Fred Elwell of their beloved sailing boat. That year May and Alfred moved from their large Westwood Road house in Beverley and bought Bar House which was also in Beverley, situated on North Bar Within. Alfred Holmes’ health had got so bad that by 1913 he realised he was dying and it is thought that due to his very close friendship with Fred Elwell he intimated that Elwell and Mary should get together when he died. George Alfred Holmes died on August 5th, 1913 aged just fifty-eight, leaving his widow comfortably provided for and allowing her to employ staff to help run the house.

North Bar Within, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire by Mary Elwell. (1916)

Holmes’ dying wish with regards his wife and Fred Elwell came to fruition on September 28th, 1914 when they married, and Elwell came to live with his new wife at her beloved Bar House. In 1916 Mary Elwell painted a scene entitled North Bar Within, Beverley which depicted a view from the front steps of Bar House. It is interesting work set during an overcast day and one of predominantly brown tones.

At the Mirror or Bedroom, Bar House by Mary Elwell

Mary painted many depictions of Bar House including a bedroom scene, which was entitled At the Mirror. There are two large double beds each covered with a purple quilt. In the central background there is a large window which frames the view of Wylies House. The using of a window as a framing device for a townscape was very popular at the time and was typical of the practice of the Camden Town Group of artists. It allowed viewers to catch a glimpse of the outside world, seen through the framing device of a window. The large full-length mirror, next to the window, reveals a reflection of the room. The light which shines through the windows of the room lights it up and the polished brass fender casts its reflection on the dark polished wooden floor. To the right of the window, we see a young woman standing before a mirror attending to her hair. She is oblivious of the outside world that we see through the window. The model used by Mary for this work was Annie Towse, the daughter of one of their employees.

Bar House Garden by Fred Elwell (1914)

Mary’s mother, Mary Ellen Bishop had died in 1901 and Mary Elwell’s uncles Henry and Walter died in 1917 and 1924. Neither had married and their wealth and properties were divided between Mary Elwell and her sister Elsie. Mary also received her late uncle’s art collection.

Interior Study by Mary Elwell (1937)

One of my favourite interior works by Mary Elwell is one she completed in the 1932 entitled At No.14 Newbegin, Beverley with an alternative title Interior Study. It is a depiction of a sitting room at No.14 Newbegin a house belonging to Reverend Wigfall the curate at Beverley Minster, who we see sitting at his writing desk. The room itself was light due to it having three large windows. The window we see in the painting allows a shaft of light into the room illuminating the large ornately carved bookcase on top of which are three glass cases, each of which contain stuffed birds. A cushion with its bold design and rich colours is placed for decorative effect on the arm of the sofa. The richness of colour of this painting is brought about by the liberal use of reds. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1932.

Beverley Minster from the Friary, by Mary Elwell (1934)

Beverley Minster from the Friary is a painting Mary Elwell completed in 1934. It is a comparative composition. The imposing edifice of Beverley Minster looms over the modest dwellings we see in the middle ground, which lie close to the railway track. The gable ends of the houses in the middle ground seem to reiterate the shape of the Minster’s transept. Elwell captures the spirit of the time with her depiction of the washing lines laden with clothes in the back yards of the houses. One of the houses on the right was occupied by Miss Woodmansey who ran a wash-house and who would, after washing the clothes, hang them out in her back yard, every day except Sunday. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1934.

Matterhorn from Zermatt, Switzerland by Mary Elwell (1939)

In 1947 Mary suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes which meant that she had to have round the clock nursing.  Her sister Elsie came to stay for longer periods.   Having made her final appearance at the Royal Academy in 1949, she withdrew from the world outside.  Mary Dawson Elwell died on the 28th August 1952, aged a fortnight before her seventy-eighth birthday.  She was buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Beverley and according to her husband’s wish her gravestone was carved with an artist’s palette.. Her second husband, Fred Elwell died in January 1958 and was laid to rest in the same grave.

Fred Elwell gave a number of her paintings away to people who had cared for her, inscribing them:

“…in grateful remembrance of Mary D. Elwell…”

The Alma-Tadema Ladies. Part 2 – The Two Daughters, Anna and Laurense.

(Detail from full-length portrait) Miss Anna Alma-Tadema by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1883)

In my last blog I looked at the lives of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s two wives, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard and Laura Theresa Epps and how, in a way their two lives were intertwined.  In this second part of the blog I am looking at Alma-Tadema’s Ladies but in this blog I am looking at the lives of his two daughters, Laurense and Anna Alma-Tadema.

In the painting above, entitled Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, which her father completed in 1883 we see fifteen year old Anna, standing at the door of the library at Townshend House.  In her hand is a vase of carnations and she wears an Aesthetic dress probably made of Indian cotton, with a shell necklace.  Look how the artist has mastered the depiction of the different textures of the various surfaces whether it be clothes or inanimate objects.

Hall in Townshend House by Ellen Epps (1873)
Painting of Laurense and Anna painted by the sister of their step-mother

On September 24th, 1863, twenty-seven-year-old Laurens Alma-Tadema married a French lady, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard in Antwerp City Hall and the couple went on to have three children.  Their first-born, a son, died aged six months of smallpox.  The couple then went on to have two daughters, Laurense in August 1865 and Anna in 1867.  Both children were born in Brussels.

Laurense, Anna, their father, and his sister Atje moved to London in 1870, a year after Marie-Pauline’s death.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema re-married in 1871.  His second wife, who was sixteen years younger than him, was Laura Epps the English daughter of a homeopathic doctor.   Laurense and Anna were home-schooled by their father and step-mother.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – The Sculpture Gallery (1874)

In 1874 Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted one of his largest works, The Sculpture Gallery which measured 223 x 174cms.  In this work, which depicts an Ancient Roman temple setting, he has included depictions of his two wives and two children as well as himself.  We see his second wife Laura Theresa wearing a gold armlet in the centre of the work, and to the right of her are her two children Laurense and Anna.  Lawrence Alma-Tadema is seated on the left and to his right, sitting upright hold a purple feather fan is thought to be a portrayal of his late wife, Marie-Pauline Gressin-Dumoulin de Boisgirard who died five years earlier.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study, Townshend House, London, (1884)

Anna developed her father’s and step-mother’s love of art and by the age of seventeen had become a talented artist.  She focused on painting the elaborate interiors of the family home, as well as portraits and flower paintings. Her gift as an artist can be seen in a set of watercolour and pen and ink depictions she completed in 1884 and 1885 of the family’s first London home, Townshend House close to Regents Park.  The detail is truly amazing and these works were almost certainly due to the influence of her father.   Her painting entitled Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Study in Townshend House, London was completed by Anna in 1884.  The interior of Townshend House was designed and furnished by her father.  He managed to create a set of ornate and diverse interiors in a variety of styles ranging from traditional Dutch to Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Pompeiian, Byzantine, and Japanese based on his journeys.  The setting in this work is the interior of a comfortable library.  The intricate detail amazes me.  At the back of the room we see a very comfortable couch made even more so with the addition of a fur covering. It is almost a day-bed to be used by a weary reader who has come to the library for some peace and quiet.  The room is bright due to its dual aspect stained-glass windows and in the evening the candle-lights of the bronze chandelier, which Alma-Tadema designed, will illuminate the room.  The room has many pieces of heavy Dutch oak furniture which probably reminded Anna’s father of his birthplace.   On the ceiling to the left there seems to be a Japanese lantern or it could be an upturned parasol.  The floor is covered by a tatami matting, which was used as a flooring material in traditional Japanese-style rooms.  Hanging from the fireplace is a large palm leaf fan and on top of the fireplace mantle is a vase full of peacock feathers.  Just take your time and look at everything that Anna has painstakingly depicted in this very busy room.

The Drawing Room, Townshend House by Anna Alma-Tadema (1885),

In a small (27 x 19cms) watercolour and ink painting The Drawing Room which Anna completed in 1885 we see another room in Townshend House.   We are standing in the Gold Room and looking through the archway into the Columned Drawing Room albeit the columns themselves are hidden.   In the work we see one of a suite of ornate drawing rooms in the family’s home.  In this work take a close look and see how she has mastered light and the texture of the objects.  Look at how she has depicted the full-length brocade curtain which seems to act as a room-divider.  Look at the way she has illustrated the shiny surface of the floor lit by a light source emanating from an unseen window to the right.  Anna exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893.

The Gold Room by Anna Alma-Tadema (1884)

Finally, we have her work entitled The Gold Room which she completed in 1884.   This watercolour depicts a view into the Gold Room which was named thus because its walls were overlaid with gold leaf.  The centre of the painting is dominated by the large ornate piano which has inlays of ivory and tortoiseshell.  On the right we see a sumptuous full-length curtain made of Chinese silk.  If you look carefully at the window in the background you will see that the leading of it forms the family name, “Alma-Tadema”.  We cannot but be amazed by the talent of this seventeen-year-old girl at how she has managed to create the rich and bright surfaces we see as well as the various textures of the objects.  The inclusion of an antique bust on a pedestal was probably testament to her father’s interest in Roman and Greek history.  The painting was shown at the 1885 Royal Academy exhibition and is housed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Missouri.

Eton College Chapel by Anna Alma-Tadema

Another 1885 painting highlighted Anna’s ability to replicate detail onto canvas.  It was her watercolour work entitled Eton College Chapel which she completed when she was just twenty years of age and was exhibited at the Royal Academy.  Of Anna and her great artistic skill her father’s biographer, Helen Zimmerman, wrote in her 1902 biography, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema R.A., that she was:

“…a delicate, dainty artist who has inherited much of her father’s power for reproducing detail…”

The Closing Door by Anna Alma-Tadema

In 1886, the family moved to a larger house, No. 17 Grove End Road, St. John’s Wood, London, which had previously been owned by the painter James Tissot.  Anna’s father carried out major refurbishments to the house and had extra studios added so that all four in the family could paint!   A room, thought to be on the upper floor in this house was the setting for Anna’s 1899 painting, The Closing Door.  It is a beautiful painting, full of mystery and atmosphere.  Once one has enjoyed the detail of the inanimate objects in the room our gaze goes to the central character of this work, the lady and soon our head is filled with questions.  So what story is unfolding before us?  Look at the woman – how is she feeling and why?  I suppose we recognise that something has badly upset her.  Look how she has roughly grasped the bead necklace and broken it.  If you look carefully you can see beads on the carpet.  Look at her facial expression –wretchedness, bewilderment, and fear are all recognisable.  So, what has brought her to this state of bleak despondency.  A lover’s tiff, a break-up of a relationship?  All possible.  Maybe if we look at some of the objects on the table we may get a clue.  A small vase of anemones symbolising the death of a loved one for in Greek mythology, the anemone sprang from Aphrodite’s tears as she mourned the death of Adonis.  In Victorian times, the anemone was looked upon as a symbol of dying love or departure of a loved one to the “point of no return”.  So, has her “loved one” died or abandoned her?  Next to the vase is a bottle of violet ink, the colour of which has associations with modesty and humility which probably tells us more about the lady herself.  The final mystery associated with this painting is the door.  Look closely at it and you will see fingers grasping it as if to close it.  Is this another sign of somebody “leaving”?  Or is this somebody about to enter which is causing the lady to be afraid?  So many questions and only the artist knows the answers.

Girl in a Bonnet with her Head on a Blue Pillow by Anna Alma-Tadema (1902),

In 1902 Anna Alma-Tadema painted Girl in a Bonnet with Her Head on Blue Pillow   It is a haunting painting with the girl seeming to stare at us as we observe the work but, on closer scrutiny, it is a blank stare.  She shows little interest at what is going on her around her.  Something is troubling her.  She feels helpless and alone.  Her hands are clasped tightly together in a pleading manner.  What solace does she crave? We, the observers, want to help her but how?  Is this simply about an unknown stranger or is this about the artist herself and her mood?

Following the death of her father in 1912, the value of his paintings fell drastically, and this loss of family revenue adversely affected the finances of his two daughters who lived their latter years in poverty.  Anna Alma-Tadema, who never married, died in 1943, aged seventy-six.

Photograph of Laurence Alma-Tadema from the US Library of Congress

Anna’s elder sister was born Laurense Alma-Tadema in August 1865 but she is always referred to as Laurence Alma-Tadema.  For this portion of the blog there will be few paintings as Laurence, unlike her sister, father and step-mother was not an artist.

Love’s Dream by Laurence Alma-Tadema

She was a novelist, playwright, short story writer, and poet. Her first novel, Love’s Martyr was published in 1886.  She wrote in various genres during the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.

The Yellow Book periodical

She also submitted work to various periodicals such as The Yellow Book, a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897.  She also edited a periodical.  Many of her works were privately printed.

She left the family home and went to live in the Kent village of Wittersham in a cottage named The Fair Haven.  She became an active member of the local community, and involved herself with music and plays.  She even had a place built which could accommodate a hundred people and was to be used by the villagers to stage music concerts and plays and where the children of the village could be taught many local handicrafts.  She named it the Hall of Happy Hours.  In 1907 and 1908 she gave a series of readings in America on her literary work The Meaning of Happiness, which proved to be very well-liked by her American audiences.

World War I Propaganda Poster

She was an ardent activist and often spoke on the plight of the Polish people who were being displaced from their homes by the Austro-German troops in World War I.  She was a close friend and ardent admirer of Jan Paderewski, the Polish concert pianist and composer, politician, and spokesman for Polish independence.  Laurense was secretary of the Poland and the Polish Victims Relief Fund from 1915 to 1939 and her name appeared on many of their propaganda posters.  On her book tour in America, she spoke on the plight of the divided Poland and asked her audience to support the Polish people’s cause.

Laurense died in a nursing home in London on March 12th 1940, aged seventy-five.  Laurense like her sister Anna never married and one wonders whether either ever loved somebody and whether they missed “married bliss”.   Laurense’s poem If One Ever Marries Me would make one believe at least she was resigned to a solitary life.

 If no one ever marries me,—

And I don’t see why they should,

For nurse says I’m not pretty,

And I’m seldom very good—

 If no one ever marries me

I shan’t mind very much;

I shall buy a squirrel in a cage,

And a little rabbit-hutch:

 I shall have a cottage near a wood,

And a pony all my own,

And a little lamb quite clean and tame,

That I can take to town:

 And when I’m getting really old,—

At twenty-eight or nine—

I shall buy a little orphan-girl

And bring her up as mine.

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I visited the exhibition At Home in Antiquity which features many paintings by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.   It is being held in London at the Leighton House Museum until October 29th.  It is a “must-see” exhibition of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s works as well as works by his daughter and second wife.