Cecilia Beaux: The Power of Paris (1888)

I’ve often thought about how my time in Paris, as short as it was, managed to change me. And it seems I can’t stop thinking about the change Paris may have had on other artists, other women, in other times.

I’ve taken a look at some of their lives to see if I can spot the power of Paris. American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), who lived and studied in Paris in 1888-89, makes a great example.

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Maybe you don’t know much about Cecilia Beaux, but she has some pretty amazing paintings at the Art Institute of ChicagoMetropolitan Museum of New York, or my favorite, Sita and Sarita at Musée d’Orsay.

Most people know her, if they know her at all, because William Merritt Chase called her “the greatest woman artist who has ever lived.” I’ve previously written about her struggle to obtain an art education in Philadelphia during the Victorian era. But what interests me the most is her time in Paris.

When Beaux took her shot to study in Paris, it seems like it changed her life. She only  spent a year and a half there, but when she returned home to the States in 1889 her career really took off. True, she was no slouch before Paris – she’d already studied for over a decade, worked as a professional and received numerous awards. She’d already had a painting accepted in the Paris Salon of 1887.

So here is Beaux before Paris:

beaux les derniers jours

Cecilia Beaux, Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance (1883-85), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This painting was awarded the PAFA Mary Smith Prize for best work by a local woman and was accepted into the 1887 Paris Salon. According to PAFA, Beaux considered this to be “a coup” that marked “a turning point in her career.”


And this is Beaux after Paris:

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (1895), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (1895), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



Isn’t the difference stunning? It’s as if she moved from one century to another.

And the difference wasn’t just in the vibrant new light in her portraits. As successful as Beaux was before Paris, her output of high profile portraits soared upon her return. She completed over 40 portraits in five years, including some of the most remarkable of her career. By 1895, Beaux was hired to be the first full-time female faculty member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, becoming the Head of Portraits.

If Paris did indeed spark Beaux’s success in the 1890s, what was it? The training in the Paris ateliers? The exposure to and networking with other artists? The chance to study from the masters in the Louvre? The experience of freedom as a traveler, an outsider and an expatriate? Or maybe it’s just in the air in Paris.

Before I set out to walk in Beaux’s footsteps through Paris I decided to read her autobiography, Background With Figures (1930). I wanted to hear her Paris stories in her own voice and her own words. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the time I spent reading her book – she had a wicked sense of humor and a masterful ability to walk the fine line between truth and discretion. Here was a woman who had seen and achieved a great deal at a time when women of her social background weren’t really supposed to.

Beaux is at her best when she tells the story behind her first trip to France. She had long dreamed of studying art in Paris. All the serious American art students were going. But Beaux had an additional, more personal draw: she was half French and was ready to claim her father’s heritage as part of her own. Once her first painting (Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance) was accepted at the Paris Salon of 1887, it seemed as though she’d earned the right to go.

But she couldn’t go alone. In spite of the fact that she was 33 years old and had been studying and practicing art for over 17 years, she still wouldn’t travel to Europe without a female companion. Beaux was no rebel; she wouldn’t be breaking the social code that her fine Philadelphia family still observed.

And so it was that Cecilia Beaux and her cousin May Whitlock arrived in Paris in a miserably cold January in 1888 and moved into an underwhelming pension at 12 rue Boccador, on the right bank between the Seine and the Champs-Élysée. Today this address would be considered one of the nicest in Paris, in the middle of the Triangle d’Or and just off of the incredibly expensive Avenue Montaigne. But in 1888 it was another story. Beaux described it in her autobiography with biting wit:

Our pension was in the quarter of the Pont de l’Alma, but not near to the river and its beauty. All that a skimping French pension could mean in mid-winter was ours. . . . I had never known the damp, penetrating chill of never-heated houses in winter. . . . Until May, we never saw the sun.

Beaux’s art training had developed her talent for looking at faces and recognizing the traits and quirks that nail a likeness, whether in pictures or words:

Mdlle. de Villeneuve, our keeper, bore her considerable years, which had borne much skimping too, under a brown wig and a long nose. She carried Fi-Fi, a tiny, old dog, with rattling teeth and a cracked bark, constantly under her arm. She had bony fingers, and for the first time I heard the rattle, also, of keys.


The visit of our blanchisseuse was one of our pleasures. She had apparently been forgotten in the gathering at the Judgment Seat of the Tricoteuses, left over from the Terror. She was huge, had an immense head with bold pompadour, and a beard.

Isn’t Beaux hilarious? Can you imagine how entertaining she was in person? A bit like another one of my favorites, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

quote-if-you-haven-t-got-anything-nice-to-say-about-anybody-come-sit-next-to-me-alice-roosevelt-longworth-17-86-74Together, Beaux and her cousin investigated the different private art studios open to women (L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts would not accept women for ten more years, in 1897) and chose the Académie Julien’s right bank studio at 28 rue de Faubourg. (This atelier would close at the end of the 1888 season and move to 5 rue de Berri, another address in the aristocratic part of the right bank. Also, I am following Beaux’s spelling here rather than the usual Académie “Julian.”) The Académie Julien was at the time the largest art school in Paris with over 17 locations, 7 of which were devoted to women. Beaux quickly learned that the rue de Faubourg location, housed in an attic near the Madeleine, was more for diletanttes than serious art students.

In spite of the relishable novelty of the cours, and the new world I had expected and found, in the Life-Class, I had to sustain a grand déception. More even than on the instruction, I had counted on an association of superiority.

I had worked alone, and fully believe that, in Paris, I should be among brilliant and advanced students, far ahead of a practically untaught American. I was to learn that the Académie Julien was a business enterprise, and could not be maintained for gifted students only. The personnel was heterogeneous (pp. 117-18).

“The personnel was heterogeneous.” I can just picture Beaux saying that with a wicked little twist of her eyebrow. It turns out Beaux was disappointed with her fellow students’ level of talent, the instructors’ level of input and the overcrowded classrooms. The famous instructors came in to criticize only once a week, and when they did they rarely spent time demonstrating or analyzing the student work. Instead, they would go around the class with comments like pas mal and a reserved smile. Each class was filled to capacity. Punctuality was key or you wouldn’t get an easel close to the model. Beaux gave up the painting class and concentrated on nothing but drawing because she found it too frustrating to try to paint without enough elbow room.

Atelier Julian, undated, so it is possible it is from the other women's atelier on rue de Berri. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

Atelier Julien, undated, and unknown which of Julien’s women’s ateliers this represents. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

Beaux had some limited praise for “the English girls” who came to study at Académie Julien, noting that they reached “a high average in their work.”

To my surprise they were all original types. Later, I accounted for this by the fact that at the time few English women broke away from custom and tradition, Most of them were clergymen’s daughters who had decided against gardening, tea-parties, and the old women of the parish. This had required energy, and also that they should have had a pretty good start already (p. 118).

Although there were some “original types” at the rue de Faubourg atelier, Beaux learned that another one of Julien’s ateliers was more competitive. Female students of the atelier at the Passages Panoramas included Russian Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884), and Americans Anna Klumpke (1865-1912), Lydia Field Emmet (1866-1952) and Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (1840-1879). Beaux looked forward to competing with her more accomplished peers, but when she did, she received a quick and sobering dose of humility.

Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julian's atelier for women

You can still walk through the Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julien’s atelier for women.

In March of 1888, two months into her Paris art studies, Beaux realized that she had missed the deadline to submit a painting to the spring Salon. She still hoped for an opportunity to compete at a school show, so she decided to enter a concours against the students in The Passages atelier. Her competition included the Californian Anna Klumpke, who had been studying at The Passages for years and who knew it was faster and easier to pull off a competitive piece in pastel rather than oil. Beaux, on the other, hand, attempted a large oil canvas and in her own words, it was a “nasty failure.” (No images of this painting remain.) Beaux didn’t even receive an honorable mention. For a woman who’d already had a painting accepted in the Paris Salon? Ouch.

Beaux knew she needed to do something more in order to benefit from her time in Paris. The Académie Julien wasn’t going to change her life. But what could?

Beaux was drawn to visit the Louvre, where she admired the Old Masters and Greek and Roman sculpture. One of her favorite things to do was to visit the drawing gallery early on Saturday mornings, before it opened to the public, and copy from the drawings of Raphael.

Like most visiting Americans, Beaux made time to socialize with other Paris artists. Her aunt, Sarah Leavitt Austin, lived in Paris and studied with John Singer Sargent’s teacher, Carolus-Duran. Beaux’s Philadelphia art school friend, Florence Esté, enjoyed a nice little apartment and studio across the street from Luxembourg Gardens, near the heart of the art community on rue Notre Dame des Champs. Esté introduced Beaux to the prominent Philadelphia artists Alexander Harrison and Charles Lasar, both of whom had graduated from L’`Ecole des Beaux-Arts and had settled in Paris.

Beaux fully expected to befriend and network with fellow artists Harrison and Lasar. They were all from Philadelphia, they’d each studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, and they were all in their mid-30s. They’d all had paintings accepted into the Paris Salon, and were about to exhibit their work together at the Pennsylvania Academy’s Annual Exhibition. The big difference was that Harrison and Lasar had studied at L’`Ecole des Beaux Arts. And of course they were men. Harrison gave Beaux the cold shoulder the first time they met, putting her in the category of all of the other “American girls” who were mere amateurs at art.

That first spring of 1888 Beaux would attend her first Paris Salon, but it left her feeling discouraged. Although she was familiar the famous artists’ names on the plaques, she didn’t recognize them when she saw them in person. She remained an outsider, looking in: “The world of Art in Paris was in no wise opened to me, and in fact was too far out of sight to even be longed for.”

And then came the summer that changed everything. And it wasn’t it Paris at all.

When the Académie Julien closed for the summer, all of the artists of Paris deserted the city for visits to the countryside. Some left for the art colony in Giverny, while others heading south of Paris to the artistic villages near Fontainebleau like Barbizon or Grez. (Read my prior post, Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing). Beaux’s friend Lucy Scarborough Conant, a fellow American artist, was planning to spend the summer in Brittany with her mother. The Conants invited Beaux and her cousin May to join them in the artistic village of Concarneau.

The seaside village of Concarneau today

The seaside village of Concarneau today


Alexander Harrison, Concarneau

Concarneau then: Alexander Harrison, Haunt of the Artists (no date), Pen and ink.


Beaux discovered that the same male artists who had snubbed her in Paris were friendlier in the countryside. Alexander Harrison and Charles (“Shorty”) Lasar were in Concarneau that summer too. Away from the gender politics and good-old boy networks of Philadelphia or Paris, they didn’t mind socializing and painting with women artists. They often went out to paint in plein air as a mixed group.

Beaux started turning out lighter, looser canvases, learning to play with rich outdoor color, bigger brushstrokes and bolder cropping.

Beaux, Seaside Inlet (1888)

Cecelia Beaux, Seaside Inlet, (1888), oil on cardboard, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Cecilia Beaux, A Country Woman, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts

Cecilia Beaux, A Country Woman, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine  Arts

1888. Concarneau, France. oil on canvas, 11x14in. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Cecelia Beaux, Landscape with Farm Building (1888), oil on canvas, 11x14in. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts


Beaux was now welcome in Harrison and Lasar’s studios, and they began to visit hers as well. They soon became her friends and mentors.

You can watch Beaux’s transformation take place in the course of one painting. She decided to paint two Breton women in their traditional collars and coiffes. Following Harrison’s example, she started with several preparatory oil sketches. It was the only way to capture the fleeting, blending colors of twilight, (as Beaux herself said)  “the tones of coiffe and col mingling with the pale blue, rose and celadon of the evening sky.”

It seems that it was right then and there that Cecilia Beaux learned about color and light. That white is never white, and that surfaces absorb and reflect the light around them. That a change in color and light can create your form.


Cecelia Beaux, Study of Two Breton Women, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Cecelia Beaux, Study of Two Breton Women, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts



Cecelia Beaux, Twilight Confidences (1888), oil on canvas, Private collection

Cecelia Beaux, Twilight Confidences (1888), oil on canvas, Private collection


Harrison and Lasar began to believe in Beaux and urged her to continue her art studies in Paris if she truly wanted to “clinch it.” Their support was important. Beaux had proven she was no amateur and that she deserved to be taken seriously.

Beaux’s summer in Concarneau gave her a taste of the power and joy that can be found within a circle of artists who have mutual respect and admiration. She finally found encouragement, affirmation, criticism and collegiality among her peers. And refreshingly, there is no evidence of any romantic entanglements in the group that could have complicated or compromised their professional relationship. In fact, Beaux rejected the proposal of an American suitor that summer, believing she couldn’t combine her promising career with marriage.

Urged on by Harrison and Lasar, Beaux wrote to her uncle and talked him into financing another season of art studies in Paris for the winter of 1889.

I believe it was the turning point of her life. And maybe it wasn’t the power of Paris at all, but rather, the the power of a summer outside of Paris. And now, her palette is now in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian.

Cecelia Beaux, Palette and 2 Brushes, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art

Cecelia Beaux, Palette and 2 Brushes, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts













The Muse by Jessie Burton: An Artist’s View

Art makes for great stories. Because there’s always a story behind the making of art.

In The Muse by Jessie Burton (HarperCollins 2016), there isn’t just one, but two interwinding stories – set 30 years apart – about a mysterious painting. One story is set in a 1960s London art gallery, the other in a beautiful Spanish villa at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

the muse















Spain, 1936. A Viennese art dealer and and his family have recently arrived at a dreamy villa on the warm southern coast of Spain. Their daughter Olive has just been admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but doesn’t know how to ask her father for permission to go. He wouldn’t approve. He doesn’t think women should paint.

So instead of confronting her parents, Olive sneaks upstairs to the attic in order to paint in secret. Her new canvases are infused with the passion and inspiration she feels for her new home – the heat, the sun, the landscape, the orchards, but especially, the dark, handsome villager named Isaac Robles who has stirred up something new and deep inside her. Isaac is an artist too, but mostly he’s a young revolutionary intent on organizing and agitating for his cause.

In the middle of this lush and provocative setting, Olive creates a painting that sounds just gorgeous: a loose, surrealistic view of the villa (they call it a “finca”) from the bottom of the orchards, with fields painted in “ochres and grasshopper greens, the folkloric tenderness of russet furrows and mustard browns.” Olive even surprises herself:

She never knew she was capable of such work. She had made, for the first time, a picture of such movement and excess and fecundity that she felt almost shocked.

Olive hides The Orchard under her bed and works on sketches of her muse Isaac (Isaac Chopping Wood, Isaac with Coffee Cup) until she is inspired to try an even more complicated painting.

Isaac and his sister have told Olive about a old Spanish legend in which two sisters, Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, become Christian martyrs. (It’s a real story, but I’d never heard of it before so of course I had to Google it.) Two sisters are persecuted for their Christian beliefs during the Roman Empire. After breaking a pot with a pagan image of Venus, one sister is thrown down a well and the other is thrown to the lions.

Somehow, Olive figures out a way to paint it. She calls it Santa Justa in the Well.

The new piece was a surreal composition, colorful, disjointed to the gaze. It was a diptych; Santa Justa before her arrest and after, set against a dark indigo sky and a shining field. . . .

The left half of the painting was lush and glowing. Olive had used ordinary oils, but had also experimented with gold leaf, which glinted in the light as she held the painting up. . . .

In the middle of the healthy land on this left-hand side stood a woman, her hair the color of the crop. She was carrying a heavy pot with deer and rabbits painted on it, and its centre was the face of the goddess Venus. Both the faces of the woman and Venus looked proud, staring out at the viewer.

I tried to imagine what this painting might look like. I can definitely see The Orchard in my mind’s eye, but not this one. There’s sky and crops and the full figure of a woman and a pot so detailed you can see the little deer and rabbits and the face of Venus. And then the other side of the diptych it gets even more complicated.

On the right half of the painting, the crop was deadened and limp. The woman appeared again, except this time she was curled inside a circle, hovering over the crop. This circle was filled with an internal perspective to make it look as if it had depth, as if the woman was lying at the bottom of a well. Her hair was now severed and dull, her pot had smashed around her, a puzzle impossible for anyone to piece together. Around the rim of the well, full-sized deer and rabbits peered down, as if set free from the broken crockery. Venus had vanished.

My goodness, what a difficult project for Olive to take on as a beginning painter. As I say to myself sometimes when I’m struggling with a difficult painting: “maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew with this one.” Olive has had no formal training – not that’s the only route to artistic genius, but it sure helps. And how quickly did she paint it? This complicated a composition would take days, weeks, even months. And how did she keep her act of painting so secret? What about the strong smell of oil paint (which her father the art dealer would’ve recognized)? Apparently Olive’s parents were quite distracted during this part of the book.

The Muse relies heavily on the myth of original genius. It makes a good story. An untrained but inspired young woman creates a breathtaking piece of art without any training, instruction or advice. It sounds lovely, but I don’t happen to believe in it.

That’s not to say the subject would have been impossible to paint. Other famous Spanish artists have taken their turn with the legend of Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, including Valasquez, de Goya and Murillo.

From Jessie Burton's Pinterest Board: the author standing in front of Francisco de Goya's "Santa Justa y Santa Rufina" (!817), oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid Spain

From Jessie Burton’s Pinterest Board: the author standing in front of Francisco de Goya’s “Santa Justa y Santa Rufina” (1817), oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Old Master Paintings Sale Sotheby's, London - July, 4 , 2007 Velazquez (1599 - 1660) Saint Rufina Estimate: 6,000,000 - 8,000,000 Copyright in this image shall remain vested in Sotheby’s. Please note that this image may depict subject matter which is itself protected by separate copyright. Sotheby’s makes no representations as to whether the underlying subject matter is subject to its own copyright, or as to who might hold such copyright. It is the borrower's responsibility to obtain any relevant permissions from the holder(s) of any applicable copyright and Sotheby’s supplies this image expressly subject to this responsibility.

Diego Valasquez, Saint Rufina (circa 1630-1635), oil on canvas, Foundation Focus-Abengoa, Seville, Spain


Murillo, Santa Justa

Bartolomé Murillo, Santa Justa (c. 1665), oil on canvas, Meadows Museum, Dallas,  Texas. In fact, there is an interesting side story about this Murillo painting and its companion piece, Santa Rufino. When the Meadows Museum initiated provenance research in accordance with the recent effort to identify Nazi era looted art, it was discovered that these two paintings had indeed been stolen from the Rothschild family during World War II. The Monuments Men Foundation is currently researching whether or not the paintings had been  properly restituted  before they were donated to the Meadows Museum.



Juan Barreto, Justa y Rufina (1989), oil on canvas, University of Seville, Spain

Fortunately, I was able to put aside my misgivings about how Olive’s paintings came to be, because the story soon becomes a fascinating mystery. The Spanish Civil War intervenes with its tales of danger, tragedy, loss and confusion, and we’re not quite sure what’s become of Olive’s secret paintings, much less Olive’s family and friends.

London, 1967.  Odelle, a young Caribbean immigrant with dreams of becoming a writer nabs a typing job at a fancy London art gallery. She stumbles upon a long-lost painting that her professional colleagues attribute to a Spanish artist named Isaac Robles, who is rumored to have died in the Spanish Civil War decades earlier. (Remember that hot young revolutionary, Olive’s muse? Yes, him.)

The gallery prepares for a show announcing its exciting new discovery and highlighting Isaac Robles’ short but apparently brilliant career. Odelle digs deeper into the painting’s provenance and makes an unlikely ally. As Odelle uncovers the truth behind the painting, she find the inner fuel to pick up her own neglected journals and return to her dreams of becoming a writer.

In the end, it turns out that Odelle has encountered a muse of her own. As Odelle says in the last wonderful line in the book, “in the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being.”



And that, friends, is how you write a terrific book. Art makes for great stories, doesn’t it?  Oh, and by the way, the author Jessie Burton has a fabulous Pinterest Board for The Muse. Check it out!



The Muse by Jessie Burton. Highly recommended.





The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

I’m thrilled to tell you about a new book featuring The American Girls Art Club in Paris. It’s called The Light of Paris, authored by Eleanor Brown, who also wrote the fun and quirky The Weird Sisters a few years back.

light of paris

Whether you’re a longtime follower of this blog, or you’re interested the history of the Reid Hall in Paris, or maybe you’re just a fellow Francophile, then you’ll love reading about Margie, a young American débutante who defies her family’s traditional expectations to spend a Jazz-Age summer at the American Girls Club in Paris, writing in cafés, meeting avant-garde artists and working at The American Library in Paris.

My name is Margie too. How fun is that? It feels a little like reading one of those children’s books that you can have personalized with your child’s name.

I was like, “Go Margie Go!”

Margie’s story is told through the lens of her granddaughter Madeleine who finds Margie’s old diaries in a trunk in her mother’s house. The diaries reveal Margie’s secret life in Paris, inspiring Madeleine to rediscover her artistic talents and to pursue her own dreams.

The plot might be a bit predictable, but who doesn’t enjoy a story set in Paris? And especially, who wouldn’t love to visit the Left Bank scenes around the Rue de Chevreuse and The American Girls Art Club in Paris?

Here is a post I wrote during my own year abroad about the history of the American Girls Art Club in Paris, which includes some of my own photos to accompany the book. I’m posting a few more below. They may not be the best quality, but hey, I was there and it was cool. You get the idea.


 Courtyard Image 2011

Reid Center Courtyard  (The former American Girls Art Club in Paris)


Reid Center 1


Reid Center 3



Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse



There are more (and better quality) photos on the Reid Hall – Columbia Global Centers – Paris website. You can watch a video on their website too, which shows some fabulous historical photos and informs you about their current global initiative.

Isn’t it good to know that new generations of students and travelers get to have their own adventures in Paris, like those of Margie and other young women of the American Art Club?


Recommended Art History Novels

As readers of this blog know, I’m a little obsessed with art history books, both fiction and nonfiction, and there have been quite a few good ones lately. I just took a stack to my painting class and passed them around. Here’s your chance to find out my recent art history reading recs too.

last paintig of sara de vosThe Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April, 2016). Haven’t heard of it yet? You will. It was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice, earning this fabulous review from the New York Times.

This novel is a mix of your favorite art history novels, but it’s still uniquely its own. It blends themes from The Goldfinch (with fast-paced suspense, a mysterious art theft and its grasp of what power a painting can have over its beholders), The Girl With a Pearl Earring (in its gorgeous, tender depiction of painters in 1600s Holland) and The Art Forger (fascinating passages about forgery techniques; insightful consideration of the psychological effects on an artist who uses her skills to commit artistic fraud).

To summarize, an art history grad agrees to “copy” a valuable but lesser known Dutch painting, At the Edge of a Wood by Sara de Vos (an imaginary painting by a real artist), knowing full well that it is probably going to be used as a forgery. The original is stolen and replaced with the copy. Decades pass. The art forger is now a respected curator and art historian specializing in female Dutch painters of the Golden Age, and when she mounts an exhibition, both the original and her forged copy of At the Edge of a Wood arrive on loan to the art museum. Which one is real? How can you tell? Will the curator’s shameful secret be revealed and her career destroyed? And what about the woman who painted it so many centuries ago?

I especially appreciated the author’s enlightened approach to the psychological evolution of the female characters. (Is it relevant that the author is a man? Does that make it more of a writerly/moral accomplishment — or is that lowering the bar for men? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Too often in historical fiction, whether the author is male or female, women become powerless pawns in service of plot, or victims of gender-based restrictions. While it might be true to the period, it can make for dull, uninspired reading. And yet, to give a historical female character too much agency can feel false and anachronistic.

In The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, Dominic Smith manages to capture the truth of the historical era without sacrificing the depth of female character development. Seriously, I almost stood up and cheered at the end when I learned the full story of the last painting of Sara De Vos. So bravo to the author for pulling that off.

In addition, the author has a wonderful website you really need to visit to check out such things as: How to Forge a 17th Century Dutch Painting and “Forgeries and Figments.”

Very highly recommended.


improbability of love

I just burned through The Improbability of   Love by Hannah Rothschild (Knopf, November 2015). I just love the U.S. cover — very clever turning  palette into a heart, don’t you think? I’m pleased to recommend it as another suspenseful art history novel.

Once again we have an imaginary painting (“The Improbability of Love“) by a real artist, this time a French Rococo painter from the 1700s, Antoine Watteau. Check out the author’s website where she answers the question, Why Watteau? A young chef named Annie McDee stumbles upon the painting in a second-hand shop where no one knows its true value. Annie buys is for a song, and then curious, begins to research its provenance.

The fun part of this book — a really clever move, if you ask me — comes when the painting speaks for itself. He has a distinctive voice, funny and full of insult and injury about the state of his neglect. As the painting says in his first turn to speak:

I knew I’d be rescued but never thought it would take fifty years. There should have been search parties, battalions and legions. Why? Because I am priceless and I am also the masterpiece that launched a whole artistic genre. And if that isn’t enough, I am considered to be the greatest, the most moving, and the most thrilling representation of love.

. . .

Imagine being stuffed away in a bric-a-brac shop in the company of a lot of rattan furniture, cheap china and reproduction pictures. I would not call myself a snob but there are limits.

In addition to the droll little quips from the painting, you have Russian oligarchs, greedy art dealers, clueless art experts and a Nazi art hoarder who has tried to cover up his past. Not all of these elements work, and some of the characters just clutter up the less-than-perfect plot. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed the passages about the cleaning and restoration of the painting as well as the research into its provenance. The plot is suspenseful, and you’re never sure whether Annie will be able to keep the painting safe from the many interested parties who would do anything, pay anything, to lay claim to it.




Another art history novel I’m really excited about is Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keefe by Dawn Tripp. I am hoping my Chicago book club will read it this summer, paired with a visit to O’Keefe’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago.

We all know Georgia O’Keefe from her later years as a painter of the Southwest. Maybe you’ve even been to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. I knew that O’Keefe was born in Wisconsin and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, but then what? Hmmm, wasn’t there something about an affair with a New York photographer?

Dawn Tripp’s novel begins in New York City in 1916, the year Georgia O’Keefe meets Alfred Stieglitz, “the father of modern photography.” Stieglitz and O’Keefe form a passionate partnership as lovers and fellow artists. Tripp was lucky enough to have access to the recently released letters between O’Keefe and Stieglitz  as she wrote the book (they’d been kept under seal for 25 years after O’Keefe’s death in 1986). All of those powerful, tumultuous scenes between her characters are the real deal. As Tripp has said herself, “their love affair was a loaded one: Ambition. Desire. Sex. Love. Fame. Betrayal. A search for artistic freedom.”

This story is about a woman’s fight to create and retain her own artistic identity. Stieglitz wants to control her but she’ll have none of it, even after their marriage. O’Keefe fiercely guards her independence and insists having “a room of her own.” (The key to any artist’s happiness, right?) In the end, O’Keefe’s “room of her own” was her home and studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she spent over 50 years of her life. In charge of her own life and art.

The author’s website is worth a visit if you’re interested in learning more about Georgia O’Keefe, including a fabulous Book Club Kit I plan to use myself.

Very highly recommended.





The Rivals of Versailles: Sally Christie Interview

The Rivals of Versailles



I just finished The Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie (as well as the first book in the Versailles series, The Sisters of Versailles) and I’ve just got to share them with you. My book club is going to love them. Who can resist historical fiction from the “other woman’s” point of view? I literally burned through both books and still feel like I’m sneaking through the secret halls and corridors of Versailles.



The Rivals of Versailles is about King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour. When I lived in France, I heard a lot about her but never knew her story. I was surprised how much the French knew about her (so American of me — shocked at the lack of French shame about affairs and mistresses).

I enjoyed the book so much I reached out to Sally Christie and she was generous enough to answer my questions.

Margie:  How much time did you spend researching in Versailles, and how did it inform your writing?

Sally: I’ve made two research trips to Versailles and both times spent about a week there, staying in the town of Versailles (the palace is literally in the town). The town is almost as interesting as the palace itself, and dates from the 17th century as well. Many of the high nobles that had apartments in the palace (a sign of great prestige) also had houses in town, for their overflow of servants, clothes and horses.

Those research trips were absolutely critical for capturing the sensory details and imagining how the sisters lived.  Seeing the reality of their lives, standing at the same windows and looking out over the same gardens, walking through the stables and kennels and gardens made imagining the scenes of their lives so much easier.

Margie: If you were a tour guide at Versailles and in charge of an exciting new tour called “The Mistresses of Versailles Tour,” (sign me up!) where would you take us? Can we see any of the back staircases, hallways and little attic apartments in the book?

Sally: That tour already exists! I was fortunate on my first trip to be able to take a backstage tour that took us to the apartments of the Marquise de Pompadour (which were previously Marie Anne de Nesle’s apartment) and then also to the apartment of the Comtesse du Barry (Louis XV’s final mistress and the subject of my third book, The Enemies of Versailles).

Wow – it was simply amazing. The tour is very expensive and before doing it, I was skeptical that it would be worth it, but after I did it – no doubt. It was so fascinating to get out of the magnificent state rooms (which quite frankly I find rather boring and overwhelming) and leave the crowds behind. Take back staircases, walk along narrow corridors, experience the smaller, more intimate apartments and see some of the servants’ cubby holes that give a real sense of the “rats nest” that the majority of the palace was away from the public rooms.

The tour was arranged by the wonderful Deborah Anthony at http://www.frenchtravelboutique.com/

Now what I wish there was is a “Versailles Carte Blanche” tour which would allow you access to EVERYWHERE in the palace. Only such a small portion is open to visitors, and every time I go there I find myself looking longingly at the windows of all the other apartments that are off limits to the public, wondering what’s behind the scenes….

Margie: Where can we see artifacts from the Marquise’s era with Louis XV? I seem to recall seeing some Louis XV antiques with fish decorations on them, and now I wish I had known more at the time. Does the Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre have some?

Sally: Versailles is quite empty of furniture and is only furnished with pieces that can be authentically traced to the palace. The palace administration spends enormous amounts of money to acquire authentic pieces – think millions for a sofa! The Museum of Decorative Arts in the Louvre has several items of Madame de Pompadour’s, and of course many, many contemporary items from her era – she was hugely influential in the decorative arts and was a keen supporter.

I think it’s really interesting how timeless Pompadour’s 18th century interior design esthetic is. We would feel perfectly at home in it, and it is still a desirable “look” for a house: really the epitome of class, sophistication and elegance. The Musee Cognacq Jay and the Musee Jacquemart Andre are two excellent museums with lots of 18th century furniture and art.  A day trip to the factory at Sevres is fascinating, and it has a great collection of pieces developed under Pompadour’s patronage.  The Biblioteque Nationale has her engraved gem collection – it’s quite impressive and well worth a visit. If you’ve read The Rivals of Versailles, you’ll know the significance of the gem engraving for her and Louis!


Thank you so much, Sally for the interview! If you’d like to read more and see photos of the places and scenes in the book, be sure to visit Sally’s website, which is a treasure trove of information. Check out her fabulous photos here.

Thank you also to Emma of France Book Tours for arranging this blog tour. Such a treat to read the Rivals of Versailles before it was released. Lucky me!

Sisters of Versailles - Sally Christie

Sally Christie, author of Sisters of Versailles



Seven Novels Featuring Women Artists

It’s been a wonderful year for historical fiction about female artists! Check out this post by Jeaninne Atkins, the author of Little Woman in Blue.

Views from a Window Seat

Many of us enjoyed crayons or paint as children, but artistic confidence often falls away as we grow. Women who continue to pursue art through high school, college, and grad school find themselves ever-increasingly among male colleagues and instructors. According to the fabulous researchers who go by the name Guerrilla Girls, art made by women makes up less than five percent of the holdings of most major museums and most galleries aren’t much better.

If it’s tough for women artists to find respect now, how did they deal with obstacles decades ago? Using fictional devices to develop scenes rich with dialogue and detail, each of the following novels published in 2015 features a real woman who was well known at the time, then mostly forgotten.


In The House of Hawthorne, we meet Sophia Peabody as a young woman with artistic talent that her mother considered a holy gift she…

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Cecelia Beaux: “The Greatest Woman Painter”

In The Footsteps of Cecelia Beaux

I once spent a whole day in Paris walking in the footsteps of Cecelia Beaux. I’d read her autobiography and was eager to feel the same Paris that she did. I mapped it all out and took my camera. When I tried to tell friends and family back home about my little adventure, it nearly broke my heart when they said “Who?”

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)














That’s when I pulled out the famous quote from William Merritt Chase, and said pretty indignantly, well, another famous artist once said “Miss Beaux is not only the greatest woman painter, but the best that has ever lived.” — William Merritt Chase, 1899. And they raised their eyebrows, like, “really?”

So that’s when I resolved to dig deeper into Cecelia Beaux’s story. Who was she and why has her legacy faded so much in the last 100 years? And what about that interesting praise from William Merritt Chase?

Wholly aside from the gender politics within that quote, Chase is making an unavoidable comparison between Cecelia Beaux (1855-1942) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Cassatt would have been the main competition for the honor, such as it is. And yet today, Mary Cassatt is a household name and Cecelia Beaux is not.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Beaux and Cassatt’s Beginnings

Cassatt and Beaux had much in common. They each had French blood: Beaux’s father was from Avignon, Cassatt’s ancestors on her father’s side were French Huguenots from Normandy. Both Cassatt and Beaux spoke fluent French, which might just seem like an interesting coincidence, but then, they both found success in Paris art circles, which is no small thing for an American.  Beaux later attributed her talent to “the priceless heritage” she received from her French father, who did indeed have some natural talent for art, often drawing charming little animal sketches for his daughters.

Both Beaux and Cassatt were raised in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s. Their well-off families could afford to support their art studies, although the Levitt-Beaux family was less so due to some reversals and hardships, including business failures and the death of Cecelia’s mother 12 days after her birth. However, both families still considered themselves “proper” and tended to follow the social proprieties of the Victorian era, which limited the opportunities for their daughters.

Cassatt (1844-1926) was a decade older than Beaux (1855-1942), but they both started studying art at a very young age, first privately and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, Cassatt from 1860-1862, Beaux from 1876-1878.

Together, their stories reflect the achingly slow pace of change in 19th century art studies for women. Cassatt studied in PAFA’s Antique Class (copying from plaster casts) from 1860-62 during the “fig leaf era,” a time when women were deemed too sensitive to observe sculpture in mixed company unless the male sculptures were discreetly adorned with fig leaves. There were no life drawing classes for women. In 1860, Cassatt’s class of women did receive permission to pose for each other, but it would only be for one hour at a time in a private modeling room and without an instructor. And one would assume with their clothes on. Given these restrictions, Cassatt left the United States to travel and study art in Europe with her family in 1865, when she was only 21 years old.

In case you missed it, I’ve previously written about Mary Cassat in Paris and in her country homes outside of Paris, Chateau de Beaufresne in Le Mesnil-Theribus and Bachivillers, France.

Beaux’s Art Studies in Philadelphia

Unlike Cassatt, Beaux studied art in Philadelphia for over 10 years, beginning at age 16. Her studies would be very start-and-stop as she hopped from one teacher to another, and given the limitations of her early instruction, her talents would be slow to develop. Which just goes to show that Linda Nochlin (author of “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?”) was right, it really does matter how you study art and with whom.

From the beginning, Beaux’s studies were subject to the approval of her uncle, William Foster Biddle, not her father. Beaux’s father had returned to France in 1861 after his American textile business failed, and did not return for 12 years. He left his daughters in the hands of their grandmother, their aunts and their Uncle Will, who would act as the patriarch of the family.

By the time Beaux was 16 years old, it was clear she did not excel in her academic studies at the Lyman School for Girls. “My reports were not bad, but they were not very good,” admitted Beaux. In 1871 Uncle Will decided she could quit school and pursue art studies instead. He sought not professional instruction but a ladylike approach suitable for a young woman who would soon be thinking of marriage.

Professional art classes at the PAFA were out of the question. The progressive women students of PAFA had filed a petition to enroll in life drawing classes. While the petition was granted in 1868, they were only allowed to use female models. Still, Uncle Will would not have approved. He was spared that decision because in 1870, PAFA closed its doors in order to build a new building with much more room for art classes. His niece would need to study elsewhere.

The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

Standing since 1876, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA










Uncle Will was able to make what he thought to be a thoroughly safe choice for Beaux’s first teacher: his own relative Catherine Ann Drinker (“Aunt Kate”), who had already studied at PAFA and opened her own studio by the age of 30. As Beaux herself said, “I think that, secretly, my uncle shrank from launching me away from the close circle of home, and thought that if I must go out, I could not be in a safer place.” Beaux’s studies with Drinker, which started in 1871 and lasted only a year, consisted of making conté crayon copies of lithograph copies of Greek sculptures. (So in other words, Beaux would be 3 times removed from actual contact with a real live model. Can’t get much more proper — or inadequate — than that.)

It turned out that Beaux was frustrated with her drawings at Catherine Drinker’s studio, calling them “correct and ugly, a hateful travesty to the eyes.” But Drinker offered a different kind of education: what the life of a professional female artist could be like. It turns out it was more sophisticated and social than Uncle Will had expected. Drinker invited Beaux to stay at the studio after lessons were over and to join her artistic circle of friends. Beaux was inspired but Uncle Will was not pleased.

When Drinker became engaged to one of the men in her circle (a man 8 years younger, go Aunt Kate!), she recommended that Beaux sign up for art school. Knowing Uncle Will would expect a segregated class for women, Drinker recommended a class offered by the Dutch artist Francis Adolf Van der Wielen.

Beaux entered Van der Wielen’s class in 1872, but was required to prove herself proficient in enlargements and perspective in order to be promoted to the Antique Class, where she would draw copies of plaster casts.

Drawing studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in what would have been an "Antique Class"

Undated photo of a drawing studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in what would have been an “Antique Class.”

In her autobiography, Beaux offers a delightful rant that explains exactly why copying from plaster casts was such an “impoverished” way to study art.

I soon found myself before a large piece of white paper and one of the plaster busts. It was not the head of the Medici Venus, which I had never seen, of course, but something like it, and even less interesting, and it was placed in a broad hard light and had no silhouette, or mystery of lighting, no motivity. It was an object which took me nowhere and brought me nothing, as I now see, because it represented a series of contradictions. I suspect that it was a Roman bust, and without original impulse. Of course, it had the highly sophisticated syntheticism of the Greek ideal for its origin, but refined away to negative import and diluted artificialdom, it had only in the plaster pretended substance, which the marble would have made existent and absolute, even in abstraction.

The surface of plaster of Paris gives no clue to its substance, though the forms it is the mould of were decisive, though abstract. So firm, in fact, that thinking back to the original that must have been, the idea of youthful body, tender cheek, lip and throat, seem to have been qualities to be rejected.

Beaux wrote these impassioned words nearly 60 years later, after she had spent most of her life painting with live models. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a better explanation why women needed to be allowed to draw and paint from life, and not the cheap plaster casts available in their “Antique Classes.”

Beaux’s fondest memory of her year with Van der Wielen was when a fellow student brought in a gift from her fiancé, a young doctor, complete set of bones of the skull. The students copied them all in pencil, enjoying the play of organic curves, modeling and lighting for the first time. Years later, Beaux credits this knowledge of the human skull for giving her a “predilection for portraiture, and the manifestations of human individuality. I always saw the structure under the surface, and its capacities and proportions.”

Classes at Van der Wielen’s would end in 1872, when a female student “succumbed to the manly charms of our director,” and with “her ample fortune floated them away, far from the ennui of class exercises in drawing.” (Isn’t Beaux hilarious?)

Van der Wielen’s departure would lead to a teaching opportunity for Beaux. Catherine Drinker stepped into Van der Wielen’s position and in 1872, Beaux stepped into Drinker’s post as a part-time art teacher at Miss Sanford’s School for Girls. Beaux taught for 3 years. In 1874, Uncle Will introduced Beaux to a printer and she was offered her first professional illustration assignments, including a commission to illustrate fossils for a book on paleontology. In 1876, she would have attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and was most likely inspired to enroll in additional art instruction of her own.

Although Beaux denies it in her autobiography (interesting, that in 1930, after a long successful life in international art circles, she would still feel the need to defend her propriety), in 1876, the new PAFA building was completed and 21 year-old Celia Beaux enrolled in the antique, costume and portrait classes.

Why the reversal for Uncle Will? For one, his fortunes had turned around and by 1876, there was plenty of money for more art classes for Beaux. Perhaps Uncle Will saw her as a more serious artist with professional potential, or perhaps Beaux was one of those insistent young women who finally wear down their father figure. Beaux even signed up for the life drawing class with the famous instructor Thomas Eakins, but only attended once. (I’ll bet she didn’t mention that to Uncle Will.) By this time, the women of PAFA were allowed to draw and paint nude models, although male models were required to wear a loincloth.


Woman's Life Class

Alice Barber Stephens, The Women’s Life Class (illustration for William C. Brownell, “The Art Schools of Philadelphia, Scribner’s Monthly 18 Sept. 1879)


Beaux claimed that she avoided Eakins’ class because of Uncle Will’s “chivalrous and Quaker soul,” but in truth she might have quickly realized in just one session that Eakins’ life class was ripe for rumor and scandal. Although Eakins was greatly admired by many of his female students and has since been recognized as one of the most progressive teachers of the era with his emphasis on anatomy and the live human form, he would be forced to resign his PAFA teaching post in 1886 amidst allegations that he encouraged the female students to pose in the nude, that he exposed himself to a female student, and that he lifted a loincloth from a male model in the women’s life class.

Beaux only pursued her studies at PAFA for a couple of years. It is possible that her uncle, who had been generously supporting her studies, decided that two years was enough. It’s also possible that life just got in the way, as it is known to do. These years were a time of courtship for Beaux and her older sister, which brought its social and domestic distractions.

When Beaux’s older sister Etta married Henry Sturgis Drinker in 1879 and Beaux had no acceptable offer of her own, Beaux turned back to art classes. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Beaux found no man who was more interesting than her art.

This time she would study china painting, a popular decorative craft that would have given Beaux something from which to make a living. After lessons at the National Art Training School of Philadelphia, she started to make money painting portraits of children on porcelain plates. She gave it a try for awhile but kind of hated it: “I remember it with gloom,” she admitted in her autobiography. From the image below, you can tell that Beaux’s ability to get a likeness is developing, but that her subject appears utterly joyless. (Then again, maybe he was a joyless little snot and she nailed it.)

Working Title/Artist: Plaque: Cecilia BeauxDepartment: Am. Decorative ArtsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, Digital File DT5403.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 3_27_12

Cecelia Beaux, Child on Porcelain Plaque (1880), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (not on display)






Beaux’s Turning Point: Life Classes

The turning point for Beaux came in 1881, when at the age of 26 a friend from her early days at the Lyman School invited her to join a life drawing and painting class supervised by William Sartain, a French-educated artist and successful New York professional. It would be the first time Beaux would ever take classes with a live model. She clicked with Sartain’s gentle style. Beaux began painting portraits with confidence and inspiration. Her work took a huge step forward.


When Beaux wrote about her first life classes 50 years later, you can just feel the powerful impact the experience had on her:

… the unbroken morning hours, the companionship, and, of course above all, the model, static, silent, separated, so that the lighting and values could be seen and compared in their beautiful sequence and order, all this was the farther side of a very sharp corner I had turned, into a new world which was to be continuously mine.

Sartain was one of those rare artists who was also a magnificent teacher. Beaux describes his ability to communicate his vision:

What I most remember was the revelation [Sartain’s] vision gave me of the model. What he saw was there, but I had not observed it. His voice warmed with the perception of tones of color in the modeling of cheek and jaw in the subject, and he always insisted upon the proportions of the head, in view of its power content, the summing up, as it were, of the measure of the individual.

This ideal, the most difficult to attain in portraiture, is hidden in the large illusive forms; the stronger the head, the less obvious are these, and calling for perception and understanding in their farthest capacity.

When our critic rose from my place and passed on, he left me full of strength to spend on the search, and joy in the beauty revealed; what I had felt before in the works of the great unknown and remote now could pass, by my own heart and hands, into the beginning of conquest, the bending of the material to my desire.

What moxy! Beaux’s world had just exploded with confidence and inspiration. She would soon begin her own conquest of the art world, “bending material to her desire.”


Cecelia Beaux’s Portrait Career is Launched

It was about this time that Beaux rented her own art studio on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia (at first shared with cousin Emma Leavitt) and began painting portraits in earnest. The PAFA Archives contain some interesting photographs of the cousins in their studio in the 1880s.

In 1883, Beaux found herself in the “large barren studio” with tall ceilings and full light, dreaming of a large picture. She began to sketch a composition in the style of Whistler’s famous Arrangement in Gray and Black #1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871), which she would have seen at the Centennial Exhibition of 1881. Beaux’s sister agreed to pose for the oversized canvas along with her wiggly 3 year-old son. She claims that “the presiding daemon spoke French in whispering the name of the proposed work”: Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance. Even if you don’t speak French you can still somehow understand “the last days of infancy” and the bittersweet intimacy that conveys.

beaux les derniers jours

Celia Beaux, Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance (1883-5), oil on canvas, 46 x 54, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts


It took Beaux two years to finish the double portrait. She had never before done anything but heads. Here she had to figure out not only the full body, but the interaction of the two, as well as a background, table and flowers. And then the rug, which is way more difficult than it looks. (I know, I’ve tried it. My needlepoint rug looked great, but completely overpowered the rest of the painting.) It was ambitious to say the least. She received regular criticism from her former teacher William Sartain, who stopped by her studio whenever he could get away from New York, but other than that, she kind of figured it out on her own. She was 30 years old when she entered it into the Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy and won the Mary Smith Prize for the best painting by a female artist.

Now she was on a roll. She would soon complete Ethel Page as Undine (1885) — again, on her own in her own studio without dedicated instruction — and would win the Mary Smith Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy for the second year in a row. Beaux would work on over 40 portraits in the next few years, seeking to distinguish herself as a serious professional and not a dilettante, much like Mary Cassatt did in France.

Celia Beaux, Ethel Page as Undine (1885), oil on canvas, private collection

Celia Beaux, Ethel Page as Undine (1885), oil on canvas, private collection

The Paris Salon

Beaux’s biggest triumph as an up-and-coming artist would come in 1887 when her friend and fellow artist Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown offered to take Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance to Paris and to submit it to the Paris Salon on Beaux’s behalf. Bush-Brown was a friend from PAFA who had studied in Paris at Académie Julian with Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger, as well as Carolus-Duran and Jean J. Henner. Bush-Brown carried the painting on the top of a cab to the studio of Jean Paul Laurens for his advice. Laurens urged Bush-Brown to send it to the Salon. Despite Beaux’s lack of connections in the Paris art world, it was accepted. As Beaux said in her autobiography:

It had no allies; I was no one’s pupil, or protégée; it was the work of an unheard-of American. It was accepted, and well hung on a centre wall. No flattering press notices were sent me, and I have no recorded news of it. After months it came back to me, bearing the French labels and number, in the French manner, so fraught with emotion to many hearts.

Beaux describes how she sat and stared at her painting when it was returned to her in Philadelphia, resolving to go to Paris herself to continue her studies.

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 employés; 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; . . .

But there was no voice, no imprint. The prodigal would never reveal the fiercely longed-for mysteries. Perhaps it was  better so, and it is probable that before the canvas, dumb as a granite door, was formed the purpose to go myself as soon as possible.”



Next Post: Celia Beaux in France



Sources and for Further Reading:

Cecilia Beaux, Background with Figures, Autobiography of Cecilia Beaux, Houghton & Mifflin Co. (1930)

Alice A. Carter, Cecilia Beaux, A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age, Rizzoli (2005) – although note the book cover which appears below curiously says “Victorian Age.” My copy, and I am looking at it right now, clearly says “Gilded Age.”

Sylvia Yount, et. al. Celia Beaux, American Figure Painter, High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2007), accompanying the 2007-8 exhibit by the same name at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta Georgia, The Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age by Alice A. Carter

Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age by Alice A. Carter