The Best That Has Ever Lived: Cecilia Beaux

Andréa Fernandes

Reader BobM requested a post on Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), a famed but now forgotten contemporary of Mary Cassatt. September 7 was the 66th anniversary of the death of this American artist, so today we'll take a look at her life and most famous painting, "Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance" ("The Last Days of Infancy").

1. Twelve days after Cecilia Beaux was born, her mother died of puerperal fever and her father soon fled back to his native France, unable to handle the loss of his wife. Beaux and her sister were thus left to be raised by relatives. Beaux later recalled that, since they rarely saw their father, "We didn't love Papa very much, he was so foreign. We thought him "˜peculiar.'" Yet it was from her father that she inherited her artistic abilities.

2. Beaux grew up to be an independent, professional woman with a work ethic more typical of a man of her day than a woman. Devoted to her art, she never married and only spent time with men who wouldn't sidetrack her artistic career. She continued to live with her family, who were very understanding and expected few household responsibilities from her. As Beaux recalled, "I was never once asked to do an errand in town, some bit of shopping"¦ so well did they understand."

3. Though she's now not widely known, in her day, Beaux was thought to be one of the greatest artists alive. By her mid-30s, she was earning approximately $500 per portrait, comparable to Thomas Eakins' rate. She was described by William Merritt Chase as, "not only the greatest living woman painter, but the best that has ever lived. Miss Beaux has done away entirely with [gender] in art." Four years later, she was honored by Eleanor Roosevelt as "the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world."

4. In 1895, Beaux landed a regular teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, becoming the first woman to do so. A local newspaper wrote, "It is a legitimate source of pride to Philadelphia that one of its most cherished institutions has made this innovation."

5. When asked why so few other women succeeded in art as she had, Beaux explained, "Strength is the stumbling block. They are sometimes unable to stand the hard work of it day in and day out. They become tired and cannot reenergize." She herself was a tireless worker, producing more than 50 portraits in the course of three years early in her career, and producing almost 25 percent of her lifetime output in the 5 years after the death of a beloved uncle. Of her own work ethic, she remarked, "When I attempt anything, I have a passionate determination to overcome every obstacle"¦ And I do my own work with a refusal to accept defeat that might almost be called painful."

A larger version of "Les Derniers Jours d'Enfance" is available here. Fans should check out Cecilia Beaux's galleries from and the Washington Post; her self-portrait and the photos of her on Wikimedia; her MySpace page; and the Cecilia Beaux Forum (part of the Portrait Society of America). Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:Modern Masters, feat. Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso (Savannah, GA: through September 22, 2008)Sol LeWitt (Mountainville, NY: through November 15, 2008)José Clemente Orozco: The Graphic Work (Boca Raton, FL: September 17 through December 7, 2008)Sol LeWitt: Drawing Series... (Beacon, NY: through September 2009) Special thanks to ARTINFO for the exhibition details. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions. Or join the debate on the definition of art.