Artists in 60 Seconds: Cecilia Beaux

people looking at a painted portrait
"Sita and Sarita" by Cecilia Beaux.

Quim Llenas / Getty Images 

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

Realism, specifically portraiture. The artist was frequently (and favorably) compared to John Singer Sargent, which she took as a compliment.

Beaux executed some technically flawless, personally uninspiring drawings of fossils and shells for the paleontologist E. D. Cope in 1874. Though it was a paying job, she so disliked portraying anything except people (and the occasional cat), she never again ventured outside of portraiture. Her start here involved painting the faces of children on yet-to-be-fired porcelain plates -- a briefly lucrative proposition that allowed her to bank funds with which to pursue her true ambition: oil portraiture in the "grand manner" (i.e.: full-length poses of nicely-clothed, usually-wealthy sitters).

Date and Place of Birth:

May 1, 1855, Philadelphia

Records indicate that Beaux's christened name was Eliza Cecilia, after her mother, Cecilia Kent Leavitt (1822-1855). She was thus connected with old Main Line Philadelphia Society, although the Leavitt family had become decidedly middle class by the time of the artist's birth.

Unfortunately, Beaux's mother died of puerperal fever a scant 12 days after giving birth. Her grieving father, silk merchant Jean Adolphe Beaux (1810-1884) returned to France, leaving Cecilia and her older sister, Aimée Ernesta ("Etta"), to be raised by the Leavitts. Cecilia was known as "Leilie" to family, for her father could not bear to call the infant by her dead mother's name.

Early Life:

It may sound incongruous to say that the two little sisters, de facto orphans, were "fortunate" to be raised by relatives. However, their grandmother, Cecilia Leavitt, and their maiden aunts Eliza and Emily, were remarkably progressive women. Etta and Leilie were educated in a home that valued female scholastic and artistic pursuits, and saw their Aunt Eliza contribute monetarily to the household by working as a music teacher.

It was evident from an early age that Leilie had a talent for drawing. The Leavitt women -- and Aunt Eliza, in particular -- encouraged and supported her efforts. The girl was given her first drawing lessons, a set of lithographs for beginning art students, and visits to see art by Eliza (who had visual art talents, as well as being a musician). When Aunt Emily married William Foster Biddle in 1860, the couple settled into the Leavitt home a few years later.

Beaux would later credit "Uncle Willie" as the biggest influence in her life, second only to her grandmother. Kind and generous, Biddle helped raise the Beaux girls as if they were his own children. For the first time since Leilie was born, the household had a strong male role model -- and a bit more discretionary income. He, too, encouraged his neice in developing her artistic talents.

Although the Leavitts had little money, they were one of Philadelphia society's oldest families. Uncle Willie paid the fees for both girls to attend the Misses Lymans' School -- a must for young women in society circles. Enrolled at age 14, Leilie spent two years there as a decidely average student. She established many good connections, but was unhappy that she couldn't afford the extra fees for art instruction. When Beaux graduated the family decided that she must have proper artistic instruction, so Biddle arranged for her to study with Catharine Ann Drinker, a distant relative and accomplished female artist.

Best Known For:

Cecilia Beaux was the first female instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Important Works:

  • Les Derniers jours d'enfance (The Last Days of Infancy), 1883-85

Date and Place of Death:

September 17, 1942, Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Disabled since breaking her hip in 1924, 87-year-old Beaux died at her home, Green Alley. Her grave is located at West Laurel Hill Cemetary, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, close to Etta (1852-1939) in the Drinker family plot.

How To Pronounce "Cecilia Beaux":

  • sess·seal·ya boh

Quotes From Cecilia Beaux:

  • Line is line, space is space--wherever found. The consideration of them is necessary to every work of art, and no such work can exist without them. --from the lecture "Portriature," 1907.
  • Never was a word more absued than "Technique." To many "Technique" means the purely mechanical, material side of a work, something generally found to be hard, shiny, even vulgar. Just now, to be clumsy is to be admired. Indeed bungling is much in fashion now, in painting. And if one does not bungle naturally, one may easily learn how to do it from the initiated.But the true definition of "Technique" is very simple. A perfect technique in anything only means that there has been no break in continuity between conception, or thought, and the act of performance. --from "Address to the Comtemporary Club of Philadelphia Shortly after Sargent's Death," 1926
  • In my opinion the charm and magic of color is inseperable from substance; that is, from texture. --from the lecture "Color," 1928.

Sources and Further Reading

Cecilia Beaux Papers, 1863-1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Beaux, Cecilia. Background with Figures: Autobiography of Cecilia Beaux.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Family Portrait.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970.

Carter, Alice A. Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age.
New York: Rizzoli, 2005.

Drinker, Henry S. The Paintings and Drawings of Cecilia Beaux.
Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1955.

Tappert, Tara L. Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture.
Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
-----. "Beaux, Cecilia".
Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, (27 January 2012).

Read a review of Grove Art Online.

Yount, Sylvia, et al. Cecilia Beaux: American Figure Painter (exh. cat.).
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

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Esaak, Shelley. "Artists in 60 Seconds: Cecilia Beaux." ThoughtCo, Sep. 4, 2021, Esaak, Shelley. (2021, September 4). Artists in 60 Seconds: Cecilia Beaux. Retrieved from Esaak, Shelley. "Artists in 60 Seconds: Cecilia Beaux." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).