OUT OF THE BACKGROUND: CECILIA BEAUX AND THE ART OF PORTRAITURE

By Tara Leigh Tappert

copyright, 1994



 

Part I: Beginnings

 

Strange is the existence in which there is no memory of a mother; no vestige of even a momentary, vague, child-impression. This was my fate, and although it was so, there has been no stronger reality in my life than the reality of my mother's person and influence.

Cecilia Beaux[1]

 

Chapter 1: Family Background, 1855 - 1873

 

Eliza Cecilia Beaux was just twelve days old when her mother died of a chill and fever brought on by the complications of childbirth. This early and irreversible loss silently affected the choices her youngest daughter made throughout her life. To begin with, the mother's death sparked a close bond with her older and quieter sister, and while the two eventually had very different lives, it was the youngest who felt a special need to sustain a lifelong family connection. The mother's death also ignited in the heart of the last-born child an unquenchable yearning for recognition and an impassioned desire to leave a mark upon the world. As such, she chose an artistic life that brought her international acclaim, a fitting legacy to her mother, whose name -- Cecilia Beaux -- she later assumed for her career.

Born on May 1, 1855, to a blue-eyed Frenchman and a dark-haired New England woman, Eliza Cecilia was the third child of Cecilia Kent (Leavitt) and Jean Adolphe Beaux [Illus. 1]. While her birth should have been met with unbounded joy, the death of her mother changed the event to one of sorrow. Adolphe Beaux was shattered by his wife's death and found his newborn daughter to be little more than a sad reminder and pale substitute for his beloved and departed spouse. Inconsolable, he soon left the country, consigning the new baby and her older sister to the care of their maternal grandmother. For the older girl, her sister's birth was a frightening and confusing time, as the baby's arrival was quickly followed by the loss of both her mother and her father.[2] Indeed, the mother's death and father's departure changed the Beaux family forever.

Yet in 1848, when Adolphe Beaux, a thirty-eight-year-old Frenchman and third son of Jean Pierre and Gabrielle Desmond Beaux, came to Philadelphia to organize an American branch of the family business, J. P. Beaux & Co., Sewing Silks, his future lay brightly in front of him.[3] The young man soon met and fell in love with Cecilia Leavitt, the eldest daughter of John Wheeler and Cecilia (Kent) Leavitt. Reverses in her family's fortunes had brought the twenty-six-year-old Cecilia to Philadelphia, where she was earning her living as a teacher.[4]

The Leavitts traced their ancestry back to seventeenth-century New England, and back to England before that.[5] They had long been associated with the dry-goods business, and at one time Cecilia's father, John Leavitt, had been a tremendously successful merchant, managing the family's New York City firm John W. & Rufus Leavitt.[6] But problems in the cotton industry in 1846 caused the business to fail, and to meet the mounting debts owed to their creditors, the Leavitts sold their beautiful New York townhouse on Barclay Street and their country estate on the Palisades in Hoboken, New Jersey. The two eldest of the Leavitt daughters, Cecilia and Eliza, also went to work.[7]

With the collapse of the family business, John Leavitt's health began to fail, but he saw a ray of hope for his now-struggling family when Adolphe Beaux expressed affection for his lovely daughter Cecilia. Once Leavitt was satisfied that the young man would be able to provide for her, Beaux's request to marry Cecilia was approved, and the wedding was held in New York on April 3, 1850.[8] Following the marriage, a branch of the Beaux family's silk business was established at 28 Pine Street in New York and managed by John Leavitt until his death in 1852.[9] For a short time, the Leavitts were again financially secure.

Adolphe and Cecilia Beaux soon started their family. Their first daughter, Alice Zepherine, was born in February 1851 but died just eleven months later; then Aimée Ernesta, nicknamed Etta, arrived on October 26, 1852, just ten months after the death of their first baby.[10] By 1854, Adolphe and Cecilia, and two-year-old Etta, had moved to Philadelphia and were living at 700 Pine Street, where Beaux was listed as a manufacturer.[11] The next year their third daughter was born, but when the young mother never recovered from the trauma of her child's birth, the father fled to the comfort of his family, in Nîmes, France, turning over the fledgling silk-manufacturing firm to his brother Edmund, who was also living in Philadelphia.[12] Two years went by before Adolphe Beaux returned to America.

When he came back in 1857, he joined his mother-in-law, her children, and his own two girls in a house located in the heart of the city at 1712 Locust Street.[13] His daughters were now two and five years old [Illus. 2]. Over the next four years, Beaux tried to secure a place for himself in the Philadelphia business world, to recapture the respect of his in-laws, and to gain the affection of his children. Ultimately, he failed at nearly every one of these ambitions.

Nevertheless, for a time, J. P. Beaux & Co., Sewing Silks, located at 25th and South, was a successful enterprise, competing with such other Philadelphia firms as B. Hooley & Son, recognized for their fine-quality sewing and fringe silks, and F. S. Hovey, whose sewing-machine silks and tailors' twists were known in the market as the "hovacci" and acknowledged to be superior to any made in England.[14] The Beaux silk-manufacturing company provided employment for a number of workers, including Beaux's young brother-in-law Charles Leavitt, and while the factory was thriving, Beaux placed the following notice: Considering that God in his mercy has permitted us to unite in this place from week to week, and that his smile is on our labors, I feel that we ought to give him thanks at least once every week, and for this purpose the work will stop every Saturday at half-past five o'clock, beginning today. The exercise which will consist in a prayer will take only a portion of the time allowed, but still those who will think them not agreeable with their feelings will be at liberty to retire.[15]

By nature, Adolphe Beaux was a pious man. He gave thanks to God at his workplace, and during the years he lived in Philadelphia, he was active in the French Collegiate Church in America. Beaux was a devout Protestant Huguenot, who still carried a hatred centuries later, for the Roman church and its persecutions of the Huguenots in the sixteenth century, and the French Collegiate church provided him with a much-needed memory of France. It also sustained his soul. M. Fargue, the church's pastor, was a friend and frequent visitor in the Beaux and Leavitt household, and occasionally Adolphe Beaux took his daughters to church, where they seemed to especially like the simple and unadorned hymns that their father often selected for the services. Etta sang harmony while her younger sister sang alto.[16]

Beaux filled his daughters' hearts with music, and he also entertained them by drawing "enchanting pictures of animals doing amazing things." Etta noted that her father could have been an artist, as he "could draw without lessons."[17] Indeed Adolphe Beaux had more than a passing interest in art: he had brought a "few old pictures" with him from France, and while they were "unsigned" and "not very valuable," they provided his daughters with a glimpse of "the Old World and tradition."[18]

Since the death of his wife, it was his daughters and his church that gave Beaux his happiest moments. Unfortunately, these pleasant times were to be too short lived. Over the four years that Beaux was in Philadelphia, the Leavitts increasingly found it more and more difficult to tolerate his "foreign" and "peculiar" ways. He spoke in broken English and was indicted for roasting chickens on a spit over an open fire. Etta later noted that the family didn't love him very much.[19]

Beaux's mother-in-law watched him with his daughters, and while she had already raised eight children of her own, her heart went out to the little motherless Beaux sisters. Her son-in-law seemed to enjoy his girls, but he was simply unqualified to make responsible decisions regarding their future. Beaux was so French, and so out of place in this household of strong-minded American women. How could he contribute to training his daughters as proper American girls? Quietly but firmly, Cecilia Leavitt took the role upon herself. Soon Beaux was referring his daughters to their grandmother for guidance.

While concern over cultural and gender differences may have accounted for Cecilia Leavitt's decision to raise the Beaux sisters herself, there may have been something more with regard to Adolphe Beaux's relationship with his youngest daughter. He seemed so sad when he looked at her, and later, when the girl recounted her first memory of her father, it was regrettably laced with a conflict regarding her name. Taken to church as a two-year-old, and led down the aisle between her father and grandmother, she was baptized Eliza Cecilia, for her aunt and her mother. Even though she was given the names that her mother requested as she lay dying, the child later learned that her father couldn't bear to hear her called Cecilia, so the family appeased him and she was called "Leilie."[20]

The child's name had focused her family's unspoken despair, and as she grew up, she became acutely aware that her wrenching birth had caused her father to lose his beautiful, beloved wife, and her sister to lose her mother. Leilie came to silently believe that it was her fault that her mother had died, and she acquiesced to her father's pronouncement that she was unworthy to carry her dead mother's name.[21] For years she never used it.

Leilie's response to her father's grief was to romantically idealize him and to describe him in the most glowing of terms. To Leilie, her father was a passionate idealist, filled with poetry and light, and later, she believed it was her French inheritance that accounted for her artistic spirit. Never once did Leilie see her father as just a sad and pious man, the assessment the rest of her family would very quickly have made.[22]

Beaux's strained relationships with his Leavitt in-laws and with his daughter Leilie were compounded in 1860, when it also became apparent that he was losing his business. While Beaux never neglected his affairs, he did not have the requisite skills to successfully "turn over money."[23] The silk factory failed in 1860, and Beaux's brother Edmund left the city that year. Reduced circumstances forced the Leavitt and Beaux families to move again, this time to a house at 1510 Lombard Street.[24] The collapse of his business and the ever-increasing disregard for his thoughts and feelings concerning the upbringing of his children led Beaux to a difficult decision. Sometime in 1861 he decided to return to France. He left his daughters with their grandmother and did not come back to Philadelphia for another twelve years.[25]

Etta and Leilie were nine and six years old when their father left America. Feeling abandoned and alone, the already tightly bonded sisters now became even closer.[26] Both sisters missed their father, but they responded to his departure in very different ways. While Etta carried memories of both her mother and her father, and seemed to cope more easily with her family's flux and change, Leilie had an ambivalent experience with her father, and she didn't have even a "momentary, vague, child-impression" of her mother.[27] Lacking a tangible connection with either her mother or her father, Leilie suffered her father's leave-taking more sharply and more deeply. She soon turned her feelings to a search for a sense of place -- a desire for familial belonging and a secure and permanent home.

Even though it would be years before there was a house that gave Leilie the perception of security, during the summer of 1861 she had her first experience with the magic of a place. That year, her grandmother and aunts were compelled for financial reasons -- there was just so little money then -- to cancel the family's usual summer visit to Leavitt relatives in the cool mountains of Washington, Connecticut. Instead, they decamped with other aunts, uncles, and cousins at the Eschelmans, a Pennsylvania German family whose farm was somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Leilie retained intense memories of that summer -- hating the noise and commotion of a screaming baby, fearing her terrifying older cousin, dreading the uncomfortable husk mattresses that she and her sister slept on, and generally despising the primitive living conditions of the farm. Yet the beauty of the place stayed with Leilie all her life. She loved the Eschelmans' grape arbor and whitewashed farm house, and she found the valley, with its small river that passed through a meadow and woods, and the "grassy pasture kept close by grazing creatures of the farm," to be absolutely magnificent. While Leilie's memory of the farm and valley may have been reinforced by her Aunt Eliza's sketches, instinctively the child had discovered that a geographical place could provide magical security, even when people could not [Illus. 3].[28]

At about the same time that her father left, Leilie began questioning her grandmother and aunts about her mother's death. She wanted to know who her mother was, and to understand what had happened to her. But the subject was just too painful for her family, and no one would tell her. So, in the same way that she had idealized her father, the child now invented a romantic image of her mother. Leilie opened family chests to look at her mother's dresses, cloaks, fans, and ribbons. She lovingly fondled her wedding veil and wreath and then decided that her mother was a beautiful noblewoman who had been intensely loved. Leilie's privately created impression was publicly reinforced by her family and friends. With pitying stares they searched for a glimpse of the mother in the child. Leilie bore these looks with pride and acquired a heightened sense of her self. She believed that she was the daughter of a beautiful woman whose legacy she was to carry on.[29] It was little wonder that when she grew up, she identified with her mother.

Leilie deeply felt the loss of both her mother and her father, but discovered that she could make sense of her world through make-believe and imagination. Not only did she create romantic images of her mother and her father, but she also engaged in elaborate doll-playing to further cope with her mother's death and the leave-taking of her father. While Etta sometimes played with Leilie, the activity never had the same urgency for her that it did for her younger sister. Through doll-playing Leilie translated her vulnerability into intense self-sufficiency, and the stories that she concocted accurately reflected the circumstances of her household.

Leilie's and Etta's dolls were Mrs. Henry Franklin and Mrs. Charles Wood. They were married, and each had three children; reminiscent of the three children in Leilie's own family -- including her dead sister, Alice. Leilie's dolls were Mrs. Wood and her three children, and making clothing for them and caring for their frequent illnesses occupied much of her youthful time. So did the periodic letters written to the absent husbands of Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Franklin. They were always away on business. The dolls seemed to manage for themselves in the same way that the women in the Leavitt family did. Father and uncles came and went, but the women kept the home fires burning.

One activity that Leilie repeated time and again suggested how much she missed her parents' comfort. On cold winter nights, she would get out of bed and "gather up two of the least protected, as any mother would, and go to sleep clasping their icy china heads to [her] breast."[30] What little girl could not have wanted such a similar sign of affection?

Fortunately, with all the uncertainty and change in Leilie's earliest years, from her infancy her Grandmother Leavitt and her aunts Eliza and Emily provided her with the love and nurturing that she so clearly needed. These caring and thoughtful relatives had truly adopted her and her sister as their own, and as Etta and Leilie grew up, they came to emulate these imaginative and resourceful women.

Cecilia (Kent) Leavitt had moved her family to Philadelphia in the mid-1850s, approximately ten years after the collapse of her husband's business, and just a few years after his death [Illus. 4]. Careful economy was now the rule of the household, but the air of luxury in which the family had lived in New York still lingered in the plain and simple dwelling that Cecilia Leavitt maintained in Philadelphia. Well educated and socially adept, Cecilia and her daughters, Eliza and Emily, were gifted musicians, artists, and seamstresses, and one friend who frequently visited the family noted that the creative and lively Leavitts made "other women seemed like stuffed dolls" next to them.[31]

Cecilia Kent had received a vicarious education in theology from Yale University in 1816, when she helped her poorly sighted older brother Aratus with his course assignments.[32] Four years later, in 1820, she married John Wheeler Leavitt and moved to New York, leaving her home in Suffield, Connecticut, to start a new life with her husband. Over the next eighteen years, Cecilia's and John's eight children were born.[33]

The Leavitts lived quite comfortably in New York, and in the 1830s Cecilia was able to send her eldest daughters, Cecilia, Eliza, and Sarah, to Miss Green's School at 1 Fifth Avenue. She had her children home-tutored in German and French, and also made sure that they were given music lessons. When Otto Dressel, a young German musician and former student of Felix Mendelssohn's, immigrated to the United States, John Leavitt quickly engaged him. Eliza particularly benefitted from Dressel's instruction, becoming a gifted pianist [Illus. 5]. John, Cecilia's oldest son, graduated from Columbia College in 1846. Both he and his brother Samuel were sent to college, where they developed interests in utopias and Swedenborg, preoccupations that were of little use to the family when their father's business failed. The boys were no help at all during this unsettling family crisis, and as a result gained reputations as incompetent dreamers and reformers.[34]

Charles and Emily, the youngest of the Leavitt children, were just ten and eight years old when their father's company folded. They watched their sisters Cecilia and Eliza go to work to earn money for the family. The young women soon found employment as a governess and as a music teacher, but the work never paid enough to return the Leavitt family to its previous financial standing. One result of the family's lost affluence was that the youngest Leavitt children were not given the same luxurious training that their older siblings received, and while they were still teenagers, their mother followed the young Beaux family and moved them all to Philadelphia.

Cecilia Leavitt supervised a busy and lively household during the late 1850s and early 1860s. Eliza, Samuel, Charles, and Emily still lived at home when their mother took in the little Beaux sisters in 1855. Two years later, when the children's father returned, he also stayed with the family, but by 1860, when the Beaux girls were eight and five years old, their home life began to change. For the next thirteen years, they lived in a constant state of flux.

In January 1860, Emily Austin Leavitt, the twenty-one-year-old aunt of the Beaux sisters, married twenty-five-year-old William Foster Biddle [Illus. 6].[35] That same year Adolphe Beaux's business failed, and the family was forced to move to less expensive housing. The next year their father left Philadelphia altogether, returning to his family in France. In 1862 Will Biddle headed off for the Civil War, fulfilling a year of military service as an aide with the rank of captain on the staff of General George B. McClellan.[36] While he was gone, their Aunt Emily moved back home. The next year, in 1863, their twenty-seven-year-old Uncle Charles married Sarah Allibone and moved to Riverton, New Jersey, to start a family of his own.[37]

Etta and Leilie especially loved their delightful Uncle Charles, and during the years that he lived with them, the sisters fought over making his bed.[38] Their Uncle Samuel, on the other hand, never generated the same beloved enthusiasm. Samuel failed to realize that Leilie's dolls were important to her well-being, and one bitterly cold night, as a joke, he took them out of their cozy little beds and hung them by their arms and legs from the gas fixture, the door handles, and other open places. The sight of her precious babies so coldly unprotected was more than Leilie could bear. Samuel's cruel trick touched her far too deeply, and in 1863, when he moved away from home, she never really missed him.[39]

Since the family's move to Philadelphia, there was little self-indulgence or luxury in their lives, and even though the Leavitt children began moving away in the 1860s, everyone continued to work to support the family as a whole. Eliza taught music; Charles worked as an accountant, a clerk, a foreman, and a bookkeeper.[40] Samuel was a coal dealer, and in 1863 he and Charles began operating a coal business called Leavitt Bros., and their older brother John worked for a rubber-goods business nearby.[41] Adolphe Beaux managed his silk factory, and Will Biddle was employed as a mining engineer. For years, income from here and there kept the family going.

The resourceful Leavitt women found creative ways of making do. Eliza altered clothes for her nieces, letting the tucks out of dresses as they grew, and modifying a pink dress that had belonged to her dead sister, Fanny, so that Leilie could have a new garment when she celebrated her fourteenth birthday.[42] Grandmother Leavitt administered the household, assuming responsibility for the education, religious training, and social values of both her children and her grandchildren. Emily gave the Beaux sisters their early home schooling, and Etta and Leilie helped around the house by mending sheets and waxing furniture.[43]

While the little girls spent their earliest years living with a number of Leavitt relatives, by 1864 the family had winnowed down to just the Beaux children, their grandmother, and their maiden aunt Eliza. That year, the four of them began living in a series of houses in West Philadelphia, a choice that was probably economic. Across the Schuylkill River, away from Center City, this semirural section of the city was just beginning to develop. West Philadelphia became the new home for the University of Pennsylvania in 1872, and during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the West Philadelphia station of the Pennsylvania Railroad, located at 32nd and Market streets, was erected in just a little over two months.[44]

For years West Philadelphia was unfashionable and decidedly less expensive, yet its large detached houses and wide-open spaces made it also quite livable. Between 1864 and 1872, the Leavitts lived in another three houses; then in 1873 they purchased 4305 Spruce Street and permanently settled into the community.[45] After years of moving around, they never budged again.

Cecilia Leavitt soon involved herself in the life of her new neighborhood. At its founding in 1866, she and her son Charles were charter members of the Woodland Presbyterian Church, located at 42nd and Pine.[46] Cecilia Leavitt reared her granddaughters in the conservative Presbyterian faith, making sure that the girls were confirmed by the time they were twelve years old.[47] The sisters were admitted to the church after study and examination -- Etta in May of 1866, and Leilie in June of 1867 [Illus. 7].[48]

The church presently met the spiritual and social needs of all the family members. Will Biddle played the organ, Adolphe Beaux joined in 1873, shortly after his return to Philadelphia, and in 1888 Eliza Leavitt served as secretary for the church's Home Mission Society. As a young girl, Leilie spent much of her social life with various church friends, and for some forty-five years she retained her church membership. In the mid-1890s, when her art career was flourishing, she worked on a committee to redecorate the interior walls of the church.[49]

During the winter of 1864, the year their grandmother relocated the family to West Philadelphia, the Beaux sisters briefly lived with Will and Emily Biddle in Lewiston, Pennsylvania. Following Biddle's war service, he was hired as superintendent of the Freedom Iron Works there, and the children probably came to stay with the Biddles to provide companionship for their Aunt Emily.[50] Three years later, in 1867, Will Biddle was appointed vice president of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co., and he and Emily moved back to Philadelphia.[51] Within a year or so, the Biddles were living with Cecilia and Eliza Leavitt, and Etta and Leilie Beaux.[52] Will Biddle soon accomplished what Adolphe Beaux and the Leavitt brothers never could: he stabilized the Leavitt women's years of unsettling financial uncertainty and he gave them all a new sense of cohesion and familial belonging.

Will Biddle could trace his ancestry back through a long line of Quaker Biddles. By profession, he was a mining engineer, but his avocational interest in music may have been how he met Emily Leavitt. Biddle was active in various Philadelphia committees responsible for the city's musical festivals and special performances.[53] Following graduation from the University of Pennsylvania in 1852, Biddle began his career as an engineer working for a number of railroad companies -- the Virginia Central, Mine Hill and Schuylkill Haven, Illinois Central, and Ohio and Mississippi. Prior to the Civil War he had worked with George B. McClellan, and following the war, during the late 1860s, his career quickly developed.[54]

A kind and gentle man, Will Biddle thrived in the company of the creative and intelligent Leavitt women. Leilie was four years old when Emily married him, and later, when he became an integral part of the family, she credited her uncle as the greatest influence in her life next to her grandmother Leavitt.[55] Unlike the other men in her family, Will Biddle never abandoned her, and even though her father came back to Philadelphia in 1872, he never lived with his daughters or his in-laws again.[56] For Leilie it was Will Biddle in whom she eventually placed her complete and explicit trust.

Will Biddle moved in with the family in 1869, when Leilie was fourteen years old. When the sisters had lived with the Biddles in Lewiston, the differences between the girls were not quite so apparent. Now that they were teenagers, Will recognized Leilie's nascent aesthetic gifts and saw that her energy and creativity needed a structure and a channel. Will Biddle helped Leilie find a direction for her life.

Throughout their childhood the Beaux sisters had been an extension of one another, but they were also very different -- opposites, in fact.[57] Etta was sweet tempered and docile, while Leilie was tempestuous and passionate. Etta nurtured others, and Leilie thought of herself. Poor vision limited Etta's activities, while perfect eyesight expanded Leilie's horizon. And Etta focused inwardly, while her younger sister took on the world.[58]

The differences between the sisters often flared into testy confrontations. On one occasion while quarreling, Leilie scratched Etta's cheek. The incident so mortified Etta that when she went out to give French lessons later that day, she was ashamed to admit that Leilie was the one who had wounded her. Leilie, on the other hand, knew that she had a fiery temper, and during her tumultuous teenage years, she usually found herself wanting in comparison to her sister. In the diary that she began keeping when she was fourteen years old, Leilie recorded her struggles for personal perfection: 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.[59] Even though her relationship with her older sister was frequently rocky, Leilie needed Etta, and confided to her diary that "I don't know how I could live without her."[60] The feelings that she felt for Etta at fourteen lasted all her life.

While the sisters would always remain caring and close, when they were teenagers, they began traveling on separate but related paths. Oriented to the simple comforts of the people surrounding her, Etta fell into a traditional domestic life. But Leilie sought independence and the greater world at large, and developed a keen awareness of the power and the value of money. Both sisters determined their life's directions by observing the women of their family. The resourceful and creative Leavitts were their first important role models. Their grandmother was the mother of eight and managed a contented and lively home. Etta followed her example. Their mother and their Aunt Eliza, employed in the feminine occupations of governess and teacher, helped keep the family together when their father's and grandfather's businesses failed. Leilie followed in their footsteps, finding marketable and well-paying work. She also contributed to her family's financial well-being.[61]

But for Leilie it was not just the feminine example that influenced her life choices; her father and her uncle were also important in shaping her life direction.[62] Some of Leilie's earliest experiences with art and music came from her father, and even though he essentially abandoned her and her sister, Leilie believed that she had inherited her artistic spirit from him. These idealistic notions were balanced by her Uncle Will's down-to-earth and more practical guidance. Not only did Will Biddle ameliorate the constant movement, familial change, and sense of financial uncertainty that had earmarked much of Leilie's childhood; he also recognized and promoted his young niece's creative ambitions. Will Biddle became Leilie's champion. He took her away from the domestic sphere and found teachers who could train her. Will Biddle permitted the girl her first adventure and her first taste of freedom.

 

Chapter 2: First Lessons, 1868 - 1873

 

If music had not been such an important part of the daily routine in the Leavitt family household, Leilie's dawning interest in art may not have been so readily supported. As it was, the Leavitts knew the gratifying, creative demands of music, as well as its remunerative rewards, and with the example of her Aunt Eliza, Leilie learned that it was possible to obtain both pleasure and profit from one's chosen work. She also discovered that a finely developed talent required a great and continuous effort.

In a household of skilled musicians, Eliza Leavitt was the most gifted. Regarded as a professional, Eliza helped support her family by giving private music lessons. Leilie noted that her aunt often returned home from teaching with "dripping skirts and wet gaiters," suggesting a devotion to her work and the care of her family that took her out in the pouring rain when necessary.[1] But music was not just grim work for Leilie's Aunt Eliza; she also loved how it nurtured her family and how it provided other stimulating social interactions.

Life in the Leavitt household included nightly performances on the family's Chickering grand. Eliza played solos, performed duets with Will Biddle when he was home, and Emily practiced when the others were not around. As a little girl, Leilie often crawled under the Chickering to lie on the floor and listen to the music. Her Uncle Will frequently brought home new compositions by contemporary musicians and recognized masters, and since the Leavitts were such excellent sight readers, they could go through new pieces without stumbling or repetition.[2] The intimate pleasures of these private family performances were periodically extended, as the Leavitts enjoyed hosting group musicales. The family's melodious soirees added a refreshing lyrical strain in the Quaker city of Philadelphia, where there were then "few friends of music".[3]

When the Leavitts settled in West Philadelphia, Will played the organ at the Woodland Presbyterian Church, and his interest in church music led him to edit a hymnal that was considered a "model of musical exactitude and taste" [Illus. 8].[4] Material for his book was drawn from "the English school of cathedral music" and his own library of hymn literature.[5] Biddle's interest in church music led to a Sunday evening ritual of hymn-singing, and later, when Etta and Leilie were in their late teens, the family added a weeknight sing of English madrigals and German quartets.

Etta and Leilie first sang simple hymns at their father's French Collegiate Church, and later, when they were older, they did close harmony at home, weaving about "between soprano and alto, while...at work, at anything but lessons."[6] Their singing took a more structured form during the winter of 1864, when they were twelve and nine years old and living with Will and Emily Biddle in Lewiston, Pennsylvania. Will was in charge of the Freedom Iron Works there, and was often away on business. One evening he returned to a special musical surprise prepared for him by Emily and the children. They had learned parts of Mendelssohn's Elijah, and they performed the "Terzetto," "O Rest in the Lord," and "Cast thy Burden" for Will's singular enjoyment.[7] This experience gave the Beaux sisters an awareness of the exacting demands of music, and for Leilie a beginning sense of the difference between amateur and professional efforts. The concept became even clearer when Emily tried to teach her to play the piano.

Since musical ability was both highly regarded and taken for granted by the Leavitt family, Leilie approached her piano-playing with perfection in mind. When she realized that her skills were "mediocre or worse," she couldn't bear to continue, and noted that she was "not sorry" when "at the age of eleven it was decided that there was not enough of the essential gift to make it best to devote me to it."[8]

At eleven, Leilie was already developing her own standards of perfection regarding creative expression, discarding anything that she couldn't do faultlessly. Since her piano-playing abilities were less than perfect, and she knew she would never be able to compete with her more talented aunts and uncle, she lost interest. Indeed, such tendencies for perfection became the hallmark of Leilie's creative efforts and, in fact, were fostered in the early training that she received from her grandmother and aunts.

Exposure to music was just one aspect of Leilie's and Etta's early education. Despite the Leavitts' precarious financial situation in the early 1860s, Cecilia Leavitt was determined to educate and socialize the Beaux sisters as best she could. Her high standards, and her conservative and protective attitude toward the girls' earliest education, provided them with instruction that was along the lines recommended by the renowned mid-nineteenth-century educators Lydia Sigourney and Catharine E. Beecher. Sigourney argued that mothers who were able to do so should conduct their children's education at home, while Beecher was outspoken in her insistence that a girl's education should include preparation for the role of wife and mother.[9]

The Beaux children's earliest schooling was at home, and their training included both academic lessons and necessary domestic skills. Leilie remembered her grandmother less as her teacher and more as the administrative force in the household, and although Cecilia Leavitt regularly read to the girls and gave them their first sewing lessons, it was Eliza and Emily who were responsible for their academic lessons.

Emily conducted the daily instruction. She introduced the sisters to mathematics, geography, dictation, and memorization; she taught them to read and write; and she exposed them to the charms of poetry and literature. These last two subjects were to be lifelong interests for Leilie, and when she became a teenager, her first ambition was to write.[10] Eliza supplemented Emily's academic instruction by occasionally teaching Etta and Leilie history and French. She also provided each sister with special artistic guidance. Etta received music lessons, and at the age of eight, Leilie her first drawing lessons.[11]

As careful economy was the rule of the Leavitt household, Emily perfected the sisters' sewing skills by teaching the girls how to repair worn spots on the family's bed linens. If the stitches were not perfect, Emily would rip them out and make the children do them again, reinforcing for the sisters that there was no room for imperfection or mediocrity regarding one's work. Leilie, in particular, absorbed these values and was later able to apply them to other creative endeavors, believing that hard "work [was the] struggle to conquer something" and success the result of the effort.[12]

When Will Biddle entered the Leavitt household in 1868 and took on the family's financial burdens, Cecilia Leavitt decided that the Beaux sisters should be given two years of formal education at a local private academy. Just as she had done for her own daughters, Cecilia wanted her granddaughters to go to school to meet other children from their own social class. Will Biddle undoubtedly paid for the girls' tuition, and in 1869, when Leilie was fourteen years old, she joined her sister Etta at the Misses Lymans' School.[13]

Catherine and Charlotte Lyman conducted classes in their home at 226 South Broad Street.[14] Their school was not long-lived or particularly prominent, but it was one "of the many hundreds of Academies, Female Seminaries and Boarding Schools that [had] at one time or another been established in the State [of Pennsylvania]."[15] While the female academy was near the end of its popularity and significance in the education of women when Etta and Leilie attended the Lymans' school, the sisters' experiences there provided them with their first exposure to the world outside their own family.[16] Leilie marked her attendance at the school as the end of her childhood. It was, in fact, a new beginning for her. The connections that she made there benefited her for the rest of her life.

The Lymans' school had a mix of students, ranging in age from ten to eighteen, with girls from both wealthy and moderately well off Philadelphia families. Since the classes were not segregated by grade, Etta and Leilie were placed at various levels according to their abilities. The course of study included Latin, algebra, arithmetic, American history, French, and English composition. Leilie commented that she and Etta were lauded for their poetic skills, as "rhymed verse flowed from us almost as easily as speech."[17] There were also impromptu spelling bees and lessons in natural history (zoology and geology). The latter class was most useful for Leilie, as she later made drawings of fossils and bones for the noted paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. Finally, for an extra cost, art lessons were also available.[18] Yet, despite Leilie's developing interest in the arts, for whatever reason, financial or otherwise, she did not take the drawing classes there.

Still, Leilie's aunts and uncle encouraged her emerging artistic interest, often taking her and her sister to picture galleries and special exhibitions. Leilie remembered one of her first visits to the Pennsylvania Academy when it was still in its old building on Chestnut Street. Benjamin West's Death on a Pale Horse caught her attention, and she lay on the floor to get a better look at it. She knew its source from the Bible's book of Revelations.[19]

In addition to museum exhibitions, Philadelphia, by the 1870s, also had several substantial private art collections. In this new age of conspicuous consumption and display, the city's merchants and businessmen were amassing collections of European academic paintings -- particularly the work of French artists who exhibited in the Paris Salon -- almost as fast as the artists were painting the pictures.[20] The art collection of Philadelphia businessman Henry C. Gibson made a notable impression on young Leilie. When she was a teenager, her uncle received an invitation to see this collection in Gibson's house on Walnut Street.[21] Approximately one hundred paintings were hung in "three tiny marble rooms." Gibson's showpiece was a replica of Alexandre Cabanel's Birth of Venus, which occupied its own "little pavilion against the innermost wall."[22] Besides the Cabanel, Leilie saw paintings by Thomas Couture, Jules Breton, Gustave Brion, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Fromentin, and Rosa Bonheur -- all well-regarded French academic artists.

Leilie was just three years old when the family noticed that she had sketched the local organ-grinder on a "slate framed in wood."[23] Five years later, she took her first drawing lessons from her Aunt Eliza, and when she was thirteen, her aunt brought home "a small package of lithographs" for her to sketch.[24] They were by an early-nineteenth-century English landscape painter named James Duffield Harding, and her experience with his drawings left an indelible and disappointing impression.[25] Leilie discovered that it was impossible to duplicate the soft black line of a lithographic print with a hard lead pencil. The effect was not the same, even when "the house was exactly the right size, the walls upright, and the drawing...in exactly the right place on the paper."[26]

It never occurred to Eliza, when she brought Leilie the Harding drawings, that her niece would not be able to transcend the technical differences between the two artistic mediums. Eliza had been casually sketching landscape scenes for years, but already at thirteen, Leilie intuitively knew that her drawing was not a visual replica of the lithographic original. Several years after this memorable and frustrating experience, Leilie was taken to a lithography establishment and shown how the process actually worked.

Three years after Leilie's experience with the Harding drawings, when she had completed her formal education at the Lymans' school, she began to take art lessons regularly. Her family had considered her numerous creative abilities -- singing, drawing, and writing poetry -- and had decided to encourage her to develop her art-making skills. Will Biddle thought that Catharine Ann Drinker, a distant relative and an accomplished artist, would be able to help focus his niece's artistic energies. The association soon proved to be more than felicitous.

Catharine Ann Drinker was thirty years old in 1871, when sixteen-year-old Leilie Beaux came to her studio at the top of an old house at 524 Walnut Place [Illus. 9].[27] Catharine's studio was the first that Leilie had ever seen, and she described it as "typical." It was traditional and not to be confused with an ordinary or domestic scene...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...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...The faded gold of the large seated Buddha gleamed from a distant corner. There was a lay figure, which was draped for a while in the rich robes that Miss Drinker had used for her "'Daniel.'"...It was a place that might have been called gloomy or shabby. It was not to me.[28] Leilie spent a year doing copy work in Catharine's dusky studio. She mainly drew from lithographic prints of Greek sculpture -- well-known "school studies...interpreted by Julien" -- and she best remembered her drawing of "the bowed profile of the Hermes."[29]

While Catharine's instruction got Leilie started, it was the example of Drinker's life and art that had an even more profound impact on the girl. The young neophyte was fascinated by the older woman's unusual life experiences, which were broader than those of most mid-nineteenth-century American women. Catharine's tales and exploits expanded Leilie's view of the world.

The Drinker family could trace its ancestry back to the seventeenth century, when Philip and Elizabeth Drinker emigrated from England to Charlestown, Massachusetts.[30] Descended from this family, Catharine was the eldest of four children, born on May 1, 1841, to Sandwith and Susanna Budd (Shober) Drinker.[31] Catharine's father, a mariner in the merchant service, had entered the East India trade in a partnership called James and Drinker, and during the 1850s he was stationed in Hong Kong and Macao, China. His family joined him there when Catharine was eight years old.[32]

Catharine spent her childhood in the Orient and was also educated there. Bright and quick witted, she excelled in mathematics, learned to navigate, had a facility for languages -- Latin and especially French, studied literature and Oriental art, and took up dancing and horseback riding. When she was fifteen, her pleasant features and smooth brown hair attracted the attention of Hukwa, a powerful Chinese tea merchant who was also her father's friend and business associate. On his son's behalf, Hukwa proposed marriage to Catharine, but she declined the offer.[33]

The Drinkers lived in the Orient during the years when trade agreements were first being negotiated with Japan and China, and Macao in the 1850s was an international society frequented by merchants and diplomats. But it was also a city shaken by political intrigues, by the violence of the opium wars, and by murderous suspicion directed toward its many foreigners. In January of 1858, Sandwith Drinker hosted a breakfast for officers of the French and English fleets. Unknown to him, a Hong Kong baker had poisoned the bread with arsenic, hoping to eliminate certain English officers. While Drinker's guests were treated for the poisoning, he forgot to treat himself, and a few weeks later he died from either the arsenic or dysentery.[34]

Even though the Drinkers had lived in China for eight years, shortly after Sandwith's death the surviving family members returned to the United States and settled in Baltimore. Susanna opened a school there, Mrs. Drinker's Academy for Young Ladies, but less than two years later, in March of 1860, a uterine tumor took her life.[35] Catharine was not yet twenty, but she was now the head of the household, assuming responsibility for her younger brothers and sister, and keeping her mother's school open for awhile. By 1865 Catharine had moved the family to Philadelphia, where they settled into 1906 Pine Street, a house owned by their cousin Ann Elmslie.[36]

Despite Catharine's cares and duties, sometime in the early 1860s she began studying art. She first went to the Maryland Institute, an art school that advertised itself as promoting the mechanical arts, and she later continued her art training at the Pennsylvania Academy.[37] In 1868 she was in the first "Ladies Life Class" along with Emily Sartain and Ida Waugh, and in the mid-1870s she went back there again to study with Thomas Eakins and to serve as the class secretary. Catharine also trained at the Art Students League in New York.[38]

When Leilie came to study with Catharine in 1871, Drinker was beginning a decade of creative activity as a teacher and as an artist. Since 1870 Catharine had been giving private art lessons and teaching art at Miss Sanford's School. Three years later, in 1873, she took over the art school of Francis Adolf Van der Wielen, managing it for a year, and in 1878 she was the first woman employed by the Pennsylvania Academy, giving a series of lectures on perspective there.[39]

Artistically, the 1870s and early 1880s were Catharine's most prolific years.[40] She was painting portraits, figure studies, genre scenes, and still-lifes that were described as having "the finish of the early American and English schools, with smooth, rich textures and beautiful deep colors."[41] One reviewer noted that her work sold "readily and at good prices in New York," averaging "about $300 each."[42] Catharine's reputation rested on such paintings as Geoffrey Rudel and the Countess of Tripoli (1870), a historical-genre piece that she exhibited in 1870 at the Union League of Philadelphia; on Blessed Are the Meek (1871), a sentimental and romantically inspired lithograph; on James Madison (1875), a portrait after Gilbert Stuart, which was purchased for the Centennial by the city of Philadelphia; on Daniel at Prayer (1876), a biblical painting priced at $500 that Leilie watched her create; and on Old Fashioned Music or The Guitar Player (1880) [Illus. 10], which won her the Mary Smith Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1880.[43]

When Leilie came to study with Catharine, the two of them soon discovered that they had a great deal in common. Besides their love of art, there were many personal similarities. They shared the same birthday -- May 1; they both were orphans of a sort, Catharine literally and Leilie de facto; they both lived with their grandmother; and they both had moved around a great deal. Catharine and Leilie could also trace their families back to America's earliest beginnings, and both their families had fallen on financially difficult times, making it necessary for both women to work.

Student and teacher were drawn to each other, and they soon began a lifelong friendship, which eventually extended beyond the two of them to embrace both of their families. Catharine's brother, Henry Sturgis Drinker, married Leilie's sister, Aimée Ernesta Beaux in 1879.[44] Yet in 1871, when Catharine and Leilie first knew each other, it was their mutual interest in art and Drinker's supportive encouragement that helped young Leilie realize that she, too, could be an artist.

After completing a year of copy work, Catharine suggested to Will Biddle that Leilie continue her art training at the Van der Wielen School. Uncle Will consented, and in 1872, when Leilie was seventeen years old, she began taking classes there. Francis Adolf Van der Wielen was a young Dutch-Flemish artist who had trained at the Antwerp Academy and had immigrated to Philadelphia in 1868.[45]

Hampered by failing eyesight, the young Dutchman had abandoned his own painting career and had taken up teaching instead, opening an art school in 1869 at 1334 Chestnut Street. Located in the Artists' Fund Building opposite the United States Mint, the school consisted of two large, well-ventilated, and freshly painted rooms flooded with light. There were easels to use, casts to draw from, and a blackboard for the teacher.[46]

While most of Van der Wielen's students were young women taking art lessons for their own enjoyment, some of his students -- like Leilie -- were there to learn a marketable skill. Van der Wielen directed his efforts toward training young women for gainful employment, and his endeavors were noticed by the editors of Godey's Lady's Book. In their March 1870 issue they recommended the school as well worthy of a visit on the part of any one who takes an interest in the progress of true art in this country...It is no "'Painting in Twelve Easy Lessons'" affair, but an honest working school, where all who are willing to apply themselves and go through a certain amount of patient work, may attain the highest degree of excellence that their natural abilities fit them for.[47]

Van der Wielen was apparently the only instructor, and his daily routine consisted of morning critiques. While the students were free to stay and work at the school all day if they wished, Van der Wielen would not appear again until the next day. Leilie noted that the quality of his teaching and criticism was quite limited. He had a poor command of English, which made it difficult for him to explain his tests, and his failing eyesight affected the visual criticism of his students' work.

Still, the year-and-a-half to two years of art training that Leilie received at the Van der Wielen School introduced her to the techniques of enlarging and linear and aerial perspective, and the principles of light and shade. She learned to enlarge when she made a life-size drawing, in crayon, from a small-sized lithograph of a bearded old man. Her understanding of "the whole principle of light and shadow" was tested when she took plaster casts of "cubes...blocks and a sphere" and produced drawings of geometric forms. She mastered perspective by making "large drawings...with ruled lines," creating "a street" or "procession of people" back to "the vanishing point where all lines converge." When she had mastered these exercises, Leilie was then "advanced" to drawing from plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture -- "busts and fragments from the antique."[48]

While the Van der Wielen School gave Leilie the rudimentary skills of a beginning artist, she found it necessary to supplement her studies. Leilie sketched constantly, filling notebooks with typical drawing-book assignments of flowers, fauna, architectural details, geometric forms, and studies of people. She drew landscapes [Illus. 11], numerous sketches of her family, and preliminary drawings of shells and fossils.[49] She also made drawings of bones. A fellow student at the Van der Wielen School had received a complete set of skull bones from her fiancé, a young physician, and both Leilie and her friend sketched these bones.[50] Leilie's sketch work suggested the drawing traditions that were popular in nineteenth century America,[51] but they also reflected the limited and traditional European program of study upon which the Van der Wielen School was founded.[52]

Drawing from the antique plaster casts was the most advanced form of instruction offered at the Van der Wielen School. There were no painting classes, no landscape or genre classes, no life or anatomy classes, and certainly no portrait classes. By no means a full-blown art academy, the Van der Wielen School, in short, was a private enterprise oriented toward training young women to draw.

In 1873 Francis Adolf Van der Wielen married one of his students and returned to Europe, where he died three years later at the age of thirty-three. His short-lived school was kept open throughout the year by Catharine Ann Drinker, who had assumed its directorship.[53] For Leilie, her second year at the Van der Wielen school was again spent working with Catharine.

 

Chapter 3: Design Work, 1873 - 1887

 

Leilie Beaux was eighteen years old when she launched her art career. Driven by a need for independence and a desire to contribute to her family's finances -- the one "rock bottom reality" of her life -- Beaux first worked as an art teacher and a commercial artist, developing as such under the continual influence and guidance of her mentor, Catharine Ann Drinker.[1] As Beaux began to assume an artistic identity, she adopted her mother's name -- Cecilia Beaux -- and used it as her artistic signature.

In 1873 Catharine Drinker helped Cecilia Beaux secure her first teaching assignment. She recommended her protégé as the drawing instructor at Miss Sanford's School. Catharine had taught there for several years, but her new position as director of the Van der Wielen School made it impossible for her to continue teaching there. Miss Weltha L. Sanford was in charge of this eminent "thoroughgoing institution," and was an older woman with "blue-grey eyes" and "grey locks," which she wore "in side curls, looped back."[2] Devoted to her profession, Weltha Sanford viewed every girl in her school as "a moral and intellectual problem," and her aim was "the formation of character."[3] When Miss Sanford hired the eighteen-year old Cecilia, the young artist was sure that the educator's acceptance came "as near to being a compromise of her judgment as she ever permitted herself."[4]

With the enthusiastic support of her family, Cecilia set off to teach at Miss Sanford's, wearing a "bonnet with strings" that Etta had helped her make over so that she would "look at least as old as the big girls in the class."[5] Offering a creative complement to the academic curriculum, her two drawing courses met one morning a week, with one class followed by the other. In a class for the younger girls, and another one for the older girls, using "blank pages of drawing books, pencils and rubber," her girls produced "construction" projects of "small objects such as a desk would accommodate."[6] Cecilia replicated her own art training, teaching her students how to draw, how to enlarge, and how to shade.

Within a year or so, she expanded her teaching to a number of private students -- "a very proper, well-behaved boy of twelve, and a girl somewhat older," a Miss Lila Redfield, who studied with her for a number of years, and three other students. While she set Lila Redfield to work on shading and enlarging, and Miss Dongles to drawing cylinders, Beaux generally found her students to have little "perceptible degree of natural aptitude," but discovered that, if she "sat by" and offered an "occasional word of counsel and encouragement," they often produced better results.[7]

While teaching got Cecilia started, she did not have enough classes or students for her efforts to pay well, and her pupils failed to challenge her. But when she began doing lithography projects, she found herself sufficiently tested and also well compensated. While a student at the Van der Wielen School, Beaux first experimented with "lithographic crayon on paper" and her Uncle Will, noting her interest, arranged a tour for her at the commercial printing establishment of Thomas Sinclair and Sons.[8]

Born in Scotland, Thomas Sinclair had moved to Philadelphia, and began working as a chromolithographer around 1838 after purchasing the equipment of John Collins. In the early 1840s, his reputation was established when he won a Franklin Institute award for his chromolithography. Soon his work covered the broad field of "practical lithography," and by the late 1870s, when Cecilia was given her tour, Sinclair claimed to own "the most complete facilities and the largest exclusively lithographic establishment in the state."[9]

The Sinclairs and Leavitts knew each other through the Woodland Presbyterian Church, and when Cecilia was taken "far downtown" for her survey of the plant, one of Sinclair's sons was her guide.[10] "The place was thoroughly commercial and was, indeed, a factory," she noted. There were floors full of printing presses, in action. The great stones lay in them, sliding back and forth to receive contact with the ink rollers.... I was more impressed by the stones than by any part even of the color process. Many of them were five inches thick, two feet by one and a half in horizontal dimensions. In the surface I now saw the beautiful quality of line I had always wondered at, fully accounted for.[11]

Shortly after her visit, Beaux "drew the head of a young actress from a photograph" on a stone "sent...out to the house." It met with the approval of the actress and "was printed [by Sinclair] and used as an advertisement." She recalled that this lithograph was her "first commission."[12]

In 1874, when Cecilia was nineteen years old, she produced The Brighton Cats [Illus. 12], her first "published work." In carefully drawn detail, she sketched the heads and paws of two similar-looking tabby cats "in their famous act of feigned sleep while hanging gracefully over the back of a chair." Thomas Janvier, Catharine Drinker's journalist friend, described the print in an article that he wrote for The Press (Philadelphia): Probably no members of the cat family are better known than those remarkable animals who make glad the English town of Brighton by their presence. It is not too much to say that in every land their genial countenances, by the aid of the limner's art, are known and admired, while their marvelous wisdom is talked of in all tongues and properly appreciated by all peoples. The latest votive offering laid before their shrine is a capital lithograph by Miss E. C. Beaux of this city, published by G. Meyer.... The picture suggests the truly cherubic sweetness of the animals, for only the heads are shown, and is calculated to win the hearts of all lovers of the feline race. The lithograph...is remarkable as showing perfect power over the stone, as well as force and delicacy in drawing.... The original edition has been about entirely disposed of in this city and by Goupil in New York, and the stone has been destroyed. Thomas A. Hunter...has, however, issued a very creditable copy, which although neither so forcible nor so dedicated as the original has much to commend it. The few remaining impressions of the first edition will doubtless be eagerly seized upon.[13] The popularity of the print, and the flattering publicity that it received, gave Cecilia an early lesson on how to generate a market demand. It must have been thrilling for the nineteen-year-old to have her print so avidly collected.[14]

On the strength of The Brighton Cats and the fine drawing evident in the print, Cecilia was soon hired to make lithographic drawings of fossils.[15] The commissions came from the eccentric but brilliant paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, a distant relative who was then attached to the U.S. Geological Survey.[16] Cope's explorations resulted in the discovery of nearly one thousand new species of extinct vertebrata and nearly the same number of recent vertebrata, and the bone hunter now needed someone to visually document his voluminous findings.

Beaux first sketched a group of nine small fossils that were "paleontological specimens, fragments of bone, some of them partially embedded in the rock and cut away enough to display integral parts."[17] The plate credited to her in Cope's "The Vertebrata of the Cretaceous Formations of the West" for Ferdinand V. Hayden's U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories (1875) is similar to what she described. Her plate Cionondon Arctatus [Illus. 13] contains seventeen carefully drawn specimens.[18]

Beaux had been recommended to Cope by Thomas Sinclair, and once she had proven herself with the smaller fossils, she was next awarded a more challenging assignment, "the head of an extinct ass that had roamed the plains of the Far West." It was Cope's "first born among fossils, and the heir to all his hope." In October 1875 Cope and Sinclair paid a visit to her to "explain [the] fossil ass."[19]

As they drove up to the door, Beaux's "hands grew icy cold," and she "was obliged to swallow very fast when they came up." Initially afraid, she was soon "charmed by Prof. Cope [who]...had lovely manners, easy and refined and was very cute and funny." He told her "a great deal about both fossils" and a month later, the men came back to assess her work.[20] That morning, Cecilia noted that she woke with [an] unpleasant feeling of suspense & trepidation on account of anticipated visit with Cope & Sin[clair] at ten.... Dressed and fortified myself for them but felt pale when they drove up. Criticized the drawing but in a very kind way. Gave directions for correction & left me rather miserable.[21] Later that day her hard work was acknowledged, and her frustration and disappointment sweetened, when she received a note from Sinclair enclosing $75 for the fossil drawings.[22]

Beaux's interest in fossils may have been sparked while she was a student at the Lymans' School, as one of her science lessons referenced Cope's views on the "Brachiopods molluscs."[23] But she discovered the pleasure of drawing bones while she trained at the Van der Wielen School. The set of skull bones that belonged to her friend provided an attractive alternative to the "blocks" and "busts" that she frequently rendered there. Like the bones, the fossil drawings that she later made were a challenge for her, and she tolerated "a fossil as subject," because she was able to turn it into an artistic endeavor. It was "the idea of light on an object as well as its effect" that had captured her imagination.[24]

When Beaux began making these drawings, lithographs were considered more accurate for scientific illustration than were photographs, as the camera distorted three-dimensional objects.

The process, as she practiced it, required painstaking care, and she described the work as follows: The reversed drawing had to be made first, perfect in size and proportion, an exact guide, though not modelled. After tracing, it was tentatively massed on the stone, a delicate nebula that could be developed without error. Firm black strokes, if such there were to be, went in last, and one could finally scrape out a tiny light to accent a tooth or salient elevation. Form in half tone was (as always) the greatest difficulty. But all...the real strain [was] with the necessity of extreme caution in reversing.[25] Beaux endeavored to show the fossils "one-third life size."[26]

Cecilia always spoke with a certain pride about her fossil drawings, noting that she "had achieved considerable mastery...of illustration by lithograph of scientific evidence" and that "nothing the fossils taught a neophyte in art ever had to be unlearned."[27] As with her teaching, Cecilia's family fully supported her efforts. She noted that her grandmother "understood perfectly the high degree of concentration the stone required... [and] devoted all her mornings to giving me the greatest assistance possible.... [S]he read aloud untiringly, and never allowed interruption except when I got up to take breath."[28]

Although Beaux earned a decent income from the fossil drawings, the concentration required, as well as her limited knowledge and understanding of the fossil specimens, ultimately caused her to rebel. She remarked that "intellectually and in the matter of research, [the fossil work] was far too large a field to be approached without the dedication of a lifetime," and she soon lost interest "in repeating operations of whose meaning the mind had no conscious grasp."[29]

Cecilia next turned to china painting, fashionable craftwork for women popularized in America by the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Three years after the fair, in 1879 Catharine Drinker had translated from French into English a book entitled China Painting in America.[30] Written in 1878 by Camille Piton, a noted French ceramist who was then living in Philadelphia, Catharine had urged Cecilia to take china-painting lessons with him, as he was teaching that year at the National Art Training School. Born in Marly-le-Roi, France, in 1844, Camille Piton had immigrated to Philadelphia, and from 1878 to 1880 he managed his art school, located on the "S.E. Cor. [of] Tenth and Walnut Streets," set up a kiln, and sold china-painting supplies -- "china palettes, putois and Lacroix's colors." In March of 1879, for a fee of ten dollars, Cecilia "took a month's lessons in china painting" from him.[31]

Beaux commented that she learned "the ignoble art of over-glaze painting" and "quickly mastered" the skill which she at once "began adapting...to portraiture." Her reputation as a china painter began in Philadelphia, then spread to "[m]others in the Far West." She produced portraits on large china plates that contained "a nearly life-sized head of a child (background, always different), full-modelling, flesh color and all, that parents nearly wept over."[32]

Beaux used photographs and solar prints to produce her china plates, taking measurements and notes on color, as frequently the "golden-haired darlings" were brought to her "and placed as nearly as possible in the lighting of the photograph." Beaux wrote the color scheme on the print, indicating where to include the "most color, least color, greenish, pinkish, warm [or] cool" colors. For the china portraits of children who were not in the Philadelphia area, she relied on just a photograph and "a bit of ribbon the color of the boy's eyes, as well as a lock of hair."[33]

One of her china plates was of Clara Hoopes [Illus. 14], who along with her husband, George Bulloch Atlee, had lived down the block from the Leavitt family at 4105 Spruce Street. Beaux was asked to make the china portrait of Clara in 1882 using an old daguerreotype taken about 1853, when Clara was eight years old.[34] The background of brown-colored, monochromatic, flower-patterned wallpaper, and the geometric-motif wainscoting typical of Aesthetic movement design patterns found in home furnishings in Philadelphia in the 1870s and 1880s, contrast markedly with the image of Clara, a young girl portrayed in a plain blue, boat-necked dress typical of children's fashions of the 1850s. In 1887 Beaux made companion portraits of Margaretta and Cooper Wood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son and daughter of a vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The painting of seven-year-old Margaretta is an excellent likeness, and her blond hair contrasts beautifully with the background of dark-green rhododendron, a popular motif in Beaux's work in the 1880s.[35]

While Beaux later hated these plates, believing that their popular commercial success was a base use of her artistic talents, at the time when she painted them, she took sufficient pride in them to include them in exhibitions.[36] But she soon felt that the plates required little creativity or originality, and she acknowledged them "with shame" and a "sad confession," hoping that some of them would wear out "their suspending wires" and be "dashed to pieces."[37]

Indeed, few other artists used the medium for portraiture, as Beaux did. Most china painters produced landscape, floral or nature scenes on bisque plaques, vases and vessels. Perhaps Beaux's youth and inexperience caused her to view her portraits as outside the "legitimate field."[38] But she really had no excuse for her ignorance. If she had studied any of the numerous "how to" books that were published in the late nineteenth century, she would have discovered that while portraiture was relatively rare in china painting it was not unheard of. Heads and figures on hard porcelain were listed as acceptable subjects in Piton's book, with which Beaux should have been familiar. She could also have consulted numerous other manuals, published shortly after the centennial exposition, including Catharine Drinker Janvier's.[39] Instead, she chose to blame her teacher, Camille Piton, for her limited knowledge of traditional subjects in china painting. More accurately it was quick profit that motivated her, as the plates were extremely popular. Later, she denounced them as "the lowest depth [she] ever reached in commercial art."[40]

From her despised china plates to her crayon, pencil, charcoal, watercolor, and oil sketches -- many of them done from photographs -- Beaux began to develop a focused interest in portraiture. By the 1870s it had become a common practice among portrait painters to use photographs to assist them in their work, and Beaux may have taken to heart William Morris Hunt's suggestion in Talks on Art. "If that little girl won't sit still, get a photograph of her. I know it is horrid to work from photographs generally but you must have something to help you about the exactness of it."[41]

The popularity of such work was evident from Beaux's first "public exhibition," when she placed a copy of a photograph "of a little girl with a basket of doves" in "the show window of a Philadelphia picture dealer." It was sold the same morning that she had given it to the dealer.[42] Indeed, much of Beaux's earliest works were straightforward "crayon portraits from photographs depicting children, "old gentlemen," and people who had died.[43] One of the first crayon portraits that Beaux had made was "of a friend of [her] uncle...a handsome old gentleman with a flowing beard." She did it on her own initiative and remarked that "from someone who saw this picture, I received an order to do another one.... This led to other orders; and so I made quite a lot of these pictures." Some of her others were "old friends of Mr. Edward Biddle, [her] uncle's father," and were done in "the flat" from "fine old-fashioned photographs of splendid old gentlemen," many of whom had died.[44]

Beaux also made numerous portraits of children in the early 1880s, but none quite like the 1885 whimsical and lively sketch of her four-year-old nephew, Henry Sandwith Drinker [Illus. 15]. This was one of the first of many drawings, paintings, and pastels that Beaux made of her first and favorite nephew, and it accompanied her illustrated poem, "Uncle John's Coat," published in St. Nicholas Magazine.[45] In the sketch, little Henry is portrayed in an elaborate blue coat that had once belonged to his grand-uncle John Leavitt.

 
Just see the coat that I have on!
It used to fit my Uncle John;
He was my Grandma's baby then,
But he's too big to be again;
His great big coat is black and new,
And mine you see is old and blue,
And much the prettier of the two,
This funny coat
That I have on
That used to fit
My Uncle John.
 
They say it's beautifully made,
And lined with lovely white brocade
But that is only vanity,
And it's this pocket that you see
Right here in front,
You understand,
Where I can always
Put my hand,
Just like the great Napoleon,
That's why I let them put it on
This queer old coat of Uncle John.[46]

The poem and sketch suggest an amusing and carefree attitude toward her family.

Beaux's illustration of Henry Drinker is in marked contrast to most of her portraits of children from the early 1880s. They generally indicate a photographic inspiration, and suggest an awareness on her part of portrait traditions in studio portrait photography. These somber and static portrayals display "true likeness," an aspect of realism that photography brought to portraiture.[47] In the watercolor of Frances Morton McCullough (1883), the lighting on the right side of her face, and the shadows on her left cheek and under her nose and mouth, repeat the effects of directed sunlight in the photographic studio. The plain background and precise, realistic rendering of Margaretta Morris (1884) [Illus. 16], seen demurely folding her hands, reflect a portrait tradition also evident in the studio work of the New York society photographer George C. Cox.[48] His stark photograph of two children from the 1880s shows the same type of plain background that Beaux used in her work, a style that went back to an older daguerrian tradition.[49]

The pastel and watercolor of Edmund James Drifton Coxe (1886) [Illus. 17], and the oil painting of Harold and Mildred Colton (1886), also seem to have been developed from photographs. Both images have an unnaturally posed and static quality, indicating that Beaux was still in the process of mastering anatomy and balancing out the full figure. In both of these portraits, the children's heads are out of proportion to their bodies. But the quality of the painting suggests an emerging and commanding talent. The children's features and their clothing are finely detailed.

For the Colton portrait, Beaux made a preliminary oil sketch on cardboard, which is alive in a way that the finished portrait is not. Harold's motionless gaze, and the unnatural stillness of Mildred's legs, also compare to a studio photograph of a boy and girl, again by George Cox. The little boy's suit and haircut are almost identical to Harold Colton's. Beaux's pride in the Colton portrait is evident from a photograph in her studio with the finished painting on her easel [Illus. 18]. The Chippendale chair on her painting platform, and the Oriental jardiniere in the corner of the studio, are the props that she used for this painting.

Beaux's portrait of Fanny Travis Cochran (1887) [Illus. 19], while painted from life, also owes its inspiration to traditions in portrait photography. The daughter of Travis Cochran, a prominent Philadelphia wine merchant, Fanny was ten years old when Beaux painted her portrait.[50] The carefully painted image of the child, placed prominently in the foreground, and the curtained backdrop in the background again compare to Cox's photograph of a young girl.

In 1888 Beaux's paintings of Harold and Mildred Colton and Fanny Travis Cochran were shown at the fifty-eighth annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy. One reviewer indirectly acknowledged the influences of photography in her work: The portraits in this exhibition are not so numerous as usual, but among them are several pictures of much merit. The best picture of this class is Miss Cecilia Beaux's portrait of a little girl in a white dress and a yellow sash. This is very charming as a picture, while it has all the appearance of being a strong likeness. By Miss Beaux there is also a portrait group representing two little children which has pronounced merits.[51]

In addition to Beaux's paintings and drawings of children, and her crayon portraits of deceased old gentlemen, she also painted posthumous and commemorative portraits. While these paintings were visual examples of Victorian mourning culture, they also displayed a sympathetic understanding, on Beaux's part, of those who wished to commemorate a departed loved one.[52]

Posthumous portraits were quite popular in the late nineteenth century, and like the Boston painter William Morris Hunt, Beaux relied on photographs for these paintings. Hunt generally warned his students away from this kind of work, as it took a toll on the artist. "[D]on't make portraits of people who have died," he said. "A sensitive person gives out altogether too much life in trying to put some life into them. If you get into that sort of thing, you'll be overwhelmed and fenced in with dead people."[53]

While Beaux never limited herself to portraying only the dead, in 1884 -- the year her father died -- she painted posthumous portraits of the Reverend Leonard Bacon of the Yale Divinity School, and of Jeannie Van Ingen [Illus. 20], a young girl from Washington, Connecticut. The paintings may have provided an outlet for Beaux's own grief at the loss of her father. The Reverend Bacon had died in 1881, and Beaux's precisely drawn, lithograph-like charcoal drawing on paper was based on a photograph. So was the watercolor of Jeannie Van Ingen, begun just a few months after her death. Beaux used a photograph taken a year before, when Jeannie was sixteen years old.[54] She knew the Van Ingen girl from her family's summer visits with Leavitt relatives in Washington, Connecticut, and she completed the commemorative portrait in 1885.

The Victorian preoccupation with death, suggested by Beaux's posthumous portraits, was also evident in the numerous paintings that she made of Elaine, a popular character from the Arthurian legends. Elaine was known as the Fair Maid of Astolat, the daughter of Sir Bernard of Astolat. She was in love with Lancelot, but her father tried to dissuade her from her affection by telling her of Lancelot's devotion to Queen Guinevere. The Fair Maid begged her father to desist and to let her pass from life with her illusions intact. While dying, she prepared a farewell letter to the knight and then arranged to float past him on a barge so that she could deliver it to him by her own hand after her death.[55]

The story of Elaine expressed the melancholy of Romanticism through themes of unrequited love, and death for a virginal female. Several artists depicted the story of Elaine in the late nineteenth century, but Tobias Edward Rosenthal's painting [Illus. 21], exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, was probably the best known.[56] Beaux may have seen it at the fair, as it had attracted unprecedented attention and had won a bronze medal there.[57]

Aspects of Beaux's own life may have drawn her to the story of Elaine. While loss through death was certainly a reality for her, the ideas of unrequited love and the eternally virginal female -- so poignantly represented by Elaine -- may have been even more present in her mind. In 1879, when Beaux was twenty-four years old, she refused her first marriage proposal, and she also suffered changes in the relationships with her sister Etta and her teacher Catharine, as they both had recently married. That year Beaux began making the Elaine paintings, and while they had an autobiographical undercurrent suggesting certain thorny personal issues that she was then working through, the paintings were also quite profitable.

With Catharine Drinker's encouragement, Beaux submitted a now lost crayon drawing of Elaine to the Pennsylvania Academy's annual exhibition in 1879.[58] It was the first work that she publicly displayed. In her receipts for 1880, she earned $60 from Elaine paintings, and she again exhibited an Elaine, priced at $50, at the 1880 Louisville Industrial Exposition in Kentucky.[59]

Beaux was in her mid-twenties when her world again began to change. For nearly eight years, Catharine Drinker had been her constant mentor and guide, exposing Beaux to the Philadelphia art world as she knew it. Catharine introduced young Cecilia to John Phillips, an art collector of prized steel engravings; she helped her become a teacher and commercial artist; and she also encouraged her to begin exhibiting her work.[60] But in 1878 the close connection was modified when Drinker's friendship with journalist Thomas Allibone Janvier [Illus. 22] turned into a serious romance.[61] Drinker's new relationship altered her influence on Beaux's professional life.

Callow young Cecilia had assumed that Catharine had forfeited her "right to love" and would live out her life as an unmarried spinster. But she soon learned that there were "powers more potent than the freshness of youth," as Drinker had charms and attractions outside conventional notions of beauty.[62] Even though she was considered "homely" and always "one lap behind" in fashion, the dark-haired and handsome young journalist fell in love with the petite and energetic Catharine.[63] Her "powerful intellect" had won over the heart of her "handsome troubadour," and even though she was eight years his senior, Catharine married Thomas on September 26, 1878, at the St. James Church in Drifton, Pennsylvania.[64]

Catharine continued her art career for a time, but she slowly began to shift the focus of her work from painting and teaching to writing and translating, aligning herself more closely with the literary career of her husband. By the mid-1880s, Thomas and Catharine had moved to New York, making that city their permanent residence, and returning there from their various sojourns throughout the world.[65]

Beaux maintained a lifelong personal and family connection with Catharine and Thomas Janvier, but Catharine's marriage, her move to New York and Europe, and her shift from painting to writing changed their professional relationship. While Beaux's art career ultimately moved beyond Catharine's influence, the accomplishments of the older woman were always a beacon for the younger artist. Both women succeeded as teachers, artists, and writers.

Catharine's marriage had a definite effect on the maidenly Cecilia Beaux, but the marriage of her sister Etta forced her to consider even more closely her own life choices. Cecilia had spent so much time with Catharine throughout the 1870s, both working in her studio and visiting her at home, that her presence had been noticed by Drinker's younger brother, Henry [Illus. 23]. Taken with Cecilia's striking appearance, her charming vivacity, and her high energy, Henry asked her to marry him, but when she refused, he turned his attention to her sister Etta [Illus. 24].[66] On December 2, 1879, at the Woodland Presbyterian Church, Adolphe Beaux gave the bride away, and Henry Sturgis Drinker and Aimée Ernesta Beaux floated "away on the happiest of marriage destinies, without a ripple to mar its certainty or one backward glance."[67] That year Cecilia began making her Elaine paintings, and contemplating the plight of the unmarried virginal female.

As Beaux began to move beyond the influence of Catharine Drinker Janvier, and to consider the implications of her own unmarried life, she also began to look at the commercial art work that she was doing and to assess its value within the larger world of art. What she soon realized was that her type of design work clearly fell within the traditions of the industrial art-education movement and was principally oriented toward needy, middle-class women.[68]

Proponents of the industrial art-education movement established institutions such as the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in order to teach drawing and other "useful branches" of the arts.[69] The Philadelphia School, founded in the 1850s, aimed to provide those "who might be thrown on [their] own resources" with skills that would help them support themselves in occupations that utilized interior decoration, "architecture, engraving, and lithography."[70] The instruction provided in the design schools contrasted significantly with the courses of study given in more traditional art academies. It was a different kind of training, oriented toward commercial art skills, and it ultimately created a new class of art laborers consisting largely of women.[71]

A further result of the industrial art-education movement was a separation and stratification of the arts into high and low art, an unfortunate split that perpetuated the bias that the design work that women and men produced was not high art. While this stratification eliminated any possible challenge to traditional male hegemony in the arts, it also tended to maintain the notion that these new skills were merely an extension of the amateur parlor skills that women had always practiced, and were, in fact, an expression of natural ability and feminine instinct. Leon Legrange suggested in 1860 that women were best suited for china painting, hand-coloring plates and prints, painting flowers, portraits, and miniatures, and working in the graphic arts.[72] While Legrange never thought of this as work for which women could be paid, some twenty years later, when the commercial arts began to boom, these fine and delicate parlor skills -- now taught in the design schools -- had become valuable and marketable commodities.

Opinions differed as to the degree to which women could succeed in the arts, yet by the 1880s there was a general feeling that a woman "who had a thorough art education can today easily find employment," even though the profession, "albeit a good one, is a new one for women." While the demand for art teachers was "in excess of supply," it was the requirements of the multifaceted art industries that particularly drew upon the talents of the newly trained design-school woman. Producing piecework at home or in an office, a woman could earn in "two and a half days" some "$20 to $30" for "good carpet designs," or "$10 to $15" for "wallpaper designs," and for "$8 to $25 per week" a woman could assist a photographer by "retouching [his] negatives, [by] coloring [his] photographs, [by doing] crayon work, and retouching in India ink." While the men still held the best design positions, the women were, nevertheless, making inroads.[73]

Cecilia Beaux earned a steady income from her commercial work, and was able to do it at home in a space that she shared with her aunts "Em and El," and Etta even shared her third-floor bedroom with Cecilia and her plaster casts "portraying all the heathen gods and goddesses."[74] The family encouraged the young artist to take an entrepreneurial attitude toward marketing her work, and she proudly stated that "she [had] never been in need for wanting of selling her works; they [had] always been in demand." Her crayon portraits from photographs sold for "fifty dollars a piece."[75]

Beaux began keeping records of her earnings as early as 1875, and between September and November of that year, she listed income of $49.75 for photographs and drawings of various individuals; $159.50 for private students; and $125.00 for lithographic drawings of fossils -- for a total of $334.25. This figure almost consistently increased over the following years: 1879 - 1880 -- $324.05; 1880 - 1881 -- $510.38; 1881 - 1882 -- $568.74; and 1882 - 1883 -- $640.00.[76]

In spite of its marketability, design work was stultifying, and much of the work considered appropriate for women required little initiative or imagination, was repetitive, and called for great patience and perseverance.[77] Beaux would have found this to be an accurate description, as after a period of producing lithographic bone drawings, she rebelled and wrote the following poem. It aptly expressed her feelings about this work.

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.[78]

Beaux ultimately hated her commercial and decorative work, and by her own admission did not connect it with "Art the high mystery." In fact, she did not "consider [herself] in any way an artist or even that [she] was ever to become one," and soon viewed her design work as stifling, uncreative "women's art."[79] Still, her teaching required her to clearly assess the drawing skills that she had learned in order to train her students; her lithography projects taught her discipline; the china painting gave her an entrepreneurial sense of artistic worth; and the crayon, pencil, charcoal, and watercolor portraits from photographs helped hone the technical skills that she needed to strike out on her own as a fine-arts portraitist.

 

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Acknowledgments
Preface
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Illustrations with Captions
End Notes
Bibliography
 
About the author and Resource Library editor's notes

 


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