I find Cecilia Beaux inspiring in so many ways. Born in 1855 (one year before John Singer Sargent), she lived and worked in the Victorian era, a time when women were expected to get married and have children rather than pursue a career. Those who did work were seen as unfortunate spinsters who were unable to land a husband and therefore had to work out of necessity. But Beaux, who had her share of suiters, made the difficult decision not to get married and instead, devoted her life to painting. While I happen to be married and also a mother, I still find Beaux's decision courageous, especially given the restricting, male-dominant culture in which she lived. In most art schools, women artists were not allowed to advance beyond cast drawing, and they certainly weren't allowed to paint from live models. Beaux learned to draw by studying the human skeleton and by working from photographs. It is remarkable to look at her work and observe such excellent draughtsmanship, when you discover that her education was so limited!
As I study Beaux's work and life, I find myself trying to absorb all the best things (her work ethic, her technique, her tenacity, etc.)--while leaving the rest in order to make room for my own personal growth. One thing I found somewhat surprising about Cecilia Beaux was that she believed in God, but she chose to restrict any discussion of her faith to her private journals. The author describes a life-changing epiphany which convinced Beaux of God's existence, but ..."Beaux, who would work in a field rife with cynics and skeptics, would... keep her faith private." (page 26) As a Christian in a still very secular profession, I can very much relate. But I find that it is more important than ever to share the beauty and truth of God's grace through art. While my work is not overtly Christian, I do believe that the light can and does shine through. Cecilia Beaux's work, in many cases, does just that, showing a tenderness and a love for people and God's creation. I am inspired to do the same, and more - I hope.
While Beaux was truly a phenomenal artist, I found it encouraging that she, like all of us who strive for excellence, still had her moments of struggle. The author writes, "When Beaux was an elderly woman at the end of her career, when her youthful doubts were dimmed by years of stunning success, she told her youngest neice, 'In every picture I've painted there came a time when it was impossible to continue. There was a hill I couldn't climb. It's then when that pressure bears down on the solar plexus, that you must keep on!'" (p. 49) This incredibly talented artist and woman learned how to overcome fear and doubt by pressing on. What an inspiration for us all!
I will close by mentioning that Sam Knecht, my former painting professor from Hillsdale College, will be giving a presentation about Cecilia Beaux at this year's Portrait Society of America conference in Reston, VA. Now that I know a little more about Beaux, I am extremely excited to sit in on this lecture, which will be on Friday, April15 from 2-4. The topic will be, "Unveiling Ernesta: a rare opportunity to be part of the unveiling of one of Cecilia Beaux's portraits - not seen for eighty years. Highlights include the unveiling, stories and glimpses into the painting's creation and later revisions that mirror Beaux's quest for artistic excellence." Be sure to visit www.portraitsociety.org to register for the conference! I hope to see you there. :-)
|Detail from one of my favorite of Beaux's paintings, "Dorothea and Francesca"|