Fatuous observations on Cecilia Beaux
In one of my frequent firm grasps of the obvious, a brief perusal of the catalogue of the High Museum’s “Cecelia Beaux: American Figure Painter” exhibition reveals that her portraits were perceived as every bit as disturbing in the world of 1893 as they seemed to me when I discovered them on the walls a few weeks ago in this scholarly survey of a painter who has always been overshadowed by her male counterparts. (William Merritt Chase called her the most important female painter of her generation. But.)
My enthusiasm, then, is a naiveté comparable to realizing with excitement that Moby Dick incorporates a good deal of actual information regarding the hunting of large cetaceans. Only in this case the whales are psychological states, and the perceivers didn’t know they were hunting for them, only that something big was out there.
Sita and Sarita was as bothersome to American viewers of the 1890s as Whistler’s The White Girl, which Beaux would have seen, had been some years earlier. And many of Beaux’ other 1890s portraits, Dorothea in the Woods, et cetera, seem to reflect not just perceptive glimpses of feminine psychology that were missed by Beaux’ male counterparts, but intense personal attachments. Beaux knew these subjects’ inner lives, and it shows, but she also brought her own strong feelings to the enterprise.
Portraits in Summer, which I can find on the web only in a vintage black and white photograph, is another arrestingly unusual accomplishment; I wonder about its stylistic predecessors, since it almost seems to foreshadow later decades in its particular idealization of Beaux’ nephew and his bride. They seem to be facing their radiant future rather more resolutely than I would expect in an American formal portrait of 1911. I can think of a whole host of earlier Central European strength-and-beauty allegories (this was the age of that brand of bodily romanticism) but that is not where this couple is coming from, or going, either. Everything about the gestures and postures puzzles me, though not necessarily productively.
To use the fashionable term, Beaux is using some visual codes I just don’t recognize. Yet she doesn’t seem like the type to have self-importantly invented her own. She seems to have invested these portraits with a good deal of psychological baggage just because she understood her subjects so well, and put so much of them and of their relationships with her into the resulting artwork. Her formal portraits of military men and Unitarian ministers are as well-done but blankly unrevelatory as I, with a sense of anticipatory depression, would expect. These folks didn’t want their inner selves revealed, and they got what they paid for.
I am so self-evidently not an art historian that it is pointless to add to Sylvia Yount’s excellent study. But I wanted to attempt to get at what so arrested my attention when, by and large, the portraiture of that period in American history leaves me slightly worse than unmoved.