Lecture: Cecilia Beaux (Listen and Read)

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Lecture: Cecilia Beaux
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Welcome back.
It looks like everyone made it, despite the weather.
Let's continue last week's conversation about portraiture and the people who paint them.
Does anyone recall the points we made last time?
Portraiture has been done by people of many cultures, for centuries.
They paint all sorts of people, from normal friends and family,
to famous celebrities or simply whoever pays them.
The painter often portrays not just how the person looked,
but their standing in society and how the artist felt about them personally.
Excellent points.
I'd actually like to look into that last bit in today's lecture.
A good example of that concept,
the personal viewpoint in portraiture is Cecilia Beaux.
She was born in 1854,
and studied with a few rather famous painters of her time.
She ended up being known throughout the United States as one of the greatest portrait painters.
Her success was such that she was even commissioned to do portraits for Theodore Roosevelt
while he was in office, and his wife and children.
You really couldn't be more famous than that, back in the day.
That kind of portraiture also showed the kind of people that Beaux tended to favor.
She preferred to paint women and children.
Her sister and nephew were actually the subjects in her first major work.
Would you like to add something?
I was thinking, wasn't it odd at the time to have a woman artist become so famous?
I always read about the incredible sexism of the 19th century,
was she an exception?
Great question.
She did, in fact, stand out as an exception in the 1800s.
Even today, she ranks in the top portrait painters of all time -
not just of her gender, but out of everyone.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts hired her as their first full-time female instructor,
and she was a certified member of the National Academy of Design.
Those were landmark institutions,
and she helped to make great leaps and bounds for women artists in the country.
She decided to devote herself to art, and would not marry,
choosing instead male company who would not threaten to sidetrack her career.
For a short while, she tried to create drawings of fossils for a multi-volume report sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey,
but found that technical illustration unsuitable for her career,
and disliked having to comply with the extreme precision required in documenting objects.
For now, let's take a look at some of her portraits.
This one is called 'The Dreamer' and is fairly standard with her style of work.
What catches your eye?
Probably her hands or her face.
The way that they're positioned is expressive, like the lady is thinking hard about something,
or weighing her choices.
Yeah, her eyes are pretty mesmerizing.
I really like the contrasting colors, the dark background emphasizing the white dress vividly.
It reminds me of that guy we talked about a few weeks ago,
the painter… J something Singer, Sargent?
I think the painting was named MadameX?
Nice eye.
You're correct!
Beaux looked up to Sargent's style,
and the high contrast is a technique you can see in both of their compositions.
Take a moment, though.
Why do you think this portrait is called 'The Dreamer'?
There's really no context to her situation.
Like, the background is pretty vague,
while the woman has crisp, clean lines and bright colors.
She's dreamlike?
The unclear background does lend to that ethereal feeling.
Some critics have said it's intended to show a feeling of isolation.
Perhaps she's daydreaming, and lost within her own mind while the world fades away.
This kind of insight is what made Cecilia Beaux such a phenomenal portrait artist.
Aside from her amazing dexterity, variety of techniques and technical skill,
she uses color and brush strokes to make an impact on the viewer emotionally,
instead of just portraying what is present visually.
Her portraits show a piece of her own feelings toward the subject,
and sometimes the subject's own emotions.
The undefined background is also reminiscent of French Impressionism,
and her frequent usage of blues or greens to color shadows also speaks of that style.
She agreed with their ideas that a personal approach was better in painting,
instead of a purely technical rendering.
Beaux used impressionist styles and techniques, and shared quite a few points of philosophy.
In the end, her style was unique, interesting, and it made her well-regarded and well-known.
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