………………….the year is 1887 and Cecilia still worked in her Chestnut Street studio completing many portraits. The pinnacle of this year as far as Cecilia was concerned was the exhibiting of her painting, Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance, at that year’s Paris Salon. This portrait of her sister and her nephew had been a labour of love and had taken two years to complete. It was not just its inclusion at the Salon which had excited her but as she looked at her returned painting, it was the thought of life in Paris which excited her. In her autobiography she recalled how she felt at that time:
“… After months it came back to me, bearing the French labels and number, in the French manner, so fraught with emotion to many hearts. I sat endlessly before it, longing for some revelation of the scenes through which it had passed; the drive under the sky of Paris, the studio of the great French artist, where his eye had actually rested on it, and observed it. The handling by employees; their French voices and speech; the propos of those who decided its placing; the Gallery, the French crowd, which later I was to know so well…”
She decided that she had to go and sample life in France, especially Paris. Her family were a little disconcerted about her proposed adventure, but they realised that as a thirty-two-year-old woman it was her decision. Her uncle William Biddle helped part finance the journey and sorted out a ticket for her ocean-going passage, passport, and letter of credit. He also persuaded a cousin of Cecilia, May Whitlock, to accompany her on the trip.
Cecilia also received a “farewell gift” from her good friend and fellow artist, Henry Thuron, who had once proposed to her. He gave her a set of monochrome drawings of paintings Cecilia was likely to see and sketch in the Louvre which could be used as preparation sketches or as she referred to them – ‘Springboards for the Galleries’.
Cecilia and May Whitlock boarded the steamship Nordland in New York in January 1888 for a voyage which would terminate in Antwerp. The sea passage across the Atlantic Ocean was not a pleasant one. The vessel was battered by gales and bobbed unceremoniously on the ferocious sea, with many of the passengers, including the two women suffering from mal de mer for the first week of their journey. It took twelve days to reach their Belgium destination, arriving in Antwerp in late January on a freezing cold day with the dockside covered in snow.
Despite the inclement Belgium weather Cecilia and May managed to do some sightseeing and visited The Cathedral of Our Lady where she saw the Rubens triptych Descent from the Cross. She was mesmerised by Rubens work, writing in her autobiography, Background with Figures:
“…No one who has not met the material opposition of pigment and its allies can gauge Rubens’s power to command it. What his religious compositions lack in the subtler side of holiness, they gain in the presentment of human emotion, as it appears, humble, adoring, and abandoned to sorrow, even in the ignorant gazing upon the uncomprehended manifestations of Divinity…”
The two ladies visited Brussels and their stay in Belgium lasted just three days before they set off by train for Paris, arriving at the Gare du Nord during the last week of January 1888, where they were met by another of their cousins. The ladies moved into a pension at 12 rue Boccador, which was situated between the Seine, where it is crossed by the Pont de l’Alma, and the Champs-Élysée. Their room at the pension was by no means salubrious but worse still it was cold and damp. Cecilia described their circumstances:
“…Our room was, of course, unheated, though it had a pretty chimney-piece and a clock, and what heat the previous summer had left behind had died long since between the closed windows and door. I was not pampered, and of course Steam heat was unknown to me at home. Our house had a small furnace, whose efforts were entirely devoted to the aged, the invalid, or the very young, but I had never known the damp, penetrating chill of never-heated houses in winter. Of course, a wood fire was impossible for us, but they wheeled us in a Schoubersky, a black charcoal stove, which could travel from room to room and never demand a chimney. Our chimney was a very retiring one, but with the Schoubersky approximately near it, we might avoid suffocation…”
Soon after her arrival Cecilia enrolled at the Académie Julian. The Académie Julian was a private liberal art school, founded in 1868 by Rodolphe Julian, a painter and art administrator and in his early days, a prize-fighter. The academy was especially popular with Americans, and several exponents of American Impressionism studied at the Julian. The École des Beaux-Arts was considered the premier Parisian art academy, but Cecilia could not enrol for study at that establishment as women were not accepted as students there and that ruling did not change until 1897.
The new Académie Julian accepted her. Because of its fine reputation, it soon became recognised as one of the best private art schools in Paris. Two decades after it first opened, the number of students attending courses at the establishment numbered about six hundred and it necessitated the opening of four more branches, one of which was in the 8th arrondissement at No. 5 Rue de Berri where Cecilia Beaux studied.
Her first assignment at the Académie Julian was to produce a full-length drawing which would be commented upon by the tutor. Her tutor was Tony Robert Fleury, the French historical painter. She remembered how nervous she was when he entered the room. She wrote:
“…’Tony’ — that is Tony Robert Fleury — was to criticise that week, and at the hour entered a young-middle aged and very handsome man, with a face in which there were deep marks of disappointment; his eyes, grey and deeply set, smouldered with burnt-out fires. How un-American they were! As I observed him from behind my easel, I felt that I had touched for the first time the confines of that which made France and Paris a place of pilgrimage. Into the room with him came something, not perhaps a quality of his own, but of what he had come from and lived in. The class, although accustomed to him, was in a nutter. I was still and icy with terror, fearing other qualms that I might not understand him and blunder hideously…”
There were no exhibitions held at the Académie, but a regular routine was set which awarded the best students with prime painting positions in the atelier. Cecilia described the routine:
“…Every week subjects for composition were given out. The compositions were handed in on a Saturday, and the student who had produced the best in the opinion of ‘le Maitre’ had the privilege of first choice of place on Monday morning, for the new pose. This, in such a crowded room, was an immense advantage, but punctuality was also the price, for without it one’s chance was given to the next. I had the good luck to win it pretty often…”
The students would often have to copy biblical scenes and one of the earliest tests was to copy the painting Supper at Emmaus, Cecilia had already seen Rembrandt’s version of the work at the Salon Carré in the Louvre and so what she produced was an imitation of that of the Dutch Master. The efforts of all the students were placed on the walls of the atelier prior to the inspection by Fleury. Cecilia recalled what happened next:
“…He stood growling before them with folded arms. Pointing to mine, he said savagely, ‘Qui est-ce qui a fait ca?’ [Who did that?]
Mdlle C. dragged me out and thrust me, quaking, before him, for he was often bitterly ironical.
‘Humph,’ he said, ‘c’’est vu? Je n’ai pas vu les autres, mais je sais bien que c’est la meilleure.’ [I have not seen the others, but I know it’s the best]…”
Within weeks of Cecilia and her cousin arriving in the French capital they had joined up with a group of expatriate artists including Florence Este, Gabrielle Clement, and Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown, who were all friends of Cecilia’s from the Pennsylvania Academy.
In Philadelphia, Cecilia’s love life never really took off despite the amorous attentions of suitors such as Henry Thuron who always put his rejection of marriage down to being both Catholic and poor! It was Henry who had given Cecilia the monochrome drawings on oil-sketch boards in preparation of her sketching visits to the Louvre. She wrote to him just prior to her ocean voyage, letting him down gently:
“…try to be my friend still……………….I am going to keep your beautiful gift to prove how much I desire this — and for the roses I never thought there could be so much pain with such beauty and sweetness…”
During her stay in Paris she did enjoy the company of men and although she did go out with a couple of suitors, she would never commit to them. There was Leonard W. Bacon, a doctor whom she may have met four years earlier in Philadelphia when she sketched a posthumous portrait of his father. When his wife died he had, unbeknown to her, cast his eyes towards Cecilia as a possible “substitute”. He was on a visit to Paris in June 1888 and met up with her and had great hopes for their future and a replacement for his much-loved, late wife, Sarah. Unfortunately for him, he looked on Cecilia’s art as a mere hobby and something that would be forgotten when she became his wife and mother to his children. On his return to Philadelphia the following month Bacon came across Cecilia’s aunt Emily and told her about his hopes with regards Cecilia. She was “flabbergasted” by his aspiration that Cecilia would become the new mother to his children and told him that in her mind, he had no chance of success with his plan. Emily told her husband William Biddle about the conversation and he thought the whole situation was hilarious. He wrote a letter to Cecilia on July 24th 1888 and in it he commented on Bacon’s misguided plans for Cecilia:
“…”my logical mind insists on including the other consequence, which he didn’t mention, of your being a grand mother to his young grand children, & then I roar, — every time — Oh! dear me!” Dr. Bacon had “fallen from the pedestal” on which the aunts had placed him, and the “interview” with Aunt Emily “sav[ed] Cecilia from all further worry and trouble from that source…”
A more serious romantic issue for Cecilia was one that had begun back in Philadelphia with Edwin Swift Balch. Balch was ideal husband material. He was young (a year younger than Cecilia). He was a wealthy bachelor and part of the Philadelphia elite. He painted miniatures and was a writer, scientist, and an authority on polar history and exploration. He had met Cecilia as he had a studio in the same building in Philadelphia as Cecilia’s, and the tender shoots of romance began to appear. However, whilst in France, Cecilia realised that her great passion for her art was far greater than her passion for Balch. This realisation caused her to review her life. The whole process must have caused her great heartache as witnessed in the letter she wrote to her uncle, William Biddle, on September 30th, 1888:
“…And now prepare your dear mind for the real and serious thing I have to say. You will not perhaps believe the struggle that it costs me — because I know that this is the real end. It is all over between me and Mr. Balch. It is not his fault, but I believe now that he is reconciled to it. He speaks of it as “the break which I foresaw” and at the end — “I have written more but tore it up as it is silly to reproach you.” He will never know how much I cared for him and still do. What I admired in him, what attracted me, and what I really loved — time and distance could not, and have not changed, but what was not satisfied has grown more imperative and for the first time I know that it will not do. I have expanded here and I could not get into the place I might have got into before. Though even then I should have had to stifle something. You will say that I ought to have known this before. That if I had listened to reason I should have saved many people much pain. To which I can only say that no one but myself can know how I clung to what I found in him. I know that it was selfish, but I hoped to make up for it. Of one thing I feel sure that he does not suffer now more than I do, and he has, as regards this side of life, a much more hopeful future than I. All the same I ought to have made the sacrifice and taken the risk of losing. Do not think I am not paying for it — that is all.
I am waiting anxiously now to hear what you think about my staying over here a few months longer. You will easily understand that now I wish to stay as never before. It would be very painful for me to go home now, and for him too. He would almost be driven away himself if I did. Besides I must allow to the weakness of its being safer for both of us. I am besides very anxious to paint something for next year’s Salon…”
Biddle was concerned with what he had read and on October 10th, 1888, wrote back to Cecilia:
“…You do flit about pretty fast, — physically, — & perhaps Emotionally — but I trust not morally or mentally. With those departments of one’s being it is wiser & safer to “go slow”…. In regard to Mr. B. I can only say that if you really feel sure about yourself we all rejoice in your decision, — & unless you were prepared to accept now, or at least very soon, it was your duty to so decide anyway. Even if you were not sure of yourself, — or were sure, the other way…. Judging from what you have written me, his attitude in the affair seems manly & dignified & raises him in my estimation. I’m sorry for him, — but do not think his life will suffer…. If there is no change in our family status at 4305, I can see no valid reason for your hurrying home in May or June & leaving the Salon & Exposition unseen or only half seen…”
…………………………..to be continued.
Most of the information for the blogs featuring Cecilia Beaux came from two books:
Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux
Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen
and the e-book:
Out of the Background: Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture by Tara Leigh Tappert.
Extracts from letters to and from Cecilia Beaux came from The Beaux Papers held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art
Information alsocame from the blog, American Girls Art Club In Paris. . . and Beyond, featuring Cecilia Beaux was also very informative and is a great blog, well worth visiting on a regular basis.: