“The Fairest of Them All…” Dr. Sylvia Yount Teaches about Cecilia Beaux

On May 3, 2009, the Worcester Women’s History Project and Worcester Art Museum co-sponsored a lecture by Dr. Syl-via Yount, who is the Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The lecture, entitled “The Fairest of Them All: Cecilia Beaux and ‘Female’ Portraiture”, educated the audience about art-ist Cecilia Beaux, who painted Worcester’s newly acquired portrait of Helen Bigelow Merriman.

Yount began her lecture with crediting Jim Welu of the Worcester Art Museum with informing her of the Merriman portrait just before the opening of the Cecilia Beaux retrospective Yount organized at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Yount mentioned that her intention of the talk was to discuss Beaux and her work in the context of several of her contemporaries: Thomas Aikens, John Singer Sargeant, Winslow Homer, and particularly Mary Cassatt. According to Yount, Beaux was viewed in the late-19th/early-20th century as the “best woman artist”, but she hasn’t been lauded in that way since her death in 1942. Beaux was a native of Philadelphia and studied under Thomas Aikens at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, as did Mary Cassatt. Prior to Cassatt’s move to France, she and Beaux painted many of the same subjects in Philadelphia. However, Yount claims that Beaux’s work is more often compared to that of Whistler and John Singer Sargeant, as opposed to Cassatt, although Cassatt and Beaux are often compared because of being female artists. The relationship between the two women was antagonistic and competitive, according to Yount. Beaux is said to focus on the more feminine side of American women, showing a softer, more flattering side than Cassatt in her portraits. Beaux liked being called “a figure painter more than a portrait painter.”

The portrait of Helen Bigelow Merriman was painted in 1908. Merriman was chosen as a subject because she was a woman of society, and also an artist herself. Yount mentioned that Merriman was ten years Beaux’s senior and withdrew from the Boston art world after her marriage in 1874 and birth of her child in 1876 and focused on writing. Beaux, on the other hand, could not reconcile her career with marriage and motherhood, and therefore chose to remain single. Yount reminded us that the need to choose between career or marriage was a frequent hurdle for women artists in the 1870’s.

According to Yount, at the turn of the 21st century, Cecilia Beaux has “been given a permanent place in the annals of his-tory as a woman artist.” Worcester Art Museum’s acquisition of the Merriman portrait, the first work by Beaux in its collection, is an indication of this.

Following Yount’s talk, WWHP hosted a reception in Salisbury Hall, where we had the chance to admire the portrait of Helen Bigelow Merriman and celebrate its homecoming to Worcester. The Worcester Women’s History Project was pleased to be a part of this important celebration of both of the women involved in this portrait: the artist and the subject.

Published Date: 
September 1, 2009