American Woman Artist

Sita and Sarita

Cecilia Beaux, 1921

Corcoran Gallery

From the Washington Post:

By the standards of her time, Cecilia Beaux, born into genteel Philadelphia society in 1855, was as much of an original as Frida Kahlo. She followed her art to shows in Paris and New York, cultivated and sometimes fell in love with much, much younger men and gave up the traditional woman’s role to have more time to paint. (When a niece once had a miscarriage in Aunt Cecilia’s country house, the young lady got herself to the hospital. It wouldn’t have done to bother auntie at her easel, she said.) Beaux, who never never married or had children, was a passionate, ambitious, committed professional in an age and culture in which such determination was deemed unladylike.


At her best, Beaux could handle a brush and paint as well as Sargent. When New York painter William Merritt Chase called her “not only the greatest woman painter, but the best that has ever lived,” the compliment was only slightly backhanded. Her 1893 picture of her cousin Sarah Allibone Leavitt with her cat, titled “Sita and Sarita,” is a stunning exercise in flamboyant technique. It has always been one of Beaux’s most famous and admired works. (Here in Washington, the Corcoran has Beaux’s 1921 version of the picture. It seems just about as good as her first. She gave the earlier one to the French government, which is why it came to this exhibition from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.) The bravura treatment of the woman’s pallid face has a wonderful counterpoint in the velvety black fur of the pet that’s on her shoulder. Their four green eyes are wittily lined up to form a row of glowing spots. Sarita’s brilliantly white dress is so washed out, you see its structure as much in the texture of the paint as in any spelled-out details of its shape. In fact, there’s such an unnatural bright glow to the whole scene that the picture may be meant as a study in the artificial light of gas or of the new electric bulbs — a preoccupation for many of this era’s greatest artists. In a picture such as this, where the sitter isn’t posing so much as being caught unawares, Beaux is billing herself less as a skilled portraitist than as a “painter of modern life,” in the avant-garde tradition of Manet and Degas.

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