prospect | At the Art Institute of Chicago, Cecilia Beaux’s ‘Dorothea and Francesca’ paints a bravura portrait of dancing sisters
Cecilia Beaux painted “Dorothea and Francesca,” which hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1898. Nearly seven feet tall, it’s a beautiful study in pink and white, which Beaux sets against a dark, the auburn hair of the two girls.
As you get closer, you notice how much blue there is in the picture. The color clearly marks the deeper folds of the dresses and emphasizes certain contours. But it also gently permeates large areas of the pink and white fabric.
The frizz of the tall girl with loose, wavy hair falling in front of her focused, downcast face is rendered with particular virtuosity. To achieve the “frizz” effect, Beaux used a very thin, washable undercoat that leaves parts of the canvas weave exposed. This blushes purple as it moves past her rosy cheeks (where a hint of blue accentuates the inner corner of her eye). Beaux has brushed a few darker strokes over this thin layer to convey the weight of her tied back hair as it comes back on her head.
Everything is done with such poise that you don’t know whether to gasp or sigh as you submit to the effect.
You may not have heard of her, but Beaux had an illustrious career. In 1903, she painted First Lady Edith Roosevelt and her daughter Ethel at the White House. She painted French leader Georges Clemenceau in France in 1919, the year the Treaty of Versailles was concluded. She was described in 1933, while receiving a gold medal from Eleanor Roosevelt, as “the American woman who has made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world”.
Born in Philadelphia in 1855, she was only 12 days old when her mother died. Her father, who was French, panicked, returned to France, leaving Cécile and her sister Aimée in the care of their maternal grandparents.
Luckily, these grandparents nurtured the girls’ artistic tendencies. They also helped give Cecilia the confidence to turn down more than one marriage proposal. Getting married, she knew, would hamper her career. Beaux was educated at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. After a successful stint in Paris, she returned to Philadelphia, where she became the first female professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The subjects of the Chicago painting are the two daughters of Beaux’s friends, Helena de Kay and Richard Watson Gilder, a couple well known in turn-of-the-century New York cultural circles. But it’s not really a double portrait (we don’t see enough of their faces for that). Rather, it is a large-scale study of two people in motion. They try to master the dance steps, but perhaps also, by poetic inference, the transition from young girl to woman. One – the eldest daughter – guides the other. There is an intimacy in their rhyming movements that suggests a particular form of brotherly harmony. Considering the circumstances of her own early childhood, when she and her sister were effectively orphans, it may have felt personal to Beaux.
Like the work of John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Swede Anders Zorn, Beaux’s painting reminds us of how much late 19th-century advanced painting owes to 17th-century painters Diego Velázquez, Spain, and Frans Hals, the Netherlands. . Both Velázquez and Hals combined tonalism (a way of painting that focuses on gradations of light and dark) with loose brushwork that attempted to approximate or activate the way we see naturally.
“Dorothea and Francesca” shows that Beaux had mastered tonalism and the bushy, brash style it demanded. It also shows what a super colorist she was. But “Dorothea and Francesca” goes beyond virtuosity, technique and even charm into an emotional zone that is unabashedly tender and loving.