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Denise Mahoney

Cecilia Beaux: Image and Class in the Age of Innocence

          “It doesn’t pay to paint everybody.” With this comment, Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942) situated herself within the rarified circle of successful late nineteenth–century portrait painters whose clientele were primarily the upper class. Born in Philadelphia, Beaux was raised by her extended family after her mother’s death and her father’s flight to his homeland of France. While not wealthy, her genteel family nonetheless encouraged her to develop her artistic talents at a young age. Following many of her contemporaries, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then at the Académie Julian in Paris. Like the earlier female artist, Mary Cassatt, Beaux chose an artistic career over the more traditional path of marriage and family. She enjoyed a successful career as a portraitist; with the famed painter and teacher William Merritt Chase noting in 1899 that she was “not only the greatest living woman painter, but the best that has ever lived.” Although Beaux worked in a style similar to John Singer Sargent and is often compared to him, she is not nearly as well–known today as he. Yet an examination of her work reveals a complex imagery analogous to Sargent’s.

          Beyond her commissions, Beaux painted many portraits of her sister, her sister’s family, and close friends. Her portraits often have an underlying sense of psychological disquiet, which is compounded by the unusual placement of the figures in relation to each other. Additionally, as her work progressed through the 1880s and 1890s, her compositions became increasingly modern, with less emphasis on the background setting and greater focus on the individuals depicted.  This thesis will examine several of Beaux’s double portrait compositions, both commissioned and not, and will focus on the complicated relationships between the sitters within the context of late nineteenth–century upper class familial relationships. Using such contemporary examples as characters in the stories of Edith Wharton (1862–1937) and images found in such magazines as Harper’s Weekly and Lady’s Home Journal, this study will place Beaux’s depictions of Gilded Age society in a broader socio-historical context.


           Denise Mahoney received a BFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1989. Prior to beginning the MAAH program, she worked in the Prints and Drawings Department at the Art Institute, at a gallery; and a suburban arts center.. She is currently the Collections Manager and Research Assistant in the Department of American Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Thesis Advisor: Kymberly N. Pinder, Associate Professor and Graduate Director, Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Thesis Reader: Debra Mancoff, Adjunct Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Second Reader: Thomas L. Sloan, Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism



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