1895 was a banner year for Cecilia Beaux, in that she took a teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, her old training grounds. Not only was she the first woman instructor ever hired by the Academy, she landed the coveted "Head Class" (drawing and painting of heads--the pinnacle of academic figure painting), and went on to teach it and portraiture for another 20 years.
The sitter in this painting, formally known as Mrs. Jedediah H. Richards, was Beaux's second cousin, Julia Leavitt (1840-1915). The artist originally entitled this work Study in Whites, again paying homage to Whistler (and his Symphonies). She wisely decided, however, that the eventual title, New England Woman, would appeal more to a public currently nostalgic for all things Puritan. This strategy seems to have paid off almost immediately, because the Academy purchased New England Woman for its permanent collection when she exhibited the piece there shortly after executing it in 1895.
Funnily enough, many art historians and critics have drawn comparisons between this painting and Mary Cassatt's Lady at the Tea Table (1883-85). "Funnily" not because there aren't comparisons aplenty to be drawn, but due to the fact that Beaux and Cassatt were often pitted against one another in print and public conception. Neither artist was foolish enough to comment on this "rivalry" for the record, but both were certainly aware of it and ... let's just say that they weren't exactly on warm, personal terms, and leave things at that. Unless you want to get into the part where they referred to each other as "that woman" ...?
About the Show:
With nearly 100 oil paintings, works on paper and decorative objects drawn from a variety of public and private collections, Cecilia Beaux, American Figure Painter seeks to place noted Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts alumna, professor, and Philadelphia native Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) in a new position in American art history.
High Museum of Art, Atlanta: May 12-September 9, 2007
Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington: September 29, 2007-January 6, 2008
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia: February 2-April 13, 2008