By Michelle Railey
Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was an American portrait painter whose works are often compared to her contemporaries John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Mary Cassatt. Beaux’s work was far more realistic in manner than either Chase or Cassatt, although in many works, she shares similar decorative sensibilities as Chase, who seems to have admired her work. This piece is called Sita and Sarita (Jeune Fille au Chat) and is a portrait of the artist’s cousin, Sarah Allibone Leavitt. The work was painted in 1896 and can now be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Its white-gowned refinement, clarity, and editorial prowess demonstrate precisely why it is that it is nearly impossible to speak, read, or write about Beaux without mentioning Sargent, Beaux’s twin in knowing how to cleanly edit and execute an image which in less talented hands could become trite, ornamental, sentimental, or cloying. The best of Beaux, like the best of Sargent, has subtext and depth and presents intelligent-seeming humans as seen by equally intelligent and thoughtful eyes. Sita and Sarita qualifies as one of the “best of Beaux.” Beaux must have thought so, too, as she painted a second version of this work in 1922. The second version is much lighter (no black background) and eliminates the china-patterned chair, two alterations which, to me, inexplicably reduce the pensiveness of the original, which in turn, to me, reduces the appeal. In any case, the second version can be found at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.
The 1896 Sita and Sarita has inevitably prompted some scholars and art historians to write about the figure’s implied sexuality, from the black cat to the way her hand lies in her lap (which some have said mimics Sargent’s controversial Madame X), statements which are often used to reclaim or justify Beaux’s own gender and sexuality and too often used by other women in a facile, brainless brand of feminism. Though, of course, when the painting was first exhibited, it brought some of these comments from male critics, who were, equally brainlessly, titillated by a depiction of a young woman with a black cat.
For my part, I like the image on its own, but never more than in October. For one, I assume Sita is staring into a fire, but I also like to think of the woman (not literally and definitely quite apart from what the image actually is and was intended to be) as a purer form of a New England witch, peering into a scrying glass. And of course, there’s that black cat. It’s like high-brow Halloween décor (a sentence which would undoubtedly horrify Ms. Beaux).
To continue on that theme, I also like to connect Sita and Sarita with lines Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote about Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 2 (The Little White Girl) (1864) in a poem called “Before the Mirror” and dedicated to Whistler. As Beaux was also compared to Whistler (those white dresses!), it’s not totally out of line:
She knows not love that kissed her / She knows not where: / Art thou the ghost, my sister, / White sister there, / Am I the ghost, who knows? // …Deep in the gleaming glass / She sees all past things pass, / There glowing ghosts of flowers / Draw down, draw nigh; / And wings of swift spent hours / Take flight and fly.
Happy October. Happy Halloween.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Cecilia Beaux, Sita and Sarita (Jeune Fille au Chat; portrait of Sarah Allibone Leavitt). Oil on canvas, 1896. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.