Cecilia Beaux, 1855-1942, born Philadelphia, the United States, painted this portrait of her niece, Ernesta, in oil on canvas in 1894.
A student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art when Thomas Eakins was its director, Cecilia Beaux became a celebrated portrait painter of the 1%.
She did not stir up the waters and she distanced herself from the waves created by Eakins which swept him out of the Academy. I am not blaming her: she was a woman and if Eakins was not protected, even less would she have been. She went on her way: Paris, New York.
This painting is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – a recipient of the largesse of the 1% – who points out that the white of the nurse’s apron is the backdrop for this enchanting portrait.
Truth is that nannies are not a part of the 1% and this faceless woman is only a backdrop here when in reality she was the whole of Ernesta’s world at this moment.
That said, this is a lovely painting of childhood.
Ernesta’s mouth is on the fringe of a smile. Her eyes, however, are unsmiling and alert. The thumb of her right hand is in classic human grasping pose: opposed to her hand. Her forefinger points to her nanny’s apron. She is ready to grasp something. She may of a sudden swing around, her face away from our gaze, to grasp her nurse’s apron and there bury her face.
This is an expert portrait of a child’s long swing back and forth between her safe and unsafe worlds, between unaccountable joy and the tears of fear and frustration until one day, by unlucky chance or lucky design, the child lets go the hand and flies free.