Dear Auntie: Cecilia Beaux and the Letters Written by Her Young Nephews

Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), Les derniers jours d’ enfance, 1883-8. Oil on canvas 45 3/4 x 54 in. (116.205 x 137.16 cm.). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gift of Cecilia Drinker Saltonstall, 1989.21.

In a lecture on portraiture given at Simmons College on May 14, 1907, American artist Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942) stated, “The painter’s art must be powerful—magnetic enough to make us linger over a simple reserved rendering of an aspect of a person we do not know,—have  never seen and perhaps would not have noticed if we had seen.” While writing my senior thesis at Vassar College on Cecilia Beaux, I witnessed her artistic power as I became captivated by a simple portrait of a son sitting in his mother’s lap.

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This portrait, entitled Les derniers jours d’enfance, was shown in the 1885 exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and it is remembered as Beaux’s first notable success of her decades-long artistic career. At first glance, the subject of Les dernier jours d’enfance may be a common one of a mother and son—both reminiscent of the tradition of Madonna and Child iconography and appropriate for the “feminine” subject matter commonly depicted by other women artists at the time, such as Mary Cassatt. However, a deeper meaning in Beaux’s choice of subject is revealed through her letters in the Archives of American Art.

Letter from James Drinker to Cecilia Beaux, undated. Cecilia Beaux papers, 1863-1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Beaux’s close relationship to her family is made clear in one folder of letters that I find particularly interesting—a collection of more than sixty letters written to her by her very young nephews Henry (Harry) and James (Jamie). The contents of these letters include messages of affection, funny anecdotes about their family, and letters by the boys with additional commentary written by their mother (Beaux’s sister Aimee Ernesta “Etta” Drinker).

Despite the varied subject matter of these letters, they reveal the sweet, close relationship Beaux had with her nephews and sister, while simultaneously showing the amusing things that children deem important to share about their lives. And, in fact, Beaux’s sister and nephew Harry were the models for Les derniers jours d’enfance.

A letter from Harry begins: “Dear Auntie, I dreamed about you last night. I thought you were coming home. We were so glad.”

Harry reiterates this sentiment of wanting his aunt to return home in another letter, in which he writes, “I want you please to learn all you can this year so you won’t have to go again next year for fear you might be wrecked on a desert island, you know.”

While none of the letters written by Beaux’s nephews include dates, this one was probably written in the late 1880s when Harry was about seven or eight. It can be assumed that Harry is referring to Beaux being away in Europe, studying art and pursuing her artistic career. This letter also includes a note in the much lighter and smaller handwriting of Beaux’s sister. Etta adds, “This was written in a great hurry. He [would] Not let mine go without his. He will not need to learn how to write love letters will he?”

In his correspondence with his aunt, Harry proudly explains where he is in math and draws picture of baby brother CKD (Cecil Kent Drinker). His mother adds a lengthy note, in which she comments in amusement that “there was a good deal of arithmetic” in Harry’s letter and states that she thinks “Harry’s picture is very funny.”

Jamie demonstrates that the boys often used their letters to provide their aunt with seemingly random, yet very important family gossip: “Harry fell in the pond today.” The back of Jamie’s letter includes a message from Etta, which she signs simply “The mother.”

It is clear in their letters that Jamie and Harry kept up regular communication with their aunt, and really enjoyed writing to her. In one letter, Jamie makes a very direct statement to his aunt, letting her know how important receiving her letters was to him: “Dear Aunty, You made a big mistake for writing to Harry instead of to me. Harry had the last turn.”

Source: Archives of American Art

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