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James Beckwith

 (1852 - 1917)
James Carroll Beckwith was active/lived in New York, Illinois, Missouri / France.  James Beckwith is known for portrait, genre, mural and landscape painting.

James Beckwith

Biography from the Archives of askART

James Carroll Beckwith was a landscape, portrait and genre painter whose style ranged from academic to impressionist.  He is best known for portrait and genre subjects, was skilled in mural painting, and was highly respected as an art educator. 

Born in Hannibal, Missouri in 1852, Beckwith, who intensely disliked his first name of James, had childhood education at several New York and Ohio military academies, but at age nine, was withdrawn because of severe inflammatory rheumatism.  The remainder of his life was troubled by ill health.

He moved with his parents to Chicago, and, showing art talent, was enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Design.  His good friend was Frederick Stuart Church, and they took instruction together drawing from the antique under the tutelage of Conrad Diehl.

In 1871, Beckwith's father's merchant business was destroyed by the Chicago fire, so the family moved to New York City.  There Beckwith enrolled in the antique class at the National Academy of Design under Lemuel Wilmarth.  Although poor health led to irregular class attendance, Wilmarth remained very encouraging, and the next year Beckwith was accepted in the life class.  Among his fellow students were George Bellows, J. Alden Weir, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and his Chicago friend, Frederick Church who also had moved to New York.  During this time Beckwith was helped financially by a wealthy uncle and art patron, John H. Sherwood.

In October, 1873, Beckwith sailed for England, and spent the next five years abroad, living primarily in Paris where he entered the studio of Emile Carolus-Duran.  Of this period, he later wrote:  "I think my real Art life began."

Carolus-Duran's reputation was for painterly, flashy portraiture, and Beckwith, one of his favored students, became his chief studio assistant.  Together with John Singer Sargent and Frank Fowler, he helped Duran in 1877 with the Luxembourg Palace ceiling decoration, The Apotheosis of Marie de Medici.  With Sargent, Beckwith shared a studio in Paris, and they developed a lifelong friendship.  In fact, the American students of Duran were regarded as renegades, and they tended to band together, often sharing travels.  With a group of 'renegades' in Munich in 1875, Beckwith met William Merritt Chase, whom he declared was "the greatest American student in Europe."

Realizing that his stylistic inclinations differed from Carolus-Duran and that he needed training other than with this mentor, Beckwith enrolled in the Academie Suisse and studied evenings with Leon Bonnat.  In 1875, having failed at his first attempt, he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he attended classes but also remained fully committed to his duties with Carolus-Duran. 

Beckwith returned to New York in 1878, and he and William Merritt Chase were hired at the same time as instructors at the Art Students League.  Known as "Becky" and adhering to strict academic drawing strictures, he held this position for the next twenty years.  "Chase's freer painting class was seen as a foil to the rigor of Beckwith's method."  Beckwith also taught classes at the Brooklyn Art Guild and Cooper Union.

Following his time in Europe, he devoted his own painting to portraits and idealized female figures.  He moved into the Sherwood Studio Building, owned by his uncle, on 57th and 6th Avenue, and remained there until 1910, when he went to Italy.  He exhibited annually at the National Academy of Design from 1877 until his death in 1917.  He was active with the Society of Painters in Pastel, American Watercolor Society and Society of American Artists, which he served as treasurer from 1881 to 1887.  In 1884, Beckwith and William Merritt Chase organized an exhibition to raise funds to construct the pedastal for the Statue of Liberty, and then Beckwith served on that Council from 1895 to 1901.  For the 1893 Chicago World's Fair Exposition, he painted murals for the dome of the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building.

Beckwith received several awards including Honorable mention at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and Gold Medal at the Atlanta Exposition, 1895.

Selling the contents of his studio, he with his wife, Bertha, moved to Italy for two years, 1910 to 1912, where he did landscape sketches.  Then he returned to New York City, but felt increasingly out of touch with the times because his conservative style of painting was not in accord with changing tastes and was not earning the money he had hoped.  In 1917, just before his death, he was in California, visiting his friend, Thomas Moran, who was eighty years old.  Returning to New York state to his summer home in Onteora, he began writing his autobiography, Souvenirs and Reminiscenses, but he died before completion.  His wife donated the manuscript, which covered  the years of 1871 to 1917, to the National Academy of Design where it remains in the archives.

Of the career of James Carroll Beckwith, it was written:  "In the minds of his fellow artists, the name of J. Carroll Beckwith stood for an unwavering commitment to the highest ideals of academic art.  Throughout his career Beckwith remained true to his French training, first as a young portrait painter fresh from years of Parisian study, then as an influential teacher of careful, accurate drawing and finally as an uncompromising conservative bemoaning the state of early-twentieth-century art."

Compiled by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

John Davis, "James Carroll Beckwith", Painters and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, Volume 2, 1826-1925, David B. Dearinger, General Editor, p. 35.

Biography from Harris Art and Antiques
Beckwith, James Carroll (23 Sept. 1852-24 Oct. 1917), painter, was born in Hannibal, Missouri, the son of Charles Henry Beckwith, a Chicago grocer, and Martha Melissa Owen. Beckwith's artistic education began in Chicago, where his family had moved while he was still an infant.  At his father's insistence, he briefly attended several New York and Ohio military academies; however, the young boy was miserable in this environment and had to be withdrawn more than once for severe illness.  Beckwith's constitution was considered delicate--as an adult, he was thin and stood 5' 7"--and ill health plagued him for the rest of his life.  Back in Chicago, he worked for a time in his father's store, but by age eighteen he was enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Design, studying under Walter Shirlaw and Conrad Diehl. The Chicago fire of 1871 left his family without a home or business, but it also provided Beckwith with the impetus to move to New York and continue his professional training in earnest.

In New York Beckwith enrolled at the National Academy of Design, an institution that would remain at the center of his professional career for much of the rest of his life. Studying under Lemuel Wilmarth, he immediately associated himself with a group of young painters who would later be seen as rebelling against what they felt were backward, "nativist" tendencies in the generation of American artists active during the 1850s and 1860s.  During this period he received support from his wealthy great-uncle, John H. Sherwood, a New York real estate investor and art collector.  With Beckwith's advice, Sherwood later built the celebrated Sherwood Studio Building (1880, destroyed) at Fifty-seventh Street and Sixth Avenue, an experimental type of apartment building combining artists' studios and living flats. The Sherwood became the residential and artistic nexus of Beckwith's cosmopolitan circle, and he came to be considered the "doyen" of this "colony."  He lived and worked on the top floor of the building for over thirty years.

In October 1873 Beckwith sailed for Europe. It was a difficult decision; his diaries show that he was plagued by self-doubt and financial woes, a situation that continued throughout much of his career. Once in France, however, he stayed for five years.  After being turned away from the full atelier of Isadore Pils, he entered the newly formed studio of Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. "Then," as he recounted in an unpublished autobiographical essay ("Souvenirs and Reminiscences"), "I think my real Art life began."

Beckwith's years with Carolus-Duran were in all respects seminal.  In time, he became a favorite of the master, working as his chief assistant both privately and in the school.  In 1875 he and his fellow students John Singer Sargent (Beckwith's Parisian roommate) and Frank Fowler assisted Carolus-Duran with his large ceiling decoration, The Apotheosis of Marie de Medici, in the Luxembourg Palace, Paris.  Yet Beckwith recognized what he saw as the technical shortcomings of Carolus-Duran's method, which was characterized by flashy brushwork and vigorous paint application.  Thus, when he competed for the difficult entrance exam to the École des Beaux-Arts, he sought additional basic training in drawing at the Académie Suisse.  He also worked in Joseph-Florentin-Léon Bonnat's studio at night. After one unsuccessful attempt, he was admitted to the École in February 1875.  Nonetheless, he continued to work primarily with Carolus-Duran.  His most notable success at the time was his costume piece, The Falconer, exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878 (and donated by the artist to the Toledo Museum of Art in 1910).

During his European sojourn, Beckwith usually spent the warm months traveling with his fellow students in the country--at Fontainebleau or in Italy and Germany.  It was in Munich in 1875 that he met the painter William Merritt Chase.  When the two returned to settle in New York in 1878, they were received as apostles of the Paris and Munich schools, respectively, and immediately hired as instructors at the Art Students League.  It was hoped that Beckwith's demanding drawing course would invigorate the league's curriculum, whereas Chase's freer painting class was seen as a foil to the rigor of Beckwith's method. "Becky," as his friends knew him, became a familiar fixture at the league, teaching there for almost twenty years (his connection with the Art Students League was severed in 1897, in a dispute over what he saw as a retreat from academic standards).  Known throughout New York as an important pedagogue, he gave additional classes at the Brooklyn Art Guild, the Cooper-Union school, and, later, at his summer home in Onteora, New York.

Beckwith's main concern, however, was with his own work and with the American artistic profession in general.  After his return from France, he began painting portraits and ideal female figures.  These he showed regularly at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, beginning in 1877, and he continued to send his work there until his death.  Elected an associate member in 1886 and a full academician in 1894, he served on the academy's council from 1895 to 1901 and chaired the (unsuccessful) committee to raise $600,000 for a new building.  Other organizations in which he was active include the younger and more European-oriented Society of American Artists (to which he was elected in 1880), the Society of Painters in Pastel (of which he was a founder), and the American Water Color Society.  With Chase he organized the benefit exhibition for the Statue of Liberty pedestal fund in 1884. He was also the prime figure in the Free Art League, an artists' campaign to lobby Congress to repeal a heavy tariff on the importation of foreign art. (At the end of his life, Beckwith reversed his views on this subject, arguing that the protective tariff was needed to make up for American collectors' reluctance to buy American art.)  As a result of this service, Beckwith established a reputation as a shrewd organizer and businessman.

Despite such civic recognition, Beckwith remained insecure about his artistic abilities and resentful of his need to supplement his income with teaching.  His diaries attest to continued financial anxieties well into middle age.  The type of work to which he was most attracted, ideal compositions, often failed to find a buyer.  His Christian Martyr (1881), for example, a partial view of a palm-covered recumbent female figure for which he had high hopes, remained in his studio unsold for years; he donated it to the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane in 1903.

Instead, Beckwith made his living primarily through portraiture.  Skilled at producing flattering, aristocratic likenesses of New York's upper-class women, he was also known for his male portraits, particularly a series of military officers.  Among his best-received portraits, perhaps a result of his gregarious nature, were his likenesses of artist friends.  Of these, the most celebrated were his full-length painting of William Merritt Chase (Indianapolis Museum of Art) shown in the Paris Salon of 1882, his informal view of William A. Coffin reading (1885), and his striking and boldly colored figure of William Walton (1886, Century Association), set iconically against a wall of the Sherwood Studio Building.  Although not known as a muralist, he did contribute an important dome decoration, Electricity, to the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building of the World's Columbian Exposition (1893).

Apart from his activities as a painter, Beckwith cultivated a media personality that kept his name constantly before the readers of New York newspapers.  With his wife, Bertha Hall, the daughter of a wealthy New York dry-goods merchant and an amateur performer whom he married in 1887 (the couple had no children), he staged lavish parties and receptions in his Sherwood studio.  He conducted interviews there on a variety of subjects, making authoritative and sometimes controversial pronouncements on such topics as government policy toward the arts, municipal park design, and a variety of issues relating to women's dress, beauty, and health.  His picturesque clothing and grooming--unconventional light-colored suits, boldly patterned trousers, and a Van Dyck beard--as well as his dedication to the sport of fencing also contributed to the exotic and dandified image he projected.

Near the end of his life, with his work increasingly out of step with new artistic developments and his views in conflict with his fellow members of the National Academy, Beckwith withdrew for a time from New York society.  In 1910, after a somewhat disappointing sale of his studio contents, he and his wife left for Europe, where they spent two years, primarily in Italy.  There the artist concentrated on small landscape sketches of European gardens and architecture.  Following his return to New York in 1912, he frequently exhibited these studies, particularly a Versailles series, as well as other small drawings and pastels.  Occasionally he would also publish a diatribe against the nonacademic, modernist art of the day, usually in letters to the editors of New York newspapers.  In 1917, while visiting with the aged painter Thomas Moran in California, Beckwith began writing his autobiography, "Souvenirs and Reminiscences."  He continued writing at his summer home in Onteora, but he died in New York City soon after, leaving behind an incomplete manuscript.

Beckwith was a prominent figure in the generation of artists who returned to the United States in the 1870s and 1880s after extensive European training.  In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art circles, his name always stood for an unwavering commitment to the highest ideals of academic art.  Throughout his career, he remained true to his early French training, first as a young portrait painter fresh from years of Parisian study; then as an influential teacher of careful, accurate drawing; and finally as an uncompromising conservative bemoaning the state of modern art.  Although not an active force in the American art world at the time of his death, Beckwith contributed significantly to the education of an entire generation of artists, as well as the general public, never failing to stress the Parisian academic precepts in which he had been trained.

Beckwith's diaries (with the exception of the year 1895), his autobiographical manuscript "Souvenirs and Reminiscences," his "Record of Pictures," and various notebooks and photographic albums are housed at the National Academy of Design, New York.  The entire collection has been microfilmed by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The diary for 1895, as well as eight scrapbooks relating to the artist's life, is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society.  There is virtually no modern literature that specifically addresses Beckwith's career. Important articles published during his lifetime include "James Carroll Beckwith," Art Amateur 6 (Apr. 1882): 94-96; Charles William Larned, "An Enthusiast in Painting," Monthly Illustrator 3 (Feb. 1895): 131-37; and Robert J. Wickenden, "The Portraits of Carroll Beckwith," Scribner's Magazine, Apr. 1910, pp. 449-60. An obituary is in the New York Times, 25 Oct. 1917.

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About  James Beckwith

Born:  1852 - Hannibal, Missouri
Died:   1917 - New York City
Known for:  portrait, genre, mural and landscape painting

Essays referring to
James Beckwith

Paris pre-1900