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Hillsdale College received two canvases by Victorian-Era Artist Cecilia Beaux from a supporter of the college. | Courtesy
Hillsdale College received two can­vases by Vic­torian-Era Artist Cecilia Beaux from a sup­porter of the college. | Courtesy

Hillsdale’s per­manent art col­lection has received two new addi­tions: “Ernesta” and “Ernesta’s Shoes,” both rem­nants of a much larger work by the Vic­torian artist Cecilia Beaux.

Pro­fessor of Art Sam Knecht unveiled the paintings, a gift from Ann Arbor res­ident Anne Natvig, to a faculty audience yes­terday.

“Anne has been a sup­porter of the college for many years, and she was looking for a place for these works of art to go long-term,” Calvin Stockdale, insti­tu­tional advancement asso­ciate, said. “Last fall, she gen­er­ously decided to donate it to the college.”

Beaux, who lived from 1855 to 1942, ranked among the top celebrity por­trait artists in the latter decades of the 19th century. Her clientele including members of the Roo­sevelt family. In addition, she was the first female instructor at the Penn­syl­vania Academy of the Fine Arts. William Merritt Chase, a con­tem­porary artist, praised her as “the greatest woman painter of our age.”

“Ernesta” and “Ernesta’s Shoes” are parts of a por­trait Beaux painted of her favorite niece, Ernesta Drinker. The original painting stood 6 feet tall. It was painted in the “grand manner,” a style employed by James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, the two foremost por­trait artists of the time.

Knecht explained “Ernesta” marks a struggle that would haunt Beaux for the remainder of her career.

“It first appeared at a public exhibit in New York in 1913 at the National Academy,” he said. “It was written up in the New York Times. The reviewer found some faults in the painting, but also loved the shoes. He said that if the whole thing had been painted with the same kind of panache as the shoes, it would be a true winner.”

Beaux took the crit­icism poorly and revised the painting’s back­ground twice over the years.

“First she painted out the figure in the back­ground,” Knecht said. “Then some years later, she repainted the back­ground entirely, placing Ernesta on a patio over­looking the sea and retitled it ‘On the Terrace.’ That’s the way the painting remained for several decades.”

When Beaux died, she bequeathed the painting to Ernesta, who even­tually sold it  in 1970. Knecht said he sus­pects that Ernesta is respon­sible for cutting the painting into mul­tiple pieces.

“Ernesta needed money,” he said. “She owned ‘On the Terrace.’ She must have figured it would be easier and more prof­itable to sell several smaller can­vases than one gigantic 6-foot-high painting.”

Knecht said he believes whoever cut the painting chose to pre­serve the shoe portion because the New York Times review had impressed itself so deeply on the Beaux family that the shoes became a valuable piece of art by them­selves.

“I think it crept into family lore that the reviewer had loved the shoes,” he said. “That’s probably why we have that section specif­i­cally. After all, what woman doesn’t love her shoes?”

Knecht also said he hopes that this could be the beginning of an estab­lished art col­lection at Hillsdale.

“It was always my per­sonal mission to start building a per­manent art col­lection for the college,” he said. “This is

the second big acqui­sition that we’ve been able to secure for a top flight art col­lection.”

Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Art Barbara Bushey affirmed that efforts have been made to con­sol­idate Hillsdale’s art acqui­si­tions over the years.

“We have a number of nice works of art scat­tered through the buildings,” she said. “I am cur­rently working on devel­oping a database so we know what exactly it is we own.”

Knecht will deliver a pre­sen­tation on the paintings next week to Por­trait Society of America in Wash­ington, D.C., as the official speaker for the Cecilia Beaux Forum. He said these paintings are important pieces in Beaux’s legacy.

“Even though they have been chopped down, the paintings hold up on their indi­vidual merits,” he said. “Their story is so inter­esting because it speaks to the frus­tration of the artist in her quest for excel­lence.”