Who ART You? 24

It was somewhere after the year 1650. It is not a time in history in which you think of a woman as having the potential, desire or capability to become the breadwinner for the home. And yet, Mary Beale wasn’t your typical female artist. Here is her story, from Wikipedia, one that is both inspirational and remarkable.

Mary Beale, Self-Portrait

Mary Beale, Self-Portrait

Mary Beale (née Cradock; late March 1633 – 8 October 1699) was one of the most successful professional female Baroque-era portrait painters of the late 17th century due to her perseverance of her business. Praised by Richard Gibson and court painter Peter Lely, she is considered as successful as Joan Carlile.  Joan Carlile was also an English portrait painter, who was one of the first women to practise painting professionally. Mary Beale managed to be the financial provider for her family through her professional portrait business. Her book Observations, though never officially published, was one of the first instructional books ever written by a woman, and boldly announced her authority on painting. Mary Beale stood apart from other women due to her outspokenness and successful business that allowed her to be the breadwinner of the family.

The most common way to learn how to paint at the time was to copy great works and masterpieces that were accessible. Mary Beale preferred to paint in oil and water colours. Whenever she did a drawing, she would draw in crayon. Peter Lely, who succeeded Anthony van Dyck as the court painter, took a great interest in Mary's progress as an artist, especially since she would practice painting by imitating some of his work.Mary Beale started working by painting favours for people she knew in exchange for small gifts or favors.Charles Beale kept close record of everything Mary did as an artist. He would take notes on how she painted, what business transactions took place, who came to visit, and what praise she would receive. Charles wrote thirty notebooks' worth of observations over the years, calling Mary "my dearest heart". She became a semi-professional portrait painter in the 1650s and 1660s, working from her home, first in Covent Garden and later in Fleet Street in London.

In 1663, Mary Beale published Observations. It is a non-published piece of instructional writing that starts by critiquing how to paint apricots. Observations also shows a good partnership and collaboration effort between Mary and Charles. It boldly declared Mary Beale as an artist to remember. Mary Beale also wrote a manuscript called Discourse on Friendship in 1666 and four poems in 1667.

The key for a female to become a successful professional painter was to earn a good reputation. It could be easy to misconstrue strangers entering a woman's home for a business transaction as something that would portray the woman in an impure light. Once Mary did start painting for money in the 1670s, she carefully picked whom she would paint, and used the praise of her circle of friends to build a good reputation as a painter. Some of these people included Queen Henrietta Maria and John Tillotson, a clergyman from St James' Church, a close friend of Mary Beale who eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury. It may be due to Mary's father, John, who was a rector, or her close connection to Tillotson that kept the clergymen of St James' as consistent customers.{original research} Mary's connection to Tillotson as well as her strong Puritan marriage to Charles worked in her favour in building up her good reputation. Mary Beale typically charged five pounds for a painting of a head and ten pounds for half of a body for oil paintings. She made about two hundred pounds a year and gave ten per cent of her earnings to charity. This income was enough to support her family, and she did so. Needless to say, it is truly remarkable that Mary Beale was responsible for being the breadwinner of the family. By 1681 Mary's commissions were beginning to diminish.

In 1681, Mary Beale took on two students, Keaty Trioche and Mr. More, who worked with her in the studio. In 1691, Sarah Curtis from Yorkshire became another student of Mary's. Sarah had similar behaviours and dispositions as Mary. Mary Beale died on 8 October 1699. Her death was mistaken for the death of Mary Beadle, whose recorded death is on 28 December 1697. Not much is known about her death besides that she died in a house on Pall Mall and was buried under the communion table of St James's Church, Piccadilly.

Mary Beale's paintings are often described as "vigorous" and "masculine". (It was common to praise a woman for her work by calling her "masculine".) The colour is seen as pure, sweet, natural, clear and fresh, although some critics see her colouring as "heavy and stiff". Due to copying Italian masterpieces as practice, Mary Beale is said to have acquired "an Italian air and style". Not too many could compete with her "colour, strength, force, or life". Sir Peter Lely admired Beale's work, saying she "worked with a wonderful body of colour, and was exceedingly industrious." Others criticise her work as weak in expression and finish with disagreeable colours and poorly rendered hands. It is sometimes described as "scratchy" with a "limited colour palette" and too closely imitates the work of Lely.

I’m not party to criticism or praise of Mary’s work, but I do admire a woman who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants.

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