Portrait of Cecilia Tower

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Portrait of Cecilia Tower

United States, 1889
Paintings
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 71 7/8 × 53 1/8 in. (182.56 × 134.94 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob M. Kaplan (M.87.142)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Portrait of Cecilia Tower was one of Shannon’s early mature works, painted and exhibited the year immediately following his first major critical success....
Portrait of Cecilia Tower was one of Shannon’s early mature works, painted and exhibited the year immediately following his first major critical success. He became best known for his portraits of women, and the museum’s painting is characteristic of the type of decorative figure painting that brought him fame. Cecilia Tower is presented in neutral surroundings, allowing her dignified attitude, handsome attire, and the large size of the canvas to convey her social importance. Following Whistler in viewing a portrait first as a work of art and typical of progressive artists allied with the Aesthetic movement, Shannon held that portraiture was more than merely reproducing a physical likeness of the sitter. In his portraits of women the refined beauty of all the formal elements-color, line, and composition-suggest elegance and wealth. Cecilia Tower wears a fashionable silk evening gown and a boa. The painting is an orchestration of gray tints. Shannon preferred a palette of softly modulated tones, and the lavenders and pearl grays of this canvas, along with pinks, were among his favorite hues. Delicacy of color contributes to the elegance of his portraits. Whistler’s example inspired a host of later artists to employ soft, tonally limited palettes and place their sitters in spare environments and shallow spaces. Another characteristic of Aesthetic movement portraits found in Cecilia Tower is that of showing the sitter full-length and in life-size. The sitter was a member of the Tower family, landed gentry from Weald Hall in Essex. Cecilia Tower may have been Mrs. Christopher Tower. A portrait by Shannon of a child, Hugh Christopher Tower (unlocated), the son of Christopher Tower, was exhibited in the winter 1890-91 exhibition at the London Institute of Painters in Oil-Colours only a few years after Portrait of Cecilia Tower was shown in London. According to the art historian Barbara Dayer Gallati Shannon was often commissioned to paint different members of the same family.
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About The Era

The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture....
The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture. Great riches were amassed by railroad tycoons and land barons, and along with this came the desire for a luxurious standard of living. Collectors filled their homes with European as well as American works of art. American artists, generally trained abroad, often painted in styles that were indistinguishable from their European counterparts.
Most Americans who studied abroad did so in the European academies, which promoted uplifting subject matter and a representational style that emphasized well-modeled, clearly defined forms and realistic color. Academic painting served American artists well, for their clients demanded elaborate large-scale paintings to demonstrate their wealth and social positions. With an emphasis on material objects and textures, academic artists immortalized their patrons’ importance in full-length portraits.
Academic painting dominated taste in Europe throughout the century. But in the 1860s impressionism emerged in France as a reaction to this hegemony. By the 1880s this “new painting” was still considered progressive. Mary Cassatt was the only American invited to participate in the revolutionary Paris impressionist exhibitions. Despite her participation and the early interest of several other American painters, few Americans explored impressionism until the 1890s. Impressionist painters no longer had to choose subject matter of an elevated character but instead could depict everyday scenes and incidents. Nor did impressionists have to record the physical world with the objective detail of a photograph. Artists were now encouraged to leave their studios and paint outside under different weather conditions. American impressionists used the new aesthetic to capture the charm and beauty of the countryside and the city as well as the quiet delicacy of domestic interiors.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.