Cecil Beaton: The New York Years

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Cecil Beaton spoke volumes. A consummate artist, Beaton had an eye for great aesthetic, whether he was presiding over a fashion photo shoot, drawing portraits, designing costumes for a Broadway show or simply shooting intimate photos of some of our most beloved, renown (and sometimes reclusive) celebrities.

Beaton’s work is currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York in its exhibit Cecil Beaton: The New York Years. The museum itself is a great little find, from its inviting front veranda to its cozy-mansion feel inside. Other current exhibits include The Greatest Grid (a look at Manhattan’s streets) and Kevin Roche: Architecture as Environment.

As described in the exhibit, Beaton was “an Edwardian-era dandy in the mold of Oscar Wilde. Beaton wore custom tailored suits and spoke in an exaggerated accent, announcing that he loved New York because it was so ‘egg-ill-ahh-rating!’”

Quite the character, Beaton’s worked spanned the artistic spectrum. As a painter, his portraits are striking. My friend and I both noted that the lines in his paintings are simple but the colors are extraordinary. Saturated, rich primary colors appear in blocks to punctuate his subject. (Subjects included Katharine Hepburn and Helen Hayes, the theatre legend for whom the theatre on west 44th street is now named.)

Though his portraits are very interesting, a large portion of his career was dedicated to fashion photography. For 40 years, Beaton shot for Vogue, developing a partnership with Edna Woolman Chase, Vogue’s editor in chief from 1914-1952. Of the art form, Beaton said, “fashion photography is an insidious profession. In art, it is what sex-appeal is to love.” Insidious though it may be, his photographs are captivating, and you can see his influence—all these years later—in fashion spreads in today’s magazines.

The part of Beaton’s career that I found most interesting was the years he spent in the performing arts. Beaton designed the costumes for Broadway’s My Fair Lady (and later the movie version), including those famous black and white costumes from the Ascot scene. Perhaps what I responded to most about Beaton’s designs in these years is his imagination. Referring to his designs for the Ascot scene, Beaton said, “Here, at last, was the opportunity to stage all the memories stored up since my early childhood.” Ah, to be able to express the imagination of a child—what a glorious opportunity.

Beaton continued in the performing arts, designing for New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera, in its inaugural season, no less. (See the dramatic red photo above.) He also continued taking photos, photographing everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol to Katharine Hepburn. His photographs, particularly of these luminaries, are so intimate—and iconic. Take the photo of Hepburn, at right. We’ve all seen this great photo before; now I know it was Cecil Beaton who took it!

As shown in the Museum of the City of New York’s enlightening exhibit, Cecil Beaton was a renaissance artist, and was able to capture exquisite moments in simple, everyday human life.

Cecil Beaton: The New York Years is on display at the Museum of the City of New York through February 20. Visit mcny.org for more information and to plan your trip.