(1852 - 1917)
Beckwith, as he preferred to be known, was born in Hannibal, Missouri, in
1852, but grew up in Chicago, the son of a prominent wholesale grocer. His
interest in art came at an early age, and at sixteen he entered the Chicago
Academy of Design, where he studied with Walter Shirlaw. Following the Chicago
fire of 1871, which significantly altered his family's fortunes, Beckwith
received his father's consent to pursue a career in art and moved to New
York to study at the National Academy of Design.
In 1873, Beckwith left for Paris, where he remained for five years, taking drawing courses from Adolphe Yvon at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but studying primarily under the noted portraitist Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. He also visited museums and galleries to study Raphael, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo, and Velázquez. In 1877, together with his friend and fellow student John Singer Sargent, Beckwith assisted Carolus-Duran with the ceiling decorations for the Palais du Luxembourg. By this time, he had also achieved success at the Paris Salon and a year later exhibited his idealized portrait, The Falconer, at the Paris Exposition Universelle.
In 1878 Beckwith returned to New York, and his talents as a draftsman secured him a professorship at the Art Students League, where he taught from 1878 to 1882 and from 1886 to 1887. As an artist, he concentrated mostly on portraits, figure studies, and detailed renderings of historical monuments, but he never lost his interest in decorative design. In 1893 he executed murals for the Liberal Arts Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Refusing to follow artistic fashion, he remained faithful to his conviction that art should embody the technical refinement of form, color, and expression. The honors he received for his portraiture included awards at the 1887 Paris Salon, and at the Exposition Universelle in 1899 for what is probably his most celebrated work, William Walton (1886), which, according to Carolus-Duran was "the strongest portrait" he had ever seen issued from a New York studio. Beckwith went on to earn medals at the Atlanta and Saint Louis expositions, and a gold medal at Charleston in 1902.
Throughout his career, Beckwith was committed to furthering the progress of American artists. He was among the earliest promoters of the Art Guild of New York and served as president of the Free Art League, which sought to educate artists and the public by bringing in original works of art from abroad. As a member of the Artists Fund Society of New York, he worked for the benefit of needy artists and their families. In the spring of 1889, he joined the effort to raise money for the construction of a new building to house the Art Students League, the Society of American Artists, the Architectural League, and the Art Guild. After three years of tireless fundraising, the American Fine Arts Society opened its doors in the fall of 1892; the Art Students League is still housed there today. For the remainder of his career, Beckwith worked unceasingly in his New York studio and spent four years in Italy from 1910 to 1914. He died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-six