Martha Baker 1871–1911
Portrait and miniature painter Martha Susan Baker was a native of Evansville, Indiana. In 1898 she completed her studies with honors at the Art Institute of Chicago. She served there as an instructor of sketching and watercolor painting until 1904 and also taught briefly at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (founded in 1902). Baker excelled as a painter of portraits and figural works, but she was best known for her miniature portraits, a genre that enjoyed a vigorous transatlantic revival beginning in the 1890s. The prominent Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, who visited Chicago in 1909 and again in 1911, declared Baker the foremost miniature painter of modern times. Baker also painted landscapes in watercolors and in oils, and she was one of several artists who painted murals in the tenth-floor stairwell of the Fine Arts Building, a vital center of cultural life in turn-of-the-century Chicago, where she established a studio in 1899.
By 1903, Baker was widely recognized as one of Chicago’s most important younger artists. She was among four Chicagoans featured in the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and she also exhibited in the Paris Salon, at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and in the U.S. at numerous national venues. In Chicago, her work was seen in the Art Institute’s annual exhibitions of American art, for work by Chicago artists, and for watercolor painting. She also showed in the annual shows of the Society of Western Artists. Baker’s early paintings were characterized by a subdued, almost monochromatic palette. After she studied pastel drawing during an extended stay in Paris in 1906–1909, her work shifted toward what a contemporary deemed a more “modern” manner, characterized by the brighter color evident in her vivid Self-Portrait.i
Locally, Baker was widely hailed as one of the Chicago’s most promising artistic talents when she died suddenly, just short of her fortieth birthday. Within a year, the Art Institute mounted an ambitious memorial exhibition of more than fifty of her paintings, pastels, and miniatures, accompanied by an illustrated catalogue. Viewers, observed the Chicago Daily News, “cannot help but wonder what would have been the fulfillment had she lived to a period of matured achievement.”ii
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD
i A Memorial Exhibition of Works of the Late Martha S. Baker at the Art Institute of Chicago, Oct. 1 to 23, 1912 (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1912), unpaged.
ii Maude I. G. Oliver, “Gossip of the Artists,” Chicago Evening Post, Oct. 5, 1912.