Little Mary

A little girl is shown absorbed in the contents of a large fish bowl in Elanor Colburn’s Little Mary. Light from a window at the upper right illuminates the full glass vessel, which transmits its glow to the girl’s uplifted face. Wearing a pale white-and-blue smock dress with a rounded collar completed with a small bow, the child personifies an ideal of youthful innocence with her rapt gaze, slightly parted lips, and full pink cheeks. Seemingly unaware of the viewer, she enacts the enchantment of discovery and childhood’s inexhaustible appetite for new experiences. In this case, the image hints, curiosity has driven the little girl to scramble onto the seat of the low-backed Windsor chair to reach the perhaps-forbidden object of her fascination, perched high on a stand.

The little girl’s identity is unknown. Inscribed Little Mary, presumably by the artist, on the back of the canvas, Colburn’s painting was probably made on commission for the model’s fond relatives. Colburn had exhibited both portraits and generic images of children, along with mother-and-child works, early in her career. These subjects remained staples of her work despite a radical shift in her painting in the mid-1920s, after the artist relocated from the Chicago area to Southern California. Little Mary manifests a conservative, academic impressionist style consistent with Colburn’s earlier work. Yet other evidence suggests it was painted even as the artist was experimenting with a new artistic approach, one in which she would abandon the conventional representation, hint of narrative, and conventional sentiment shown here for a new focus on the formal design elements of composition and color arrangements. Colburn signed the canvas with the modified spelling of her first name that she adopted in 1927, a date consistent with the style of the child’s dress and hair. Little Mary perhaps demonstrates the artist’s adaptability to the tastes and expectations of patrons, as well as its era’s ideal of childhood as a time of innocence, purity, and boundless expectation.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

The Rose Coat

Holding a doll, a wide-eyed little girl poses intently for the artist in Pauline Palmer’s The Rose Coat. Her cloth-draped seat and the tall glass vessels at her side suggest the casually juxtaposed props of a studio setting. From their midst the child looks out at the viewer with frank curiosity. Her pink coat and pale yellow dress, along with the light gray of the wall behind her, emphasize the rich brown of her eyes and short hair, the darkest elements of the composition. Palmer further drew attention to the girl’s face by painting it with more delicately blended brushstrokes than the rest of the work, where an impressionist-inspired loose handling of paint dominates. Combining self-consciousness and innocence, Palmer’s little girl represents an idealized notion of childhood, one nonetheless subtly undermined by the artificiality of the studio setting.

Palmer showed The Rose Coat in the Art Institute of Chicago’s American artists’ annual exhibition of 1923. By that date, she was well-known for her sympathetic images of children. Although childless herself, Palmer “is quite happy in her portrayal of childhood, fond of having children around her, and clever at entertaining them and holding their interest as she paints them,” noted one art writer in 1920.i Although depicted according to the conventions of portraiture, many of her youthful subjects were hired models. After the death of her husband in 1920, Palmer spent longer periods of time in Provincetown, Massachusetts. There she came to know the local families of Portuguese fishermen, whose children she frequently painted. The unidentified sitter for this work, with her dark eyes and hair, might be one such model.

With her title, Palmer linked The Rose Coat to a flourishing tradition in American and European art of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the image of a solitary female posed in a special article of clothing for which the work is titled, as for example George Oscar Baker’s The Chinese Coat. In a painting now known as Girl in Kimono (undated; Christies Los Angeles, April 27, 2005, lot 82), a girl who appears to be the model for The Rose Coat is posed in an elaborate flowered kimono and with a garland of flowers in her hair. The Rose Coat features no such exotic accessories, focusing instead on the self-conscious formality of a little girl dressed in her best for the important event of modeling for the artist.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Minnie Bacon Stevenson, “Woman Heads Artists’ Society of Chicago,” Fort Dearborn Magazine 4 (1920): 7, copy in Pauline Palmer file, Fine Arts Division, Chicago Public Library Harold Washington Center.

Baby (The Young Mother)

The young woman in Frederick W. Freer’s painting holds her baby up close to her cheek in a gesture of mingled tenderness and maternal pride. The paired figures’ loose, voluminous clothing, the soft bedding visible just behind them, and the cool daylight flooding in from the left all suggest early morning and the first familial embrace of a new day. The immediacy of the subjects’ direct gaze further personalizes this intimate image, at once an icon of maternity and a portrait of specific individuals.

Baby is one of many paintings of mothers and children for which Freer was widely noted by the time he resettled permanently in his hometown of Chicago, in 1890. His perennial model was his wife, fellow artist Margaret Keenan. Following the birth of the first of their six children in 1888, mother-and-child images dominated in Freer’s work. In June 1896 the Chicago Post reported, “Among the unfinished canvases [in Freer’s studio] is one to be completed this summer of a fair and gracious lady, richly robed, holding a beautiful child against her cheek. It holds a promise of peachy tints and high, joyous key. It should be called ‘The Flower and the Bud.’”i Instead, it was titled Baby in the inaugural annual exhibition of the Society of Western Artists at the Art Institute of Chicago, the first stop on the show’s tour of six midwestern cities. The painting also appeared in the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha in 1898 and in the Boston Art Club’s annual exhibition the following year. With the title The Young Mother it was reproduced in periodicals in 1900 and 1903, making it among Freer’s best-known images in the mother-and-child genre.

Freer pursued this theme in an era of new attitudes toward child-rearing, as the sentimental Victorian cult of motherhood dovetailed with growing recognition of the importance of maternal nurturing on a child’s development. His painting struck a contemporary note in its emphasis on the physical intimacy between mother and child. It was also notably modern in style and technique in its open brushwork and bright highlights, hallmarks of the modified impressionism that many of America’s progressive painters adopted in the 1890s. Freer’s use of an almost-dry brush, his distinct paint strokes, and his slightly blurred rendering of the faces all mimic the effects of pastel, a medium favored by the impressionists; indeed, Freer was reportedly experimenting in pastel at just the time he was completing Baby.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “Art and Artists,” Chicago Post, June 27, 1896.

Untitled (Portrait of a Girl)

Portraits of children were a staple of Frances Foy’s artistic practice. In this example, she captured a little girl patiently posing in her formal best on a blue upholstered sofa. Complementing the tones of her pink-and-white checked jumper are several bright blossoms in a cut-glass bowl on a round table positioned between the figure and the viewer. Resting one hand on an open book, the sitter gazes off to the left as if she has just looked up from reading. Characteristic of Foy’s style are the delicate muted colors and the all-over patterned brushwork that lends a subtle vibration to surfaces. The diagonal curves etched into the glass bowl at the lower right echo the graceful line of the sofa back against the neutral background, while the rectilinear form of the book is repeated in the square buttons and checked pattern of the girl’s dress.

At the midpoint in her career, Foy was identified as an artist “who paints flowers, children and still life with delicate feeling and a pale, elusive color scheme.”i This work combines her characteristic subjects in what is most likely a commissioned portrait, as indicated by its solid realism and the formality of the little girl’s studied pose and Sunday-best attire. In the 1920s, Foy emerged as a modernist among Chicago artists with paintings that use expressive distortion of line and shape in images of everyday objects and scenes. This work, however, indicates her adaptability to more traditional standards of representation in a detailed and perhaps flattering portrayal of a specific individual. By the 1940s, Foy cultivated the favor of a mainstream public, regularly sending works on consignment to the art gallery at Marshall Field and Company department store, for example.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Daniel Catton Rich, “Chicago Painters,” American Magazine of Art 24 (Feb. 1932): 113.

Untitled (Girl with a Fan)

The little girl in L. C. Earle’s painting looks intently toward the viewer as she poses self-consciously, holding an oriental fan in her lap. Echoing the gold tints of her hair is a swathe of rich fabric that cascades from the back of the oversized chair, softening the composition and reflecting the strong light illuminating the scene unevenly from the left. The girl’s right foot tucked under the skirt of her green dress is the only hint of a child’s natural freedom from the strict rules of grown-up conduct. Earle was known for his perceptive character sketches and single-figure genre works. This image, however, displays a formal portrait’s conventional pose, composition, and individual characterization enlivened by the sitter’s direct gaze. Its diminutive scale marks it as an object for display in a private, domestic setting, perhaps by the fond parents of the young sitter, whose identity is unknown.

The naturalism of this image, along with its subdued colors and emphasis on contrasts of light and dark, testify to Earle’s training in Munich, a city that drew numerous American art students in the 1870s and 1880s. Earle’s work ranged widely, embracing not only portraiture but also still life, landscape, and genre painting. Regardless of subject, his easel paintings and watercolors are characteristically intimate in approach, making Earle a sympathetic portrayer of children.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (The Young Fishermen)

Charles E. Boutwood’s charming genre scene presents a motley assortment of children gathered on the shallow ledge of a massive stone pier. Viewed from slightly below as if from a boat on the water’s surface, six sturdy boys are intent on their hand-held fishing lines, one just pulled up to reveal a modest catch that elicits a look of satisfaction from a seated boy in a blue smock. On the right, a girl with a toddler in her arms and a younger girl who seems to turn away shyly are unacknowledged witnesses to the boys’ happy activity. The pier with its rough stained stonework almost fills the composition, which reveals a bit of distant open water on the left. Emerging into view just above the pier are boat masts and a cluster of slate-roofed cottages. A bright but overcast sky provides a contrasting backdrop for several of the figures, its bleached tones echoed in the smock of one of the boys and in the girls’ aprons.

A celebration of carefree youth and traditional life, this painting likely pictures a scene in Polperro, in Cornwall, England, long a favorite setting for the English-born Boutwood. The artist first visited the fishing village in the 1880s, exhibiting several works made there in the Royal Academy of Arts annual exhibition of 1885. Settling in Chicago with his wife, a Polperro native, in 1888, Boutwood returned often, eventually relocating to Polperro permanently. In 1911, when he exhibited several Polperro paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition for Chicago artists, the Fine Arts Journal described the artist as “a pretty regular visitor to his native country,” painting works that “present a shore very picturesque with rock formations, and the old fashioned English houses perched about picturesquely. The natives of the country are reproduced with conscientious care in various agreeable groupings.”i If this painting shows Polperro, Boutwood must have taken liberties with the setting, for the steep hills surrounding the village would be unavoidably present in any view of its old houses.

This work was evidently not one of the Polperro works that Boutwood showed in 1911, however. Examples of his paintings of figures out-of-doors in the 1910s demonstrate his absorption of modern artistic trends, notably the sun-saturated color and loose brushwork of impressionism. Such elements are not seen in this work, whose naturalism, dark tones, and narrative interest reflect rather the artist’s academic training in the late 1870s. Indeed, the painting is closely related in style and subject to another Boutwood painting of boys fishing from a pier, dated 1884, which shows virtually the same setting, activity, models, and even costume.ii Untitled (The Young Fishermen) likely also dates to the mid-1880s, predating Boutwood’s arrival in Chicago.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i James William Pattison, “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists—Paintings and Sculpture,” Fine Arts Journal 24 (Mar. 1911): 148.
ii Their Happiest Day is reproduced in an advertisement for M. Newman Ltd. of London in The Connoisseur 172 (Nov. 1969): lxxxiv.

Cherries Are Ripe

Cherries Are Ripe is typical of Adam Emory Albright’s idyllic paintings of rural youth. Armed with empty baskets and a ladder, six smiling children dally across an open field, evidently in pursuit of a pleasurable outing as much as a bountiful crop. Varied by age, gender, and height, they are barefoot and dressed in practical bonnets, straw hats, and somewhat ragtag outfits. Emphasizing the autonomy of a rural child’s world, the composition is scaled to the youthful figures; they dominate the scene, with the high horizon creating a sheltering refuge of the surrounding fields and distant fence, trees, and house. Low sunlight illuminates the figures, highlighting their happy faces; two glance directly toward the viewer as if in invitation to join them. Gestures and expressions link the children together, with the eldest boy holding the youngest’s hand protectively while another two join in pulling a wagon that bears an additional empty basket in anticipation of a rich harvest. The painting’s airy, casual brushwork, reflecting Albright’s on-site working method, underscores his theme of joyful contentment. The artist often hand-carved his own frames; in this example, he embellished the corners with luxuriant images of slender cherry leaves and clusters of fruit.

Albright probably painted Cherries Are Ripe in the summer of 1903, soon after the Art Institute of Chicago presented two successful solo exhibitions of his works. Later that year, the painting also appeared in the Art Institute’s annual exhibition of American art, where its generous size and striking frame may have been calculated to maintain the artist’s public visibility amidst a host of nationally prominent artists. Cherries Are Ripe was reproduced in the Chicago Evening Post and hailed by critic Lena McCauley as a “transcript of merry childhood from his collection of paintings illustrating the life of the American country child.”i The following year, the painting was shown in the Society of Western Artists’ eighth annual exhibition, and it was reproduced in a review of the show published in the journal Brush and Pencil in January 1904.

In Cherries Are Ripe, Albright followed a compositional formula developed earlier and to which he would return repeatedly, with figures arranged in a friezelike procession against the background in a narrow horizontal format. The effect lends the image what one critic recognized as a “feeling for decoration,” a quality enhanced in this painting by Albright’s harmonious palette of soft, cheerful tints.ii

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Lena M. McCauley, “Art and Artists,” Chicago Evening Post, Oct. 24, 1903.
ii Clipping from Chicago Record Herald, Oct. 5, 1902, in Art Institute of Chicago Scrapbooks, v. 17, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago.