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 Old Wharf, Boothbay Harbor

Seen from the shore through a screen of trees, Boothbay Harbor on the Maine coast appears in its modern in-season character as a popular tourist resort in Florence White Williams’s The Old Wharf, Boothbay Harbor. The wharf itself is represented by a weathered wooden structure set on pilings over the water. Gathered about it are small sailboats and rowboats, the fair-weather craft of vacation-time leisure. The rippling cool blue surface of the calm harbor bespeaks the beneficent conditions of a fine summer day. The almost-square format of the balanced composition, in which trees on the right and the building on the left frame the view, contributes a sense of comforting stability.

Like Williams’s benign, pleasing subject matter, her vigorous brushwork and bright color were among the hallmarks of an early twentieth-century impressionist manner that was widely practiced among Chicago’s landscape artists in the early decades of the twentieth century and favored by middle-brow, urban American consumers, including many in artistically conservative Chicago. For them, impressionism signaled a modern but “sane” practice that embraced evidence of artistic process while adhering to a solidly representational effect. Like John F. Stacey in his Gloucester, Massachusetts, views, Williams pictured Boothbay Harbor from the perspective of a seasonal tourist, with grubby evidence of the locale’s longtime fishing industry carefully elided. Rather, the old wharf anchors the setting in a romantic idyll of Old New England as a site of settled tradition and sanitized national heritage—a popular fiction in an era of whirlwind change. As the Chicago Tribune’s conservative art critic Eleanor Jewett observed, “A tendency toward romancing runs through [Williams’s] pictures.”i

In the late 1920s, the period to which this painting probably dates, Williams reached the height of her modest success as a Chicago-based landscape painter. In 1928, the Chicago Galleries Association held a solo exhibition of her works that included a painting entitled The Old Wharf, likely this work, among other images from Boothbay Harbor. Williams also painted the shoreline scenery of nearby Monhegan Island as well as the Indiana Dunes and New Hampshire lakes. Boothbay Harbor held a special place in her career, however, for she had spent a season studying there with Henry B. Snell, co-founder of the Boothbay Studios summer school in 1921. By that date, picturesque Boothbay Harbor was already a popular destination for artists.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Eleanor Jewett, “Chicago Canvases at Institute,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 12, 1928.

House in a Landscape

A modest country house sheltered among trees is the subject of Alice Kellogg Tyler’s intimate landscape painting on panel. Glimpsed from across an expanse of open ground and beyond a large tree that frames the scene on the left, the dull-yellow structure with its red-roofed front porch almost blends into its surroundings. Tyler painted in rough, obvious brushstrokes that record her quick, on-the-spot execution and convey her close familiarity with her subject. Indeed, it is her family home on the seventy-acre farm owned by the Kellogg family in Evergreen Park, now a southern suburb of Chicago. Tyler listed the village as her place of residence even after her marriage in 1894 to Chicago businessman Orno Tyler. Painted two years later, this work was a memento for her sister Mabel, who like Alice had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Both Mabel Kellogg Rich and her son John served as models for Alice’s figural works. On the back of the panel on which she painted their family home, Alice inscribed a poem and dedication that suggests the sisters’ shared affection for the place:

A little glimpse of home my dear
As seen through loving eyes
And if the tear drops come my dear
And though thy tongue be dumb
I’ll join in thy surprise
For [?]  Mabel
Feb 8 ’96
from Alice

This work is one of a group of small-scale paintings retained by John, Alice’s favorite nephew, until his death in 1974. In the 1980s the appearance of these works on the art market sparked renewed interest in an artist little known since her premature death in 1900. Untitled (House in a Landscape) is one of several paintings that demonstrate that even as Tyler executed dark-toned conventional studio portraits and figural works in the 1890s she was also experimenting on a small scale with the broken brushwork, out-of-door painting practice, and spontaneous effects of impressionism. This modern mode appealed to many of her artistic contemporaries in Chicago, especially following impressionism’s “official” American debut at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. In portraying her family home, Tyler found an apt subject for impressionist informality and immediacy.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Chinese Jar

Anna Stacey’s Chinese Jar evokes the exotic East in its assortment of elegant objects. The elaborate ceramic jar or vase on a carved wood stand is decorated with images of water-lilies and a pheasant on a black background. It holds an unusual mixture of plants: the dried oval seed pods of the money plant (lunaria) and shiny dark-blue berries on reddish stalks. Sharing the polished tabletop is a statuette of a kimono-clad kneeling female figure holding a shamisen, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument with a distinctive square body. The backdrop to these objects appears to be a folding screen. Two of its panels meet in a vertical band of blue and red that gives the composition a decidedly asymmetrical emphasis. Strong contrasts of almost monochromatic darks and lights set off the bright tints of the figurine and the vase.

For much of her long career, Stacey exhibited mostly genre scenes and landscapes in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibitions. In the early 1920s she began to also paint still-life images; these dominated the works she showed in her joint exhibition with her husband, landscape painter John F. Stacey, at Chicago’s Carson Pirie Scott and Company department store in 1928. Anna Stacey’s titles typically name the floral subjects of her still-life paintings, but Chinese Jar, the title of a painting she showed in the Art Institute’s 1924 “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition, is an exception. With it, Stacey drew attention to the exquisite man-made vessel rather than the plants it bears, thereby partaking in an established fashion for all things “Oriental.”

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Bon Voyage

In the first decade of the twentieth century Anna L. Stacey painted several half-length images of women or girls against landscape backdrops or framed in doorways or windows, often giving them titles that hint at narrative. As she observed in a 1903 interview, “An attractive, telling title goes a great way toward interesting people in a picture.”i Bon Voyage is one such work: it features a pretty young woman leaning out the open window of what is presumably a railway car to wave a white handkerchief in farewell to an unseen observer. While the painting’s title emphasizes the start of a journey, the image itself focuses on a parting from companions—perhaps a lover—and the implied ending of a seaside vacation. Seen through the train window, the frame of which closely corresponds to the edges of the composition, the landscape backdrop consists of a rising bluff and a glimpse of calm ocean under a fair-weather sky, a background that Stacey used for at least one other painting, In the Doorway (1907; formerly Friedman Collection). Against this sun-drenched landscape the young woman’s face is relatively shadowed and her expression is pensive, with perhaps a hint of melancholy. Broad, fluid brushstrokes enliven her white summer blouse, the blue scarf festooning her broad-brimmed hat, and her fluttering handkerchief.

In 1907, the year Stacey painted Bon Voyage, she and her artist-husband John F. Stacey spent the summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which they first visited in 1905. The site of a busy artists’ community, the town and its surroundings provided numerous subjects for artists. Gloucester was also a venerable vacation spot to which most visitors, including the Staceys, traveled by train—like the woman in this image. Gloucester and other northeastern coastal spots attracted the well-to-do Chicagoans among whom both Staceys found patrons, making Bon Voyage something of a nostalgic souvenir of artist’s and patrons’ shared experience. The painting was among a group of Gloucester paintings that Anna exhibited in Chicago in 1908 and that demonstrated, according to one approving critic, that Stacey “paints because she was born that way.”ii This work’s charmingly evocative subject demonstrates the artist’s knack for compositions that made her a favorite among the Chicago clubwomen of her day.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “Pictures and Titles,” Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1903.
ii Henry Charles Payne, “Art Exhibit Is Most Worthy,” Chicago Journal, Feb. 4, 1908.

Untitled (Still Life)

Ethel Spears’s vividly colored still life presents yellow flowers in a round blue vase, along with a fanciful painted pottery animal—perhaps a clay whistle—and what appears to be a painted clay dish. These objects are set in tiers against the folds of two different swathes of fabric, one a brilliant solid red and the other white with a pattern of stylized red, green, and yellow flowers and a border of green and yellow half-circles, intertwined with a bright blue ribbon. Echoing the tints of these objects are the broad abstract shapes filling the background, creating a composition dominated by strong contrasts of primary and secondary colors. Indeed, Spears’s painting seems almost an exercise in juxtaposition—of hue, shape, and line—and a stylistic homage to the bold simplicity of the folk-art objects she depicts.

Spears’s habit of filling her picture frame with detailed imagery typically took the form of humorous cartoonlike scenes of everyday life featuring small figures of uniform scale engaged in discrete activities. Apart from their tipped-up perspective, these accessible works reveal little of the formal distortion and exaggeration often associated with early twentieth-century avant-garde artistic expression. In this still life, however, Spears allied herself more firmly with modernism in her bold use of color and defiance of conventional perspective: notwithstanding the sinuous edges and evident modeling of the folds of bunched cloth, the objects seem to float in relation to one another, and the composition as a whole can be read as a flattened, abstract surface decoration.

The genre of still life has long served artists as a means of exploring “pure” composition by emphasizing color, line, and shape independent of narrative or moral content. Spears made relatively few still-life paintings in the course of her career. In 1932 and 1934, however, she exhibited two such works in the Art Institute’s “Chicago and Vicinity” annual exhibitions, and in 1932 she contributed a canvas to a display of flower paintings by members of Chicago’s modernist art community in Diana Court in the Michigan Square Building on Michigan Avenue. Perhaps this still life represented Spears in one or both venues. The artist had recently returned from a visit to California and may well have brought home with her the Mexican-style pottery and fabrics shown here.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Woman Sewing

In this image, Pauline Palmer melds the pleasing color and soft light effects of modified impressionism with a subject redolent of peaceful domesticity. Seen from slightly above, a woman is seated in front of a closed window, her head barely extending above the sill. The window frames a summer landscape of rising ground yielding to a blue ocean horizon. As she bends her gaze to the crochet needle in her hand, the sitter turns her back to the sunlit scene; she seems equally oblivious of the viewer. Palmer subtly alludes to her anticipation of maternity by showing the young woman working on a small garment of a diaphanous white fabric, while at her side the open workbasket, with its frilled edges and pink-lined interior, evokes a waiting bassinet.

Artists have long posed the model before a window as a vehicle for exploring both the effects of natural light in interior spaces and the interplay of rigid architectural elements with the rounded contours of the human form. Palmer herself painted several images of women before windows or open doors. The theme of a woman engaged in handiwork embodies a timeless feminine ideal of nurturing domesticity, while allowing the viewer to contemplate the female figure as if unseen. During and just after America’s involvement in World War I, images of home life assumed poignant significance in the face of what were perceived as new threats, both internal and external, to the nation’s values and social institutions.

In this image, the plaid window curtains on the many-paned window, the white walls, and the uncarpeted floor suggest the simple interior of a summer cottage. Early in the war years, Palmer began working in picturesque Provincetown, Massachusetts, a popular artists’ haunt. Painting the local fisherfolk, quaint village scenes, and her own garden, she found the locale a rich source of subjects in which both she and her public could temporarily escape not only international conflict but also urbanization, the clamor for women’s suffrage, and other manifestations of modernity. This comforting portrayal of idealized domesticity hints little at the artist’s own defiance of conventional female roles in her busy career as a professional painter.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Woman in a Garden)

Pauline Palmer’s image is a study in vivid color contrasts and the play of dappled shadow and bright light. Propping an oriental parasol on one shoulder, the female model wears the loose dress of morning leisure, including a blue kimono with a swirling pattern in gold and a red collar. The table at which she sits, with its silver coffeepot, is set for an alfresco breakfast perhaps to be shared with a companion, as indicated by the empty wicker chair. Behind her, the garden path stretches away toward the sunlit facade of a house with blue-shuttered windows. While Palmer carefully modeled the woman’s face, she captured much of the rest of the scene with the loose brushstrokes characteristic of impressionism; at the upper left in particular, distinct dabs of color suggest a dense screen of lush summer foliage. The shadowing of the foreground and figure in contrast to the bright background emphasizes the picture’s illusion of deeply receding space.

This painting probably dates to or soon after the summer of 1910, when Palmer worked in the international colony of impressionist painters gathered in Giverny, France. She likely went there to join American expatriate artist Richard Emil Miller, with whom she had studied in Paris and would work again in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Between 1909 and the outbreak of World War I, Giverny was dominated by a “third generation” of impressionist painters who included in addition to Miller several figural painters with ties to Chicago, notably Karl Anderson, Karl Buehr, Frederick Frieseke, Lawton Parker, and Louis Ritman. All specialized in images of beautiful women at leisure, frequently picturing them outdoors in the garden settings of the artists’ own rented residences in the village. Kimonos, parasols, and open-air breakfasts are features of many of these portrayals, which also share luscious color, vividly textured brushwork, and themes of languid domesticity.

Several months after Palmer’s stay in the French village, Chicago Tribune art critic Harriet Monroe wrote of the Giverny group and its salutary influence on Chicago painters who had visited there for a season: Palmer, she reported, “said she was learning lessons of inestimable value, and getting rid of faults which had hardened her work for years.”i Of the seven paintings the artist had recently exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition for Chicago artists, two bore titles indicating a Giverny setting. Another, titled In the Garden, might be this painting. With her work in France and Italy in 1910, Palmer made a decisive shift toward the impressionist mode of heightened color and bright light with which she remains associated.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Harriet Monroe, “Do We Really Underestimate the American Artists?” Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1911.

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.

Untitled (The Alhambra, Granada)

Anna Lynch’s brightly colored sketch captures a quiet corner of the famed Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain, a monument of Moorish architecture whose origins date to the ninth century. The warm tones of the masonry walls are shown in strong sunlight, with the distinctive crenellated wall at left casting a jagged shadow on the façade of a tower pierced by a pair of arched windows. Greenery framing the scene and rising from behind the buildings indicates the dense forest of English elms that surround the complex. The painting’s loosely and rapidly applied strokes of fresh color and its portable support, a modestly sized, lightweight canvas board, suggest that Lynch made this work on site, in keeping with impressionist practice.

Beginning with her 1897 debut in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition for watercolors, pastels, and miniatures, Lynch built a solid reputation as a painter of miniature portraits and she also made full-size floral still-life paintings. Later, however, she began to paint landscapes and marines, evidently stimulated by a 1924 trip to Spain. Landscapes and figural works painted there were featured in her small solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago in the summer of 1925. They were enthusiastically reviewed by the critic for the Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, who added, “Of the smaller sketches, there are patios, streets, courtyards and garden walls, all handled with delicate precision and poetic gayety [sic].”i  This painting was perhaps one of those sketches; alternatively it may have been the product of Lynch’s return visit to Spain in 1929, when she painted scenes of Seville and the coast presented early the following year in an exhibition at Chicago’s Cordon Club. The beauty and romantic history of the Alhambra had long attracted tourists, including many prospective buyers for Lynch’s portrayals.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i  C. J. Bulliet, “Current Exhibits in Chicago,” Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, July 28, 1925.