Martha Baker 1871–1911


, dated 1911

Oil on canvas, 44 by 32 inches

Completed shortly before her premature death in 1911, Baker’s self-portrait shows the artist in the act of painting. She gazes at the viewer as if at her own image in a mirror and lifts her brush in an expansive gesture that perhaps signals the triumphant completion of her work. Light from behind the figure glows through the diaphanous fabric of her loose-fitting green robe, accentuating her graceful form and highlighting the rich tints of her hair, which writer Carl Van Vechten, the artist’s good friend, called “her great glory.”i Missing from this depiction, however, are the spectacles Baker habitually wore. The portrait is frankly sensuous in its rich coloring and in the long, loose brushstrokes that follow the curves of her white-gowned body. The face, in contrast, fulfills Van Vechten’s description of Baker’s actual visage as “keen and searching, . . . [wearing] an expression that might be described as wistful; discontent lurked somewhere between her eyes and her mouth.” Writing after Baker’s death, Van Vechten believed that she had been unhappy because her art had never received its due recognition and that she was thwarted artistically because most of her subjects were “silly Chicago ladies.”

With its strong color and preoccupation with light, the portrait exemplifies Baker’s “modern” later style. This departure from the darker, more reserved manner of her earlier works resulted from the artist’s extended stay in Paris in 1906–1909, when she embraced pastel, a medium notable for its intense, saturated color and soft textural effects. Baker may have painted this self-portrait for herself, for it apparently was not exhibited in her lifetime and it remained in her family thereafter. When the work was shown in the Art Institute of Chicago’s memorial exhibition for the artist the year following her death, its relatively loose handling of paint and bright color led one critic to conclude that it was unfinished; the artist’s signature suggests otherwise, however. Although Baker could not have known that this painting was to be one of her last, her contemporaries interpreted it as “prophetic” of the artist’s imminent death: “a worthy feature to crown the work of a gifted life,” it hinted “that art had nobler vistas opening before her.”ii The portrait transcends the usual self-image of the professional painter at work, intimating Baker’s aspirations toward a more expressive creativity.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Carl Van Vechten, Peter Whiffle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922), 26-28.
ii Maude I. G. Oliver, “Gossip of the Artists,” Chicago Record Herald, Oct. 6, 1912; L. M. McCauley, “Art and Artists,” Chicago Evening Post, Oct. 5, 1912.

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