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.