The young painter in Jessie Pixley Lacey’s portrait works studiously at the small canvas on the easel before her, eyes bent on her work and her left hand resting on her hip. The green collar of her dress strikes a bright note in the light that illuminates her from above; presumably it comes from the skylight of a studio, a setting also suggested by the small landscape paintings hanging on the brown-tinted wall behind the figure. This intimate glimpse of an artist at work seems to have been rapidly sketched in paint from life rather than fully composed, drawn, and then painted according to standard academic practice.
Lacey may have painted this image during her stay in Paris in 1899–1900. There she shared a studio with Minerva Chapman, a rising miniature, portrait, and landscape painter and fellow alumna of the Art Institute of Chicago. This portrait appears in two period photographs of the studio but it is evidently not a self-portrait, for the subject’s facial features do not correspond with Lacey’s as recorded in photographs made about the same time and in two known self-portraits. With her straight nose and rounded chin, the woman in fact somewhat resembles Chapman as she appears in her contemporary bust self-portrait (circa 1898–1903; Mount Holyoke College Art Museum). If Lacey’s work does indeed portray Chapman, it may have been made to reciprocate the latter’s now-unlocated portrait of Lacey, which was shown in the Art Institute’s 1898 annual exhibition of American art. While the identity of Lacey’s subject may never be ascertained, the work testifies to the serious professionalism of Lacey and her female cohorts who gathered in Parisian studios at the turn of the century to pursue their professional artistic ambitions.
Wendy Greenhouse, PhD