The Blue Gown (Portrait of Ethel Coe)

The Blue Gown (Portrait of Ethel Coe)


Martha S. Baker

(American, 1871-1911)

Watercolor on ivory

Diameter: 10 cm (3 15/16 in.); Diameter of frame: 10.8 cm (4 1/4 in.)

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Baker 1915.142



American artist Martha S. Baker was best known for painting portrait miniatures on ivory. Born in 1871 in Evansville, Indiana, Baker graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1898 with honors. She established her own studio at the Art Institute where she taught sketching and watercolor from 1898 until 1904. Her early works are characterized by their reserved color palette and tone and are highly personalized, emphasizing the individuality of her sitters. Baker often used monochromatic colors for clothing and background and saved the more vibrant pinks and blues for her sitter's cheeks and eyes. Baker's style changed dramatically after a trip to Paris to study pastel drawing between 1906 and 1909; her works became brighter and her brushwork looser and more confident.

Baker was popular in the Chicago artist community. She received many honors during her lifetime, including a bronze medal at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 for "The Blue Gown." The label from this exposition is visible on the back of the miniature and is marked with a stamp from the New York jury. Over the label is a handwritten note identifying the artist as Martha Baker and the title of the miniature, "The Blue Gown" [crossed out], "Miss Ethel Coe." Coe was also a painter from Chicago and likely a student of Baker's in 1899 when the miniature was painted.

Born in Chicago in 1878, Coe attended the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1890s and graduated with honors in 1901. She studied with the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla in Madrid, possibly upon the recommendation of Baker, whom Sorolla called the "foremost miniature painter of modern times." Coe herself specialized in painting landscapes and townscapes of the American West and studied color under the guidance of Native American artists in Taos, New Mexico. She taught at the Art Institute as well as at Northwestern University and served as the director of the art department at Sarah Lawrence College from 1931 until her death in 1938. Chicago art critics and her fellow art teachers respected her work for its accessibility to a wide audience, and they considered her an American Impressionist.

Baker and Coe's exact relationship remains unknown. Baker died in 1911 at the age of 40 while Coe was studying in Madrid. When the miniature was displayed at the St. Louis World's Fair, the printed catalogue labeled it as "Miss C." It was among the works still in Baker's possession when she died, and there is no evidence that the sitter ever owned it. Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Baker, the artist's brother and sister-in-law, gave the portrait to the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1915. They gifted several of her works to museums throughout the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Ashley Bartman (May 2014)

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