In this sympathetic image, the artist has represented the demure laundry girl Queenie Burnett attired in a simple white dress and black stockings, posing with her hands folded before her, set against a dark brown background. Queenie’s difficult life as a child laborer is manifested in her gaunt face, exaggeratedly large eyes, unkempt hair falling over her shoulders, and her awkward figure. Bellows has also managed to capture his subject’s uneasiness at finding herself in an artist’s studio posing for her portrait.
Originally titled Little Laundry Girl [fig. 1], this portrait of a figure in a white dress is reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, the full-length portrait that had inspired such diverse images as William Merritt Chase's fashionable society portrait Girl in White (c. 1898–1901, Akron Art Museum, OH) and Robert Henri's slightly tawdry Young Woman in White. In painting the young, working-class girl who delivered his laundry, Bellows, like Whistler, was flaunting the conventions of grand-manner portraiture traditionally reserved for the social elite. He was also following the advice of his friend and teacher Robert Henri, who admonished Bellows to select subjects that reflected the realism of modern urban life. Fulfilling that goal, he portrayed the recreational activities of New York City’s lower-class children in such paintings as River Rats (1906, private collection) and Forty-two Kids. In 1907, he began to explore the street-urchin genre popularized in the United States during the last quarter of the 19th century by Frank Duveneck (American, 1848 - 1919) and especiallyJohn George Brown (American, born England, 1831 - 1913). Bellows painted two full-length portraits of individual children, Little Girl in White and Frankie the Organ Boy (both 1907, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO), and the following year he executed the three-quarter length Paddy Flannigan (Erving and Joyce Wolf Collection). Like the other artists in Henri’s circle, Bellows eschewed the traditional idealizing approach with his youthful subjects, instead portraying them in a bluntly realistic manner.
The painting’s unusual mix of aestheticism and realism is simultaneously appealing and unsettling. A newspaper reporter who visited Bellows’s studio in 1908 may have had Little Girl in White in mind when he commented on portraits of “street gamins.” He noted that although they were “brimming with humor,” the images possessed a plaintive quality “which brings tears and sends people to rescue work.” However, the blunt realism of Bellows’s early works often provoked critics. A reviewer for the New York Evening Mail criticized it as a “flat failure, looking as if it were cut out of wooden blocks.” Despite the portrait’s mixed critical reception, it was immensely popular with the general public. Little Girl in White is noteworthy as the first of Bellows’s figural works to be widely exhibited throughout the country. He was awarded the first Hallgarten Prize of $300, reserved for artists under the age of 35, when the painting was shown at the National Academy of Design in 1913.
September 29, 2016