The elegant sitter wears a fashionable white cape and black plumed hat selected from the artist’s own wardrobe. Her slender frame is accentuated by the verticality of the canvas and the bamboo-patterned gold screen in the background.
Girl in White depicts Jesseca Penn, a well-known model, actress, and dancer from Des Moines, Iowa. Penn posed for numerous artists, including Robert Henri and Arthur B. Davies.
Bobbs cultivated her artistic skills in Paris, New York, and Indianapolis. She may have executed Girl in White during her studies with Henri at the New York School of Art (formerly the Chase School) from 1905 until 1907.
Ruth Pratt Bobbs was born into a moneyed family in Indianapolis, Indiana. When she was eight years old, her mother took her to Saturday art school. At sixteen, after the death of her parents, Bobbs went to Paris, where she studied at the Académie Julian. She returned to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League. By the time she came back to Indianapolis to continue her training at the John Herron Art Institute, Bobbs had studied with William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, Kenyon Cox and Frank Vincent DuMond. She also worked with Charles Webster Hawthorne in Provincetown, Massachusetts. At twenty-eight she married William C. Bobbs, president of the Bobbs-Merrill publishing company, a man twenty-three years her senior. After the death of her husband in 1926, Bobbs went back to Paris and opened a studio. When she returned to Indianapolis, Bobbs opened a studio and gallery where she painted portraits of local citizens, entrepreneurs, and government leaders. Despite coming from a wealthy family and marrying into wealth, which created a great deal of skepticism regarding her sincerity as an artist, Bobbs proved she was serious by becoming a very successful portrait painter.
When this figure study hung in Bobb’s Indianapolis living room, visitors often mistook it for a self portrait from her youth. Although the sitter’s hat and cape did belong to the artist, the model was a young woman named Jesseca Penn. While a student in New York, Bobbs met the Scotswoman who had just come to this country and was looking for work. Bobbs painted her and then sent her to pose for Robert Henri who was teaching at the Chase School in New York. The “read-haired model,” as she was later known, became a favorite of Henri and posed for many of his best pictures. The Japanese screen, a stock motif employed by Bobbs’s teachers in Boston and New York, creates the bright tones that suffuse the picture. Its vertical and diagonal bamboo stalks echo the lines of the sitter, deftly integrating the figure with the background.
Judith Vale Newton and Carol Ann Weiss. Skirting the Issue: Stories of Indiana’s Historical Women Artists, Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2004. ISBN-13: 978-0871951779