“To be sure, the Critic has the same right to his own conclusions, as does the Artist—only the latter has had the advantage of time and opportunity to study first hand, every inch and angle of the original” (Baker 1936:120).

Mary Louise Baker was born in 1872. Her early youth was spent in Alliance, Ohio, a small town at the intersection of the Ohio & Pennsylvania and Cleveland & Wellsville Railroads. Her parents were devout Quakers.  At the age of 19, she boarded a train for Pennsylvania, where she spent four years teaching in one-room country schoolhouses.

By 1900, Baker moved to Philadelphia and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art.  She was awarded a first prize of $40 in 1900 for her printed tableware design by the Mayer Pottery Company and a commendation for her illustrations—several of which appeared in the Annual report of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that year.  She also won a scholarship for the 1902-1903 school year.  Frequently ‘in desperate need of money’ (Danien 2006:6), she worked as a free-lance illustrator and secured a position as an art teacher at the George School in Bucks County. She also wrote and illustrated stories and poems for children, and published illustrations in the Children’s Page of the Youth’s Companion Magazine and other magazines for children (see Baker 1915).  In 1902, she was hired to produce illustrations and watercolor paintings for Clarence Bloomfield Moore’s popular reports on his archaeological investigations, published in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; her work soon attracted wider attention.

In 1908, M. Louise Baker was hired by the archaeologist George Byron Gordon, then the General Curator of American Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to draw Nubian materials from the Eckley B. Coxe, Jr. Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania.  She produced beautiful ink and watercolor illustrations of objects from Karanog, a necropolis and large second-century provincial capital of the Meroitic kingdom in Lower Nubia.  These were published in eight volumes (see, for examples, Randall-MacIver & Woolley 1911 and Woolley & Randall-MacIver 1919).

The position of part-time Museum Artist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum was a modest one.  Baker continued to work as an art teacher at the George School until 1938.  But her concerns of craft and technique predominated over money affairs, and the income she received from her work painting Meroitic materials enabled her to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. At the University of Pennsylvania, Baker returned to the Museum’s Maya material.  Her stunning water colors of Maya pottery convinced George Byron Gordon—who had filled a spot left by another Philadelphia trowelblazer, Sara Yorke Stevenson, after her departure from the museum in 1905—to hire Baker to produce ink illustrations and watercolors of the Maya collections at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

baker landscape

During the First World War, Baker worked for the American Friend’s Service Committee in France.  In 1919, she ran the Embroidery Depot at Verdun and Clermont-en-Argonne, near the Belgian border, where 200 displaced women were employed making embroideries with brightly colored wools and other materials supplied by the Friends. These were sold to tourists to provide the women with an income.  She returned to Philadelphia in late August, 1920, in the company of E. Constance Allen, of Dublin, Ireland, with whom she would have a life-long relationship.

Louise Baker traveled widely. After her return from France, Baker led groups of women on summer tours of European museums. In 1931 she traveled to New Orleans.  After an interval painting Maya material at Tulane University’s Middle American Research Institute, she departed for Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, Mexico, where she painted and drew Maya pottery in the State Museum and private collections.  From Mexico, she travelled to Guatemala City, Guatemala, and produced ink and watercolor illustrations of pots from the Carnegie Institution of Washington expedition to Uaxactun (Carter 2015) and others from Cobán, some of which were privately held by Erwin Paul Dieseldorff, a coffee-planter who wrote extensively about the Maya.  Baker contributed to the second volume of Dieseldorff’s Kunst und Religion der Mayavölker (3 vols., 1926–1933).

After briefly returning in to Philadelphia in 1931, she sailed in 1932 for England and Iraq, where she painted materials from Leonard Woolley’s excavations at the Royal Tombs of Ur (19221934) (see Baker’s illustrations in Woolley 1934b).  Her return trip took her through museums and private collections in Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and England.  This circuitous return, and a subsequent trip to Europe in 1934, were jointly funded by the Penn Museum and the Carnegie Institution to enable her to sketch, paint, and photograph Maya materials in Europe.

Baker produced stunning images in pen and ink and watercolor.  Archaeologists have often found good illustrations like hers more useful than photographs.  An illustrator can make indistinct details more distinct and present an object in multiple views simultaneously.  Baker had a particular talent for watercolors, capturing the three-dimensional qualities of vessels and ornaments.  Baker also produced detailed ‘rollout’ images of cylindrical surfaces projected (or ‘rolled out’) onto a flat plane (see Smith 1932, Plates 4 &5).  And she was a skilled pictorial conservationist—supplying missing details to damaged objects, such as Lintel 3 of Piedras Negras (Baker 1936). Between 1925 and 1943, Baker’s beautiful ink and watercolor illustrations were published in the three-volume Examples of Maya pottery in the Museum and other collections (edited by G.B. Gordon and J. Alden Mason, published by the University of Pennsylvania Museum).

Baker struggled with her eyesight throughout her life.  With her eyesight failing, Baker retired from the Museum in 1936 and from the George School in 1938.  By 1949 she was completely blind.  She settled in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, with E. Constance Allen, who had been her companion since 1919.  M. Louise Baker died on July 15, 1962, in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Louise Baker was one of the greatest archaeological illustrators of the early twentieth-century. Her career spanned archaeology’s transformation from the collection of antiquities into a comparative science. The contributions to archaeology’s professionalization made by illustrators are often overlooked or forgotten in histories of archaeological methods and techniques (but see Pillsbury 2012).  Yet illustration is a critical tool of archaeology, especially to the sharing of information among scholars and the production of comparative archaeological knowledge (Smith 1932).  Illustrations are not straightforward or neutral copies.  They present a selection of information; they take sides, advancing particular interpretations, and forestalling others (see, for debates involving Baker’s work, Gordon 1921 and Carter 2015:5-6). “A restoration always invites criticism,” Baker wrote in 1936.

Sources and References

This summary of M. Louise Baker’s career is based largely on Elin Danien’s excellent account in Paintings of Maya Pottery: The Art and Career of M. Louise Baker (2006).  I’ve also drawn on the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Annual Reports of the Trustees for 1900 and 1901.  Information about her wartime service for the American Friend’s Service Committee comes from a notice in The Friend: a religious and literary journal (September 2, 1920).  Lee Price describes Baker’s conservation work in Scientific Illustration at its Best: Conserving the Work of M. Louise Baker (Artifacts, Fall 2010)

The University of Pennsylvania Penn Museum Archives hold more than 500 works by Baker, spanning the years from 1889 to 1962.  This collection includes her sketches, commercial art, illustrated stories and poems, watercolors, photographs, her traveling valise, a collection of her diaries, an unpublished memoir, and all her work for the Museum’s Maya Pottery publications (link to the finding aid for the M. Louise Baker papers).

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Expedition Magazine contains several articles about M. Louise Baker’s contributions to Maya studies.  See, for example, Dosker, Caroline G.  (1985)  Mary Louise Baker and the Maya.

Baker, M. Louise (1936) Lintel 3 Restored. . .and Why: An Artist’s Interpretation.  University Museum Bulletin, 6(4):120-121.

Baker, M. Louise (1915)  A Mystery.  South Dakota Educator, 29 (September):20.

Carter, Nicholas P.  (2015) Once and Future Kings: Classic Maya Geopolitics and Mythic History on the Vase of the Initial Series from Uaxactun.  The PARI Journal, 15(4):1-15

Danien, Elin C. (2006)  Paintings of Maya Pottery: The Art and Career of M. Louise Baker.  Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI).

Gordon, George Byron.  (1921) Mrs. Nuttall and The Ulna River (current notes and comments).  Art and Archaeology, 11(1-6): 262-264.

Pillsbury, Joanne, ed.  (2012) Past Presented: Archaeological Illustration and the Ancient Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Randall-MacIver, David & Woolley, Leonard.  (1911)  Buhen.  Philadelphia: University Museum.

Smith, A. Ledyard.  (1932) Two Recent Ceramic Finds at Uaxactun.  Contributions to American Archæology, No. 5.  [Preprint from Publication No. 436 of Carnegie Institution of Washington, pages 1 to 25, September, 1932]

Woolley, C. Leonard.  (1911) Karanóg, the town.  Philadelphia: University Museum.

Woolley, C. Leonard & Randall-MacIver, David.  (1919) Karanòg: Plates.  Philadelphia: University Museum.

Woolley, C. Leonard & Randall-MacIver, David (1911) Karanòg: the Romano-Nubian cemetry : Plates.  Philadelphia: University Museum.

Woolley, C. Leonard. (1934a)  Ur Excavations, Volume II, The Royal Cemetery (text).  Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia.

Woolley, C. Leonard. (1934b)  Ur Excavations, Volume II, The Royal Cemetery (plates).  Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia.


Post by Brendan Tuttle

Images used with the permission of the University of Pennsylvania Archives. The portrait is Image #176327 and the roll out of the pot is Image #165114.

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