Two striking watercolors -- Jeanne D'Arc Day and Paris Bedroom -- hint at what Evelyn might have been capable of had she pursued more ambitious subject matter. Two others -- Susie in Salon and Susie on Guard -- are examples of how even a talented artist's work can turn cloying when she focuses on something as sentimental as a beloved family pet.
The strengths of Evelyn's painting shift dramatically in the oils that take up the four remaining rooms. Her feel for fruit and flowers fails to translate from watercolor to oil, although the hibiscus in Coral in Music Room stands out, and the Cezanne feel she appears to be after in King Oranges comes through with ringing clarity.
In many of the still-life oils, as in some of the watercolors, the compositions are too fussed-over, too carefully arranged. The stunning exception is the large canvas Iron Bench in Courtyard, a beautifully balanced composition into which she crams a sensory overload of colors and textures: a wrought iron bench, a book, a basket of citrus fruit, a hat, a plaid umbrella, and green-and-yellow-dappled crotons.
The oils also reveal Evelyn's talent for portraiture, a knack for conveying the blase sophistication of the aristocracy that brings to mind the work of John Singer Sargent. Abby Spencer Beveridge is a dramatic portrait of a family friend, a blond beauty with swept-back hair, clad in a black dress with a cluster of small roses at the throat (and an eerie phoenix's head rising behind her). There are also a couple of lovely portraits of Frederic and Evelyn's daughter, Lilly, and two portraits of Frederic (Yellow Coat, the better of the two, shows him in reading glasses that lend a James Joyce quality to his appearance).
Evelyn's best portrait, ironically, is one of Helen Birch Bartlett's father. Hugh Taylor Birch, Esq. captures the grand old man in profile: white-bearded and bespectacled, as if Matisse, Freud, and George Bernard Shaw had all been rolled into one, with glimpses of tropical foliage and a wrought iron gate in the background. His stern countenance is offset by a brilliant touch: a feather tucked into his hat at a jaunty angle, which is most likely a sly reference to the fondness Birch, a vegetarian, had for his pet chicken. Evelyn completed the gag by placing a carved wooden rooster from Burma beneath the painting.
No one knows for sure why Evelyn Bartlett abandoned painting so soon after she took it up, although speculation abounds (a preoccupation with overseeing her daughter's coming-out to society, a desire not to outshine her husband). But as the best of her work on display at Bonnet House confirms, it's our good fortune that she became a painter at all and that Frederic Clay Bartlett discovered and shared her talent with the world.
Bonnet House is located at 900 N. Birch Rd., Fort Lauderdale. For information call 954-563-5393.