Many of Hilda’s works were sold and the success of the exhibition led to many of her Australian works of art touring London and British regional art galleries. The most prestigious of these being at the Royal Academy in London and at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers,
A solo exhibition of her work was on view in December 1924 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and one of the works on display was His Land, which was described as having “the rare quality of conveying the spirit of life in the Commonwealth. Back in Australia, the December 5th 1925 edition of the Newcastle Morning Herald printed an article about the painting and the exhibition:
AUSTRALIAN WOMAN ARTIST.
Something of the beauty and grandeur of life in Australia is to be found in the art exhibition opened at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton-place, by the Australian High Commissioner. The artist. Mrs.Hilda RIx Nicholas, is an Australian and her works possess the rare quality of conveying, the spirit of life in the Commonwealth as well as portraying) that life pictorially. “His Land.” The most important work of the exhibition. might almost be termed great. It is a perfect example of the difficult art oil figure and’ landscape combination. In the foreground ‘is a young settler on horseback; contemplating a vast sunlit valley, which stretches away to the distant Blue Mountains. A. J. Munnings himself could not have painted horse and rider better. The trees, fields, and mountains are brightly coloured, and the whole picture. seems.to convey, the sunny heat-laden atmosphere of Australia.
It was not just in English galleries that her work was exhibited, for in Paris, she appeared at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Spring exhibition in Paris, in which she had eight works, a very large number for a single artist. The Société not only hung many of her paintings and drawings, she was elected an Associate to the organisation in that year.
One of her most famous paintings was completed in 1925 whilst she was living in Paris. It was entitled Les fleurs dédaignées (The scorned flowers). It was a monumental painting, the largest of all her works, measuring 193.0 x 128.5 cm (76 x 51 inches). Rix Nicholas concentrated on details of costume and decoration. The ornate eighteenth-century-style floral dress we see on the model was created by the artist specifically for the painting. The female stands indoors before an early twentieth-century pastiche of a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry, which was once owned by the artist. So, what is going on in the depiction we see before us? Look at the female. Her pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, almost like a porcelain doll. Her head looks so small in relation to her voluminous dress. The model for this work was a Parisian professional model and a prostitute, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous and this comes across as we study her face. She stands upright in a dignified but arrogant manner. She pouts. What is she thinking? Look at her facial expression, is it an expression of contempt or maybe sullenness? On the floor at her feet, we can see a bouquet of flowers which she has discarded and which are mirrored in the pattern of her dress. What was the artist’s reason for that? Are they from her lover who she has now rejected? Look at her gaze. Who is she looking at out the corner of her eyes? So many unanswered questions. Many art historians have had their say but few agree and so it is up to you to come up with answers!
When the work was displayed in Sydney in 1927, the art correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald of June 27th wrote:
“…For combination of grace, dramatic strength, and clearness in technique this picture would be difficult to surpass. There is nothing finicky about it; it tells its story with vivid directness. As a background to the figure Mrs. Rix Nicholas has set a piece of antique tapestry, so that the trees on either side lean in arch-wise over the head, the face and shoulders stand out clearly against an expanse of sky, and behind the body and limbs extends a countryside full of towers and rivers and trees. The quaint conventionality of this background accords exactly with the late eighteenth-century costume, all sprigged with roses and heliotrope; and the whole mass of detail harmonies [sic] perfectly with the type of the model’s face. It is a cold, selfish face. The artist has brought out with revealing strokes an expression of vindictive malice which is for the moment resting there; and the hands, the fingers of one grasped tightly by the other, give a clear indication of nervous tension within. The treatment of flesh tones and the general arrangement [sic], drawing attention gently but not too obtrusively to the columbines scattered on the polished floor—those are excellent…”
The painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 from the artist’s son, Rix Wright.
During her period in France Hilda put together a number of new paintings including portraits of traditional life and costume, whilst she spent her summers in Brittany. Before she left Europe, she had Le Bigouden, a painting she completed in 1925, hung at the Royal Academy’s 1926 Summer Exhibition. Le Bigouden and La Bigoudène were the names given to men and women who inhabited the Pont-l’Abbé region of Brittany
At the end of 1926, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Dorothy Richmond returned together to Australia. They decided to continue with their painting adventures and bought a car, modified it to hold all their painting paraphernalia and set off to roam New South Wales and Queensland and paint the Australian landscape from Canberra and the Monaro plains to the south, up into central Queensland . Hilda returned to Delegate where she had spent time before setting sail to Europe. Once again, she met up with farmers, Neil, and Edgar Wright. For Hilda it was a welcome return to the man she loved and On June 2nd 1928 she and Edgar Wright married in Melbourne. In 1930, Hilda and her husband had their only child, a son, whom they named Rix. Hilda stopped painting during their son’s infancy but once he became a young boy, she resumed with her art. Coincidentally, her friend and travel companion, Dorothy Richmond, married Edgar Wright’s cousin, Walter, and settled in the same region.
Hilda and Edgar Wright went to live in a property called Knockalong in the Tombong valley which was situated close to Delegate. It was a large and successful pastoral station, run by Edgar and his station hands and he is represented as the Shepherd of Knockalong in Hilda’s 1933 painting. The painting, which is one of the first works that Hilda Rix Nicholas produced, following her return to painting in 1934, after the birth of her only child, was one of many which depicted the life on the land in the Monaro of New South Wales, which is one of the centres of Australia’s rich and productive farmland.
Their son, Rix attended boarding school at Tudor House and then at Geelong Grammar. It was whilst attending the grammar school that he fell in love with sculpting. in fact, he created the two gateway sculptures that still adorn the entrance today. There was a differing of opinion between mother and father as to what their son’s future path should be. His father wanted him to take over the Merino stud and his mother wanted him to pursue an art career. In the end, to keep both happy, he combined his love for the southern Monaro landscape and his sculpting He managed the property and when he had free time, he created his sculpted works of art.
Rix created The Shearer when he was just 19 years old. Cast in bronze, The Shearer bends at the hip over a held sheep, its fleece almost entirely removed and laying at its feet.
Hilda carried on producing works of art for the next twenty-five years and had them shown at numerous exhibitions but by the time of her last exhibition, her love of painting was diminishing and the thoughts of what she had achieved and what was her future began to depress her. In a letter to her son she talked of that depression, writing:
“…Not doing anything creative is nearly killing me. The trouble is that there is no one near me who cares whether I ever do any more work or not … I feel the artist in me is dying and the dying is an agony … only one’s self knows the craving and the best part in one is aching unsatisfied…”
At this juncture in her life, with her health deteriorating, and her fervour for art fading, she did exhibit for the final time in 1954 in Sydney. It was a group exhibition with two of her oil paintings shown alongside her son’s sculpture The Shearer also on display.
Hilda Rix Nicholas Wright died in Delegate on 3 August 1961, a month before her seventy-seventh birthday.
In March 1918, Hilda Rix Nicholas left England on a sea voyage back to Australia. She and her late husband’s brother, Athol Nicholas, arrived in Melbourne on May 10th. She needed to get her love of painting back on track and she did this through the city’s Women’s Art Club and the support of Henrietta Maria Gulliver, one of its founding members. She was soon back in the groove and in November she was amongst the members of the Art Club whose works were displayed at the Athenaeum Hall. The art correspondent of the Punch magazine (November 21st, 1918) wrote:
“…The dominating personality of the show is Mrs Hilda Rix Nicholas, who exhibits a charming profile of a young girl entitled The Pink Scarf which is painted in Mrs Nicholas’ most arresting manner…”
When she travelled to Australia Hilda brought with her the sketches and paintings she had completed during her time in Europe and North Africa and over a hundred were exhibited at the Melbourne’s Guild Hall. The exhibition was a great success and many of her paintings were sold including her 1914 work, In Picardy, which was purchased by National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibition moved to Sydney and more of her paintings were bought by private collectors as well as several purchased by National Gallery of Victoria.
Hilda left Melbourne and moved to Mosman, a coastal suburb on the Lower North Shore of Sydney. She continued to exhibit her portraits of Australian military men. She painted heroic images of soldiers which accentuated the spiritual aspects of war and was in line with the thoughts of the day with regards Anzac mythology and the unashamed masculinity of the Australian nationhood. The paintings were works of unapologetic patriotism. They were loved by the public but more conservative critics were troubled by the modern and ‘masculine’ characteristics of the exhibition. With the public liking her patriotic paintings she tendered for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library but was not chosen. The mural commission was given to Harold Septimus Power. An official portrait by George Coates in 1920 depicted the Australian War Artists. The group portrait includes the official War Artists; standing l-r: (Sir) John Longstaff, Charles Bryant, George Lambert, A. Henry Fullwood, James Quinn, Septimus Power, Arthur Streeton, seated back l-r: Will Dyson, Fred Leist, front: George Bell. Note they are all male !
One of her patriotic works was her painting simply entitled A Man. For her model Hilda chose a returned serviceman. She must have thought about her late husband as she painted this work. Look at the way that through her brushstrokes she has affectionately fashioned pockets, buttons, pouches for ammunition and creases in the sleeve. This anonymous ANZAC hero is framed by stormy skies and with so many of the troops dying on the battlefield one realises that despite the uniform, the tin helmet and rifle they all failed to keep him safe. Although this is a patriotic depiction it is also a portrayal of defencelessness as much as it is of military might. Having failed to receive the commission for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library, Hilda abandoned her military portraiture work and began to concentrate on painting local landscapes and portraits.
Hilda believed that the public’s taste in art had changed. Despite the numerous Australian casualties in the First World War, estimated at 62,000 killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. The Australian population wanted not just to think of their dead but consider the future and a reminder of this was to reflect on their beautiful land and the hard-working Australians who remained and were carrying on with their life. It was not just in art that this desire to look forward was seen, as many writers of the time, such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, penned stories who eulogised about the merits of pioneer life.
In 1922, accompanied by her friend Dorothy Richmond, whom she had met in Sydney around 1919, Hilda set out to paint in rural New South Wales and one of the paintings she completed around this time was one depicting her friend on a horse. The painting was entitled In the Bush, Dorothy Richmond on Horseback.
Hilda completed a portrait of her friend, Dorothy Richmond in 1926, entitled Une Australienne, Dorothy Richmond. It is a strong portrait of her good friend. Dorothy is dressed in the height of fashion. She looks out at us with a forceful pose, one of belief in her self-importance, almost haughty but the look gives her a sense of empowerment. She has posed with her head turned causing tension on her neck muscles. This was one of eight pictures Hilda Rix Nicholas had exhibited in the Salon of 1926. The Salon judges were impressed with her work, and she was made an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts as a result.
Around 1923, Hilda and Dorothy first travelled to Delegate on a painting trip. The small New South Wales town was situated just a few kilometres from the state border between New South Wales and Victoria. The area was ideal for landscape painting. The couple stayed in a property owned by the Wright family and soon Hilda became friendly with Ned Wright and his cousin Edgar. It was during their stay at Delegate with the Wrights that she completed one of her most well-known works, In Australia, His Land. The painting was a portrait of Ned Wright, the manager of the property at Delegate. He is depicted on horseback, with his pipe clasped between his teeth. His stance is casual, self-assured, and heroic, which was consistent with the up-beat nationalism of Australia at the time. The backdrop to the portrait is a panoramic view of an Australian pastoral landscape.
A similar setting can be seen in her 1920 work, Through the Gum Trees, Toongabbie. It is a commemorative depiction of the Australian landscape, which she held so dearly. For Hilda it was a way of paying homage to the land of her birth. It is a painting full of light and for Hilda it was all about recording the beautiful landscape. We can imagine the joy and pride she got from painting the scene as we look at the distant land through the trees which have cast giant shadows on the ground. She commented on why she wanted to spend her time depicting the Australian landscape, giving her reason as:
“…show the people [of Europe] what is possessed in a land of beauty where the colour scheme is so different, and which sent so many gallant men to the struggle for liberty…”
Another of her paintings, Three Sisters, Blue Mountains of that time captured the spectacular view of the Three Sisters. It is an unusual rock formation representing three sisters who according to Aboriginal legend were turned to stone. The character of the Three Sisters changes throughout the day and throughout the seasons as the sunlight brings out the magnificent colours. The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, ‘Meehni’, ‘Wimlah’ and ‘Gunnedoo’ lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry. As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come.
It was always in Hilda’s plans to return to Europe and take with her the collection of landscape works she had built up in the previous six years and so, after a successful exhibition of her work in Sydney in 1923 she packed up her things and was ready to return to France. In 1924, Hilda, along with her travelling companion, Dorothy Richmond, set sail, on the SS Ormonde, for France, with the intention of exhibiting her work. Also, aboard the vessel was the Australian Olympic team travelling to the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics and the Adelaide Chronicle of July 19th 1924 carried a fascinating story about an incident on the voyage:
“…The Australian artist, Mrs. Rix Nicholas, has been included amongst Australia’s aspirants for Olympic honours. This surprising information comes from a member of the team in a letter to his parents, received only this week. On the voyage home aboard the Ormonde it was noticed that one of the passengers paid particular attention to the athletes when they were on deck for daily training. Day by day she continued to study every member at work. Eventually she summoned sufficient courage to approach the manager (Mr Merrett), with the request that the team be lined up. He agreed, and Mrs. Nicholas selected a certain member as a model. Although somewhat embarrassed, he agreed to pose. When the team arrived in Paris it was learned that an artists’ competition was to be held, in conjunction with the Olympic games, and it was decided that Mrs. Nicholas should represent Australia as the Olympic candidate. The painting, when completed, will be entered m the competition for artists. It was on this account that she was included, and all were overjoyed at having a Woman representative…”
Hilda and Dorothy arrived in Paris in June 1924 and rented a studio in Montparnasse which had formerly been the home of the French painter Rosa Bonheur. In 1925, Hilda’s works were exhibited at the Georges Petit Galerie in Paris, which was a popular alternative exhibition space to the official Salon. Her paintings were much admired by the critics and public and the exhibition was deemed a great success. Her success in Paris was recorded in the February 28th 1925 edition of the Sydney newspaper, The World News, a newspaper published in Sydney, Australia from 1901 to 1955.
GIFTED VICTORIAN ARTIST.
SHOWS “AUSTRALIA” IN PARIS.
Fashioned of the stuff that good and true women are built of, there is little wonder in the cabled news that Mrs. Hilda Rix Nicholas, the clever painter from, the southern Australian State, Victoria, has made good as an artist in Paris, one of the great art centres of Europe. She is an intensely patriotic Australian, and, swayed by this fine feeling, recently gave an exhibition of her country’s typical scenery and atmosphere in a series of exquisite paintings that attracted the Parisian critics and the public. Notwithstanding that she was already represented in the Luxembourg National Gallery, the French Government purchased one of the group, entitled “In Australia,” for the same gallery, which has only two other Australian artists represented, viz.. [Arthur] Streeton and [Rupert]Bunny.
It would have been almost impossible to actually paint plein air in oils in the chaotic marketplaces, so Hilda resorted to completing many outdoor pencil and crayon sketches and then later fashioned a completed work when she returned to her hotel. Her painting style had changed and was now more in line with the Post Impressionists. An example of this is her work entitled MoroccoMarketplace with the Pile of Oranges. It is a good example of the changes that her style underwent in Morocco. Now she is painting with flowing brush strokes in thick slabs of impasto, a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. The scene is framed by buildings in the background and strewn across the foreground we see a large pile of oranges. The mountain women are wearing red striped skirts and bright haiks, the large pieces of cotton, silk, or wool cloth worn as an outer garment by some Moroccan women.
In 1914 she completed her painting entitled Men in the Market Place, Tangier. It is set during the late afternoon once all the shops had closed and in front of us are a group of men deep in conversation. She has cleverly used a much-reduced palette of pale blues, creams, browns, and yellows. We do not see the facial feature of the men as they are bathed in a dark grey shadow whilst the buildings behind them are bathed in late afternoon light. Hilda wrote a letter home describing how she had to endure the strong sunlight coming from the low sun. She wrote:
“…’The sun has sunken down in a daffodil bed – feeling he has well earned his rest. (But I have a bone to pick with him – he burnt my arms while sketching till they positively hurt – next time I’ll fool him & put gloves over them). The Moors have turned around from their haggling & marketing, gossiping & dreaming & murmuring to face the setting sun, their lips moving in prayer, their eyes beautiful to look upon – The pale yellow light giving a weird pallidness to the sheet of faces …”
Hilda completed a pastel drawing, Grand Marche, Tangier, which she later copied in oils. When it was exhibited in her show at Paris’ Galerie J. Chaine and Simonson in 1912 it was much admired and was bought by the French government for the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg. Centre stage in the depiction we see two women wearing red-and-white-striped cotton dresses or skirts, covered by white robes. Their legs are bare and they wear red shoes and socks. One of them pulls her white robe tighter across her upper body. The other, who has her back turned to the viewer, is carrying something on her back, which could be her young child. The art critics for the French edition of the New York Herald was impressed by Hilda Rix’s realist art, stating that in his opinion the figures in her compositions must surely have been sketched and later added to the finished work. He further commented:
“…’This artist has the ability to make lifelike images in remarkable compositions bringing outstanding realism and accurate impressions that capture the ‘types’ to be found among the Moroccan people…”
Not everybody loved the painting as the art critic of The Sydney Morning Herald commented that:
“…the drawing and colour are eccentric, after the post-impressionist manner” and described the central figure as “grotesque in its want of finish…”
The paintings which she did during her periods in North Africa led art historians to compartmentalise her as an Orientalist, a term which referred to the depiction of people or places in present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, by painters from the West. In addition to displaying the results of her trip at the Salon, she also had her Tangier works exhibited in 1913 and 1914 at the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, an art society which staged not only Orientalist paintings, but also encouraged the travel of French artists in the Far East. Her work was illustrated in the Notre Gazette, reflecting her emerging status as an important artist, and there were many column inches in the French about her exhibitions.
Her colourful paintings featuring life in Morocco highlighted the powerful North African light and concentrated on the people and their colourful clothing and sometimes the local architecture. It could be levied against her that many of her depictions were idealised versions of life in Morocco and steered clear of the more squalid aspects of the poverty that pervades the area and yet in Jeanette Hoorn’s 2012 biography, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix’s Moroccan Idyll : Art and Orientalism, she takes the opposite view, writing:
“…She did not seek out or embellish her pictures with the “orientalist” stereotypes that she had learned while growing up in Melbourne…In her writing and painting, she actively campaigned against what she saw as the fakery of “orientalism”. Her pastel drawings and oils strive to present an accurate account of the dress, manners and appearance of her subjects…”
Hoorn believed that Rix and her sister were, to a significant extent, counter-orientalist as they endeavoured to portray everyday life in Tangier as they found it, rather than presenting generalised views of the orient. Rix adopted a counter-orientalist position in lectures and articles upon her return to Australia. There were some that viewed her North African depictions as being somewhat abstract and flat and that could well be due to the influence Matisse had on her.
Matisse returned to Morocco in October of that year while it was two years later that Rix returned to North Africa, this time accompanied by her sister, who also sketched and wrote but whose main function was to be company for her sister and provide assistance and protection from enquiring bystanders while Hilda painted. Hilda was surrounded by spectators as she sketched and painted and her audience would, on occasions, halt the flow of the traffic
Another of her works from her second trip to Morocco was her 1914 painting entitled The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier. The searing North African sunlight illuminates the whitewashed buildings and the textured garments worn by the shepherds. Hilda Rix has used a striking palette of pinks, purples and oranges which is an acknowledgement of the Fauvism style of painting. Sadly, a house fire claimed many works from her African series of paintings.
Hilda and Elise returned to France in 1914. Around this time, whilst she was in her studio at Étaples, she completed a work entitled Grandmère. It is a plein air work which shows an elderly peasant woman in a beautiful garden setting affording the work a luminously colourful background. Many of Hilda’s paintings were bought by the French government, exhibited in the Salon and the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, and she was elected an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Hilda still had studios in Paris and one for the summer months spent in Étaples. The summer of 1914 she was at Étaples but the outbreak of World War I on July 28th 1914 resulted in Hilda, along with her sister Eliseand her mother evacuating to London. If that upheaval was not enough, Hilda had to endure a number of family tragedies. Her mother had been taken unwell during the Channel crossing and was admitted to hospital on arrival in England. Although Hilda’s mother was not fully recovered, she left hospital and went to recuperate at a nursing home. At the same time as the mother was extremely ill, Hilda’s sister Elise contracted typhoid and died on September 2nd 1914, aged 37. Hilda kept the death of her sister a secret from her mother who she believed was too ill to receive such sad news. Her mother slowly recovered and was later told of the death of her daughter. For the next eighteen months Hilda Rix painted few paintings presumably because she spent all her time looking after her mother and was too tired to concentrate on her paintings. She remembered the time saying:
“… I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other and walked like an old thing…”
Finally, in March 1916 Hilda’s mother, Elizabeth died.
Enter onto the scene, Major George Matson Nicholas, a soldier from Melbourne. George, usually referred to as Matson, was the eldest of six brothers. Before he enlisted in the Australian army in April 1915, he had been a schoolteacher. He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli and was wounded. Once recovered he was sent to France where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order at Pozieres, single-handedly capturing an enemy machine gun post. His regiment was based in Étaples, and according to Hilda’s stories, he found her paintings which she had left behind when she had had to quickly abandon her Étaples studios. Then, during his leave he travelled to London in pursuit of Hilda. They met in September 1916, love blossomed between the two, and on October 7th 1916 they married in St Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue in London.
Two days after the wedding Hilda completed a sketch of her husband. Three days after the wedding Major George Matson Nicholas returned to the front and assumed command of the 24th Battalion, He was shot and killed in action at the Normandy town of Flers on the Western Front on November 14th, aged 39.
Hilda was devastated and in a diary entry she wrote that she had lost the will to live. In her grief Hilda Rix Nicholas painted morbid images, symbolic of death and sacrifice in war which contrast markedly with the light and life of her French and Moroccan works. One such work was entitled These gave the world away which she completed in 1917.
Another of her war paintings was Pro Humanitate, the central panel of a triptych. It clearly depicts the futility of war and more personally for Hilda, the tragedy of her short marriage to Nicholas. The work comprised of three panels. The left-hand panel depicted an outdoor scene with a happy couple standing on top of a hill contemplating their future together; the central panel depicts a soldier husband giving his life for the cause of humanity. Hilda Rix has depicted the soldier at the moment of his death with arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose. The right-hand panel of the triptych portrays the heartbroken wife grieving and is watched over by the shadowy figure of her lost hero. Rix Nicholas offered her triptych Pro Humanitate, which depicted Australian soldiers, to the Australian War Memorial, which was building a collection of art commemorating the war, but it was rejected; the acquisitions committee described it as “of too intimate a character for inclusion in a public collection.
She painted a strange and moving painting around 1917 entitled Desolation. This work depicts an emaciated woman crying. She is shrouded in a black cloak and is squatted down staring at us. The setting is a battle-scarred landscape which lacks any vegetation. The National Gallery of Australia holds a charcoal drawing made as a study for the work. In a review, the Arts correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:
“…Desolation is almost gruesome in the grim delineation of the figure typifying all the widowed world in one lone woman. There she sits, lost in an awful reverie, over the stricken battlefield. The work is an epitome of wasteful ruin …”
Sadly, both Desolation and Pro Humanitate were destroyed in a fire.
The other day, I was looking through a list of famous nineteenth and twentieth Australian artists. The compiler of the list believed that the greatestAustralian painters were Sidney Nolan, Peter Booth, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Tom Roberts, Russel Drysdale, Frederick McCubbin, and John Olsen. I had heard of a number of these but what surprised me about the list was that it contained no female artists and so I decided to focus this blog on one such painter.
Emily Hilda Rix Nicholas was born on September 1st 1884, in the Australian city of Ballarat, some twenty-five miles north west of Melbourne. Her father, Henry Finch Rix was born in Woolwich, Kent on January 12th 1848, and her mother, Elizabeth Sutton, was born in Manchester, England in 1853. They had both emigrated as children with their families in the middle of the nineteenth century and the pair met and married in 1876. The couple had their first child, Elsie Bertha in 1877 and Hilda was born seven years later. Henry Rix was a mathematics teacher, an amateur poet and talented sportsman. He was a teacher at Bendigo, Ballarat and at Carlton. After a brief stint teaching in Ballarat, he was a mathematics master at Wesley College Melbourne for ten years between 1874 and 1884. He played for Carlton’s Australian Rules team and later became Inspector of Schools. In the book, A History of State Education in Victoria, Henry Rix was described as:
“…Of the men who have labored and passed away since 1900, Mr. H. F. Rix deserves to be especially remembered. Working under the result system, he foresaw the new day and strove to make it possible. His enthusiasm, his industry, his initiative, his research, and his sympathy made him a great inspector and a leader in educational reforms…”
Henry’s wife, Elizabeth, as well as being an accomplished singer, helped run a successful music business in Ballarat. She played an active part in the Austral Salon, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of women journalists in Melbourne in 1890 as a club for women writers. It then developed into a club whose aim was to introduce aspiring young musicians to an interested audience. She was also a talented amateur painter and had her own studio in Melbourne’s Flinders Street. Hilda and her sister Elsie being brought up in a musical household both learnt musical instruments and would perform at local shows. Elsie, like her mother, had a beautiful voice and performed at the Austral Salon. Hilda, as a small child, developed a love of drawing and painting and she and her sister would often design advertising posters for events at the Austral Salon.
Hilda attended Merton Hall High School, now Melbourne Girls Grammar School and although she was not an exceptional student she did excel in art under the tutelage of a Mr Mather. On leaving Merton Hall in 1902, eighteen-year-old Hilda enrolled on a three-year course at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where one of her teachers was the foremost Australian Impressionist, Frederick McCubbin. Notwithstanding his standing in the art world, Hilda was critical of McCubban’s teaching style which she referred to as being “vague persuasions”. However her biographer John Pigot, in his 2000 book, Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her Life and Art, writes that the creativity of individuals rather than imitating the style of any one school of painting; he (McCubban) modelled the importance of nationalistic ideas and subjects that would become so prominent in her later painting and McCubban’s work emphasised the painting’s subject over technical considerations.
Hilda Rix’s work was so good that, although still a student, she had some of her drawings shown at annual exhibitions at the Victorian Artists’ Society and the Austral Salon. To earn herself some money she worked as a professional illustrator submitting her work for inclusion in textbooks and periodicals. Hilda was always with pencil and sketch pad and in her early days would persuade extended family members to sit for her whilst she sketched their portraits. Studies in two sketchbooks from her early years in Melbourne are now held at the National Library of Australia and in 2012 one of Rix’s early sketchbooks survives and pages from it were reproduced in Karen Johnson’s book, In Search of Beauty: Hilda Rix Nicholas’ Sketchbook Art
For most would-be artists who lived away from Europe such as Americans and Australians the Holy Grail was to visit and study art in Paris and London. Hilda’s father Henry decided to offer her a chance to sample the European art world and, in 1906, planned a family trip to England which, being as he was an educator, would also afford him the opportunity to study British education reforms. All his plans came to nought as Henry died that year, on February 27th aged just fifty-eight. His death at such a relatively young age precluded his widow from receiving a pension. After many discussions the family managed to cobble together money from an inheritance, money earnt from their rental income from their home, and finally money Hilda and her mother raised by selling off their many works of art and they were able to set sail for England early in 1907.
For Hilda, going to Europe to study art was only part of the solution to her improving her artistic skills, she needed to find a good teacher who was willing to tutor her. Before she left Australia, she spoke to Arthur Streeton, the Australian landscape painter who was the leading member of the Heidelberg School, which was also referred to as Australian Impressionism. He suggested that on arrival in London she contacted John Hassall, an English illustrator, who, in 1901, had opened his own New Art School and School of Poster Design in Kensington. When Hassall looked at Hilda’s work he was impressed by its quality and agreed to mentor her. She remained with him until the end of 1907 at which time, she, her mother and sister left England and travelled to Paris and rented an apartment in Montparnasse
In Paris Hilda made many friends who were involved in the art world, such as fellow Australian, Emanuel Phillips Fox. Fox had arrived in Paris in 1896 and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he gained first prize in his year for design. The following year he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts where two of his tutors were William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme, who were considered the greatest artists of their time. He returned to Australia in 1890 but returned to London after receiving a commission to paint a scene of the landing of Captain Cook in Australia, which had the strange caveat that he must paint the work abroad.
The 1902 painting, The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, depicts a wholly European perspective on the inauguration of relations between the British visitors and the local Aboriginal men of Botany Bay. In a post-Federation display of nationalistic projection, it shows Captain Cook stepping onto Australian land as part of a shore party, heroically interceding between the threatening local men who brandish spears and his own marines who aim to shoot them.
Hilda Rix also met Fox’s wife, Ethel, an English-born Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter.
In Paris Hilda enrolled at the Académie Delécluse, operated by academic painter Auguste Joseph Delécluse. It was an atelier-style art school which was very supportive of women artists, and, in fact, it allotted more space to women students than to men. Men and women were trained separately, and it had two studios for women and only one for men. It was an extremely popular place to learn, especially among English and American women artists. At the height of its popularity, it was one of the four best-known ateliers in Paris. From this artistic establishment, Hilda moved to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where one of teachers was the Swiss-born illustrator Théophile Steinlen. She also studied at Académie Colarossi. It was around this time that Henri Matisse had a studio in the French capital and, as was the case with other professional artists, he also sometimes attended Colarossi’s to gain access to their models which he could use, free of charge, for his work. Matisse would also open the door of his studio to aspiring artists whom he would offer tuition and have them experiment with the techniques of Post Impressionism. It could well be that this is where Hilda first met Matisse.
Whilst living in Paris, the family would travel to Italy and other parts of France including Étaples, the fishing port in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France which was so popular with artists. In 1909 Hilda Rix met and became very friendly with a Dutch architecture student Wim Brat. Their initial love ended when Hilda realised how her fiancé was a “mother’s boy” and was completely dominated by her, a woman who strongly disapproved of Hilda. Inevitably, Hilda broke off the engagement. Notwithstanding this personal setback, Hilda continued with her painting and exhibited her work at the 1911 Paris Salon. The painting, Return of the Hunt, was completed by Hilda in 1911 and depicts a woman on horseback in chocolate brown leather gloves with a large hare slung over her back.
Hilda Rix, accompanied by her sister and mother, took up residence in the rural art colony of Étaples the summer of 1910. Here she met Henry Ossawa Tanner, a well-established American artist in France, who was viewed as one of the leaders of the Étaples artists’ colony and a member of the art organization, the Société Artistique de Picardie. It was not just France and Italy which seduced artists, many started to cross the Mediterranean to paint and sketch in North Africa. Hilda Rix made two painting trips to the African continent. The first was in January 1912 when she travelled with a group of artists, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, and his wife, who were visiting Morocco via Madrid, Cordoba, and finally Algeciras, they had hoped to take a boat to Tangiers but the weather was too bad, which forced the travellers to Gibraltar for what proved a rough crossing to the Moroccan port.
Tanner being an African American and Rix being a female made them unconventional and exceptional travel and work companions on this journey. They stayed in Tangier and the northern port town of Tétouan. Matisse and Hilda Rix stayed in the Grand Hôtel Villa de France for most of February and March. They both painted views from the windows of their rooms at the hotel. Both of them worked on portraits and would use the same models and utilised an unused room in the hotel which the owner allocated to them. The room became a temporary studio space.
An example of the similar portraiture was Hilda’s painting, Hamido Sleeps and Matisse’s work, Moroccan Amido. In both cases the young model was a stable-hand at their Tangiers hotel.
In Matisse’s painting the young man stands easily and naturally, his slim long-legged form is emphasised by the narrow canvas format the artist has used. In the painting, Matisse captures the dark skin, the bright white shirt, the pure colours of the waistcoat and short trousers.
Hilda loved Tangier and spent hours sketching and painting in the open-air markets. She wrote home about how she loved Tangier and its market, writing:
“…Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me completely – have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh how I do love it all! … Oh the sun is shining I must out to work…”
Hilda Rix was fascinated by the buying and selling in the marketplace as well as the multitude of colours of the clothes worn by the people. In a letter home, dated February 12th 1912, she wrote:
“…”See how most of them are covering their faces – They have mostly cream draperies & perhaps orange waistcoats and little tight mauve green trousers – (tight at ankle) – Some may be wonderfully dressed under[neath]…”.
In a postcard she sent home a week later she wrote:
“…’Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me absolutely – Have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh I do love it all! …”
The artist I am featuring today is the South African-born, Australian portrait and landscape artist Florence Ada Fuller. She was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1867, one of several children of Louisa and John Hobson Fuller. As a child, she emigrated with her family to Melbourne. In 1883, aged sixteen years of age, Florence attended the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and for two years between 1884 and 1886 she worked part-time as a nanny.
During this period she received artistic tuition from her English-born uncle Robert Hawker Dowling, a painter of orientalist and Aboriginal subjects, as well as portraits and miniatures. He was Melbourne’s most sought-after portraitist of the early to mid 1880’s
One of his portraits was the 1885 one of Sir Henry Loch, later 1st Baron Loch of Drylaw, who was Governor of Victoria from1884 to 1889. This portrait was completed by 1885 and shown in exhibitions in that year.
In 1885, through the good auspice of her uncle, Florence, then eighteen years old, received a commission from Ann Fraser Bon, the Scottish-born philanthropist and a formidable woman who fought strenuously to protect the limited rights of Aboriginal people. She asked Florence to complete a formal oil on canvas portrait of William Barak, the leader of the Wurundjeri people, who was also an artist, and who became an advocate and leader in the wider Aboriginal community. The work was acquired by the State Library of Victoria. It is interesting to note how two art critics viewed the finished portrait. One complimented the way in which Fuller avoided romanticising Aboriginal people while another critic said that in his opinion the portrait was an idealisation of the man rather than a truthful portrait.
In 1886, Robert Dowling, returned to England and Florence gave up her work as a governess and decided to concentrate on her art, opening up her own studio in Melbourne. For all aspiring artists, to get a wealthy patron is an ideal start to their artistic career and Florence Fuller procured one by a strange turn of fate. Her uncle who had completed the portrait of Sir Henry Loch had started on a portrait of his wife but had not completed it by the time he went on his visit to London. Sadly, in 1886, aged fifty-nine, he died shortly after arriving in England. Florence was then asked by Sir Henry Loch to complete his wife’s portrait, which she did and Lady Loch was so pleased with the end result, she became Fuller’s patron.
Florence later received tuition from the Australian landscape painter, Jane Sutherland. Sutherland, who had been born in New York, emigrated to Sydney, Australia in 1864 when she was eleven years of age. She was one of the founding members of the plein-air movement in Australia, and a member of the Heidelberg School, an Australian art movement which has often been described as Australian Impressionism. Sutherland was also one of few professional female artists and had to constantly strive for equality and fought hard to further the professional reputation of female artists during the late nineteenth century.
In 1888, Fuller completed a pair of realism paintings featuring poverty. They were entitled Weary and Desolate and both featured child poverty against the backdrop of a ship berthed at the docks in Melbourne. The powerful imagery of the painting, Weary, depicting a homeless child was a potent declaration on the disadvantaged in sharp contrast to the booming economy of the Australian city and although similar paintings by English Victorian realist artists were common this artistic work of urban realism was a shaming of Australian society and its injustice and as such, was very unusual. Look how Fuller has included the tattered advertising hoarding, its message frayed and in shreds weathered by time and the elements almost making its messages unintelligible. The title of the work is based on the poem, Weariness, by Longfellow with its opening lines:
“…O little feet! that such long years
Must wander on through hopes and fears,
Must ache and bleed beneath your load…”
At an exhibition of the Victorian Artists’ Society in 1889 Fuller won a prize for the best portrait by an artist under the age of 25. Another portrait of a child by Fuller which has a happier connotation is her 1890 work Inseparables which depicts a child reading her book. The joy the child gets from reading is depicted in this warm painting. One of the interesting things about studying a painting is our “take” on it. A good example of this is how this painting was viewed by two very different experts. The work was shown as part of The Edwardians exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia and the curator saw the depiction as a “love of reading”. On the other hand, the Australian art historian Dr Catherine Speck looked upon the work as being all about “subversion” because it portrayed a young woman reading and by doing so “gaining knowledge” rather than the stereotypical role of a family and home maker.
Another of Fuller’s paintings which focused on the enjoyment of reading was her work Lady in a Wicker Chair. In the depiction, we see the lady leaning forward, as if someone is coming into the room where she is reading. She ensures that she doesn’t lose the place in her book by marking it with her hand. Look how Fuller has made sure the attention of the viewer is solely on the lady by darkening and blurring the detail of the background.
In 1892, she, accompanied by her married sister Christie, left Australia, and travelled to Cape Town to recuperate from an illness. She and her sister were the guests of her uncle Sir Thomas Ekins Fuller, a member of the Parliament of the Cape of Good Hope and it was through him that she was introduced to Cecil Rhodes, the British businessman, mining magnate and South African politician, who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. She left South Africa in 1894 but before she went she completed a painting depicting the home of Cecil Rhodes. Fuller returned in 1899 and had a number of meetings with Rhodes in order to put together studies for five portraits of him.
In 1894 Florence travelled to Europe. Her first port of call was Paris where she enrolled at the Académie Julian, where one of her tutors was William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It was at a time when French art schools had just recently opened their doors to women. This was not a popular move with many of the male artists, who felt threatened and the aspiring female painters were often held in contempt by some of the male tutors. The female students at the Académie often suffered from lowly and congested conditions. Whilst there, she exhibited her work at the Paris Salon in 1896 and again in 1897. Her works were also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1897 and later in 1904, as well as being hung at exhibitions at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Manchester City Art Gallery.
She returned to Australia in 1904 and for the next five years lived in Perth, where her sister Amy lived. Fuller held an exhibition of 41 works in Perth in 1905, and the newspaper proprietor Winthrop Hackett described one of her paintings, Early Morning, which was later purchased for the Art Gallery of Western Australia:
“…it is probably the greatest success in the domain of pure impressionism … because of its pure tone, its admirable perspective and its strongly vivid reproduction of that mysterious and evanescent but always brilliant colouring that is momentarily lent by the sunrise…”
In 1905, she completed a painting entitled A Golden Hour. When the National Gallery of Australia bought the painting in 2013 they described it as:
“…a masterpiece … giving us a gentle insight into the people, places and times that make up our history…”
The depiction is of a tranquil early evening, the end of a beautiful day. The sun is slowly setting and it gives off a warm glow over the xanthorrhoea, grasses and wildflowers, and lights up the trunks of the white gum trees. In the midground we see a couple walking side by side through the wildflowers towards the valley. Look at the mountains and the sky in the background which have been painted in many pink tones, adding tranquillity to the scene. If we close our eyes we can sense this calmness, this serenity, and soon our imagination even allows us to hear the sound of birds as they circle the gum trees. The setting of the landscape is the Darling Ranges in Western Australia, and the couple we see in the painting are John Winthrop Hackett, businessman, philanthropist and owner of the West Australian newspaper, and his new wife Deborah Vernon Hackett, née Drake-Brockman, who had married Hackett in 1905, when she was just eighteen years of age, much to the horror of her family. When exhibited in October 1905 the art critic for The Western Australian newspaper called the painting the pièce de résistance of Fuller’s exhibition. Many of the art critics of the time were also complimentary with regards to the work, citing the expertly balanced composition and the masterful way Fuller had depicted the hills and sky but most of all praised ‘the wonderful light effects which they referred to as ‘the golden glories of late afternoon’.
The lady depicted in A Golden Hour also appeared in another painting by Florence Fuller, entitled Portrait of Deborah Vernon Hackett, which she completed around 1908. Hackett was born in West Guildford, Western Australia, in 1887, she was the daughter of surveyor Frederick Slade Drake-Brockman and heroine Grace Vernon Bussell and younger sister of Edmund Drake-Brockman. On August 3rd 1905, at the age of 18, she married Sir John Winthrop Hackett who was forty years her senior much to the annoyance of her family. He was a newspaper proprietor, newspaper editor, and prominent Western Australian politician. Fuller depicted Hackett compassionately. The portrayal capturing the young woman’s grace and charm. But she also conveyed the complexity of the twenty-one-year old woman’s character through the contrast between the femininity of her soft, pale-blue dress and the dramatic black hat. She gazes directly at us. It is a somewhat piercing expression questioning why we are staring at her.
Florence Fuller joined the local theosophy society in Perth in May 1905, after attending a talk given by the enigmatic theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater. Fuller’s time was taken up by the local branch of the society variously holding the positions of secretary, treasurer, and librarian of the local branch. She went on to paint many portraits of the leaders of the Theosophical Society. In 1911, she travelled to London and three years later journeyed to India and visited Adyar, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society.
Later that year Fuller returned to NSW and settled in Mosman where she mainly painted miniatures. In 1920, the Society of Women Painters in New South Wales established a School of Fine and Applied Arts, with Florence Fuller appointed as the inaugural teacher of life classes. Fuller began to suffer from mental illness, which deteriorated over time, and in 1927, at the age of sixty, she was committed to Gladesville Mental Asylum where she died nearly two decades later, on July 17th 1946, aged seventy-nine. She was buried at Rookwood Cemetery, New South Wales.
In my last two blogs I have looked at the life of the Australian painter, Frederick McCubbin. I looked at how he started painting and how, in his twenties, he became an accomplished artist who had begun to exhibit some of his work. I talked about the influence some of his tutors had on his art, such as Eugène von Guérard, Thomas Clark and George Folingsby and how he had been influenced by his contemporary artistic friends, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder. However in this third and final blog about McCubbin I want to introduce you to another person who was to have such a great sway on his life and inspire him to even greater things. The person in question was Annie Lucy Moriarty who he had met in 1884 at an artist’s picnic which was being held in Blackburn, an eastern suburb of Melbourne.
Annie Lucy Moriarty was ten years younger than McCubbin. She was born in August 1865 in Melbourne but came from an Irish family who had immigrated to Australia from County Clare. She was described as a striking young lady with long dark brown hair and soft smiling brown eyes. However it was not just her exquisite looks that attracted McCubbin. It was her intelligence, her vivaciousness and her “full of life” attitude which appealed to Frederick. She was always very supportive of Frederick. She was frugal and had a great organisational skill, all of which would be qualities needed to support her artist husband and their large family. Frederick and Annie courted for four years and at the end of their courtship, on March 5th 1889, they were married in the Jesuit church of St Ignatius, Richmond, an inner suburb of Melbourne. McCubbin’s friend and fellow artist Tom Roberts was the couple’s best man. At the time of the wedding Frederick was thirty-four years old and Annie was twenty-four. The happy couple would, during the next seventeen years, go on to have seven children, four boys, Louis Frederick, Alexander, Hugh Montgomery and John (Sydney) and three girls, Mary, Nora Sheila and Kathleen. Mary sadly died a week before her third birthday when she fell out of her push chair and hit her head on the cobbled street. The first-born child, Louis, named after his father’s friend and fellow artist, Louis Abrahams, was born in March 1890 and became an artist in his own right and would later become Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and their last-born child was Kathleen who arrived in November 1906 when her father had reached the grand-old age of 50. One can just imagine what a spirited household it was and an insight into the McCubbin happy family life was given by Frederick’s youngest daughter’s 1988 book Autumn Memories: A McCubbin Family Album, by Kathleen Mangan (née McCubbin). In it she wrote:
“…The McCubbins were a lively and ebullient family, each one of them with their own distinct characters. Louis, the eldest, was ‘conscientious and good natured’, ‘the most responsible member of the family’. Alexander was ‘emotional and creative’, with dark complexion and hair. Hugh was ‘practical and serious’, while Sydney was ‘an inventor, with a head full of crazy ideas, who liked to laugh a lot’ and was called ‘Ginger’ because of his hair. Sheila was ‘sensitive, creative and kind hearted, an artist who did not always defend herself against the harshness of the world…”
Frederick and Annie were extremely happy and this was commented on by his friend Arthur Stretton in a letter, dated December 1896, to Tom Roberts in which he recalls a visit he made to the McCubbin’s New Street house in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton:
“…I walked over to the Proff McCubbin’s yesterday & had tea with him in his garden—Mrs Proff in a harmonious yellow gown—all the little Proffs buzzing round—the garden of fruit trees & the haystack—The Prof[f] is a married man very happily & securely married…”
“The Proff” was the nickname Frederick McCubbin had been given by his friends during his student days at the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria, because of his frequent bouts of philosophising, while Tom Roberts was nicknamed ‘Bulldog’.
Around this time McCubbin focused a lot of his work on people’s struggle for survival. His paintings were both narrative and social realism works, which told of the struggle new immigrants, had in order to gain a foothold in society.
One such painting was entitled On the Wallaby Track, which he completed in 1896. Around this period in the history of Melbourne there was the only too familiar story of “boom and bust”. By 1880 the population of the city was two hundred and eighty thousand. Because of the vastness of the wilderness around the city, it was continually expanding outwards which meant that the area of the city made it one of the largest in the world. Trains and trams criss-crossed the city. Everybody wanted to live in this prosperous area and within ten years the population had almost doubled. Speculators made their fortune on land deals and the banks were lending money out willy-nilly, some would say irresponsibly as if there was no tomorrow and as we have recently found to our own cost, the good life doesn’t last forever. The Melbourne “boom” had to end and indeed it did in 1891 when a dramatic financial crash hit the economy. Thousands of people who had invested unwisely lost their savings, businesses collapsed and throughout the 1890’s it was thought that the Melbourne unemployment was around 20%.
The title of the painting derives from the term “on the wallaby” or “on the wallaby track” which fifty years earlier, referred to routes migrant workers took through outlying areas in search of seasonal work. These were the underclass of society, who sought casual work on farms, travelling about on foot, carrying their swag, their bundle of personal belongings, on his back. These were the swagmen. When the financial crash hit Melbourne more and more people had lost their jobs and were searching for employment and it was not unusual to see the swagman “on the wallaby”. In this painting we see a swagman brewing some tea in a billy can over an open fire. His wife, with their baby, lies on the ground, propped up against a large tree. She is exhausted after the long journey during which she had the added burden of having to carry their baby.
The setting for the painting was the forest area close to the Melbourne suburb of Brighton where McCubbin and his family lived. Of all the artists McCubbin studied, his favoured landscape painter and the one who influenced him the most was the French artist, John-Baptiste Corot and it is believed that there are traces of the Frenchman’s style in this painting. Frederick’s wife, Annie, posed for the painting and the baby, who lies asleep across her legs, was Frederic’s son, John who had been born the same year as the painting was completed. The swagman was modelled by Frederick’s brother-in-law, Michael Moriarty.
Another of McCubbin’s works I really like is one entitled Down on His Luck, which he completed in 1899. The setting for the work was their Box Hill Artist’s camp and in the work we see a very despondent, down-on-his-luck gold prospector sitting by his camp fire. McCubbin’s friend and fellow artist Louis Abrahams posed for the painting. The prospector sits on a fallen tree and stares into the fire. His search for gold had proved fruitless and he is ready to “throw in the towel”.
In Jane Clark and Bridget Whitelaw’s 1985 book Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond they quote an 1889 review of this work in which the art critic had written about the character we see before us:
“…The face tells of hardships, keen and blighting in their influence, but there is a nonchalant and slightly cynical expression, which proclaims the absence of all self-pity…”
The National Gallery of Victoria in its description of the painting believed that the work was of great cultural importance and they wrote:
“… For city workers, living and working in crowded, dirty conditions, McCubbin’s image of the prospector offered an alternative to the oppressive poverty experienced in the slums of Melbourne. Although the bushman is ‘down on his luck’, he has a certain nobility. He is his own man, independent of the demands of a ‘boss’, he breathes the fresh air of the bush and is free to make his own decisions…”
The McCubbin family had moved about around the Melbourne suburbs. They started married life in a rented property in Hawthorn. As the family expanded there was a need to move to a larger house and so, at the end of 1893, with Annie pregnant for the fourth time, they moved to a larger rented place in Blackburn. Shortly after the tragic death of their daughter Mary, the family moved to an even larger property in Brighton. Annie McCubbin was taken ill with bronchitis in 1900 and this quickly deteriorated into pneumonia and it was on her doctor’s advice that Frederick, that summer, during the Christmas holiday break, took his wife and family away from the polluted atmosphere of Melbourne city life to a small town of Woodened, forty miles north west of Melbourne, where they rented a cottage for a few weeks. Here his wife was able to reap the benefit of the clearer, cleaner air of the Mount Macedon area.
One day, whilst the couple relaxed and explored the area near to the summit of Mount Macedon, they came across an idyllic old-fashioned cottage with its red gabled roof and attic windows, which at the time was known as “Dillon’s Summer Residence”. They fell in love with it and its four acres of land and before the end of 1901 they had bought it for five hundred pounds. For them, this was a dream come true and, from that day on, they lovingly referred to their first owned home as Fontainebleau. The one problem they had with this purchase was that it was too far for Frederick to commute by train on a daily basis to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, where he was Master of the School of Design, and so he spent weekends and holidays at Fontainebleau but during the week he went to live at The Rose of Australia hotel which was being managed by his mother and his two sisters Wilhelmina and Helen.
Above Fontainebleau in the bush land of Mount Macedon, there was the estate of Ard Choille, (Gaelic words meaninghigh wood), which was also the war cry of the 16th century Clan McGregor. It was here that his neighbour William Peter McGregor had built his Ard Choille estate, which was laid out like one of the great estates of Scotland, with its man-made lakes trout amd salmon hatcheries. McGregor had raised deer, pigs and goats as well as importing the finest highland bulls from Scotland and to look after all this he had a number of cottages built for his workers. Frederick McCubbin loved the setting of his new home and the surrounding area and it was here in 1904, on the bush lands of Mount Macedon, just a little above his home that he produced one of his greatest works, The Pioneer. McCubbin painted the work en plein air. The setting for the work is a view of land, Ard Choille thatwas once owned by William Peter McGregor, who died in 1899.
The man in the left hand panel of the work, presumably the husband of the lady in the foreground, is making some tea on the open fire. Behind him we see the covered wagon that the couple have travelled in during their search for their piece of land. The decision has now been made. This is their land. In the foreground, the wife sits on the ground. She is lost in thought. I wonder if she is contemplating their move. Has she some reservations about moving to this unconquered God-forsaken territory? Is she worried about the isolation? Frederick’s wife Annie, who was thirty-nine at the time, was the model for the wife in the painting and Patrick Watson, a local gardener was the model for the husband. The baby in the painting was Frederick and Annie’s fifth child John (Sydney) who had been born in June 1896, the year that the painting was completed.
In the middle panel of the triptych, the setting is still the forest area of the bush but instead of the covered wagon in the background we now have a small whitewash cottage with smoke emanating from the chimney. The scene is a step forward in time for the two intrepid colonists. They have staked their claim on the land and built themselves a cottage. The cottage in the painting was one which was actually on McCubbin’s neighbour’s property. It was the cottage which belonged to McGregor’s manager, who looked after the estate’s prize bulls. Although we have jumped ahead in time, the three characters we see in this middle panel are the same ones who featured in the left hand panel – the free selector, his wife and son. The free selectorin this painting was modelled by James Edward, a professional commercial artist, who was known to McCubbin. He is sitting on a tree, which he has just felled, and the area seems more open, highlighting the clearance work the free selector had accomplished. Annie McCubbin once again modelled for the free selector’s wife and as a sign of the passage of time, the baby we saw in the left hand panel has now grown to a young boy which we see her holding. The boy was modelled by Jimmy Watson, the nephew of Patrick Watson who posed for the husband in the left-hand panel. The wife in this middle section seems more relaxed and maybe all her worries she had when we saw her in the left–hand panel have now proved to be unfounded. There is a very relaxed and contented aura about the depiction seen in this middle panel. The couple had come to the bush, seen it and conquered it.
The right hand panel of the triptych is more of a mystery. Time once gain has passed since the depiction in the middle panel. In this painting there is just a solitary figure kneeling before a wooden cross in the ground. Patrick Watson once again modelled for this figure. It seems as if he is touching it lovingly. McCubbin would never explain the meaning of this last panel so it is up to us to form our own ideas. Could it be the son we saw being cradled by his mother in the first two panels returning to his mother’s or father’s grave or it could it be earlier in time and it is the free selector we saw in the other panels come to pay his respects to his late wife. All we do know is that a lot of time has passed since the depiction in the middle panel for where there was once a solitary cottage in the background, there is now a vista of a city to be seen through the trees. The minute cityscape had not been in the original work when it was exhibited in his one-man show in 1904. The painting did not sell and McCubbin’s friend, Walter Withers suggested to McCubbin that if he painted a view of Melbourne in the background of the right-hand panel then it may find a buyer.
McCubbin added the view of Melbourne and, sure enough, the painting sold. The buyer was the National Gallery of Victoria. The fascinating fact for me about this work is that to paint it outdoors, McCubbin had to dig a trench in his garden, into which he lowered the huge canvas.
In May 1907, a year after his last child, Kathleen, was born, McCubbin set off on a trip to England where it gave him a chance to be reunited with his brother James. James, who was a ship’s purser, was killed eight years later in May 1915 whilst serving on the passenger liner, S.S.Lusitania, when it was torpedoed by German U-Boats. Frederick also met up with his artist friend Tom Roberts who was based in London and the two of them toured the city’s art galleries. McCubbin was impressed with what he saw, especially the works of Turner which would influence his later works. He returned home in November. A month after returning to Melbourne, whilst still retaining their family home of Fontainebleau, he rented Carlesberg, a colonial-style house in South Yarra which had a vast garden which culminated at the banks of the Yarra River.
McCubbin continued to paint either at his home in South Yarra or at Fontainebleau as well as retaining his position as Drawing Master at Melbourne’s National Gallery. However at the end of 1916 his health began to fail, due to frequent asthmatic attacks and he had to take a six month leave of absence from the Gallery. This bout of ill health did not stop him painting and his last paintings which he completed in 1917 was The Lime Tree (Yarra River from Kensington Road, South Yarra). Kathleen McCubbin wrote about the painting and the setting for the work. She wrote:
“…I always remember the name of this work as The Lime Tree and it really has a lot of sentimental value for me because it was painted from the side verandah of our house in South Yarra, overlooking the quarry. That has all disappeared now. In those times there were quarries beside the Yarra and an old stone crusher in Richmond, opposite our place. This particular painting is also of very great sentimental value for me because it was the last painting my father ever painted and it was not long after its completion that he died...”
In Andrew Mackenzie’s 1990 biography of McCubbin, entitled Frederick McCubbin 1855-1917: ‘The Proff’ and his art, he quotes Kathleen Mangan (née McCubbin) reminiscences:
“…I remember coming home from school and I used to walk up Rockley Road with school friends and take the short cut across to our place, across the paddocks. I would see my father sitting on the verandah in his dressing-gown and black velvet beret, which he always put on when he went outside at that stage of his life, and he would be painting this picture of The Lime Tree. He was really in very poor health at that time, but he persisted and he kept on painting it until it was finished. This was the last painting he ever painted, and it was sold. I remember it being sold to Thomas Lothian, the publisher, but then he sold it and I lost track of it…”
Frederick McCubbin died on December 20th 1917 of a heart attack, thought to have been brought on by his frequent asthmatic attacks and pneumonia. He was just 62 years of age. Frederick’s wife of twenty-eight years, Annie, was devastated at her loss and their daughter Kathleen remembered her mother during that sad time and wrote:
“…She was pale and listless and sat around for a good part of the day, just staring into space. She was truly lost without him…”
I hope you have enjoyed my last three blogs charting the life of this great Australian artist and that I have somehow enticed you to visit the Australia exhibition at London’s Royal Academy where you will be able to stand before the amazing painting, The Pioneer.
I have used many sources to put these blogs together but the two main ones which give you a much fuller look at McCubbin’s life were:
When I left off Frederick McCubbin’s life story in my last blog the year was 1884 and he was twenty-nine years of age and attending the National Gallery of Victoria School of Art. His original tutor at this establishment had been Eugène von Guérard, but on his retirement at the end of 1881, the Master of the School of Art was George Folingsby. Folingsby had been born in Wicklow, Ireland and had studied art in New York and Munich and had won many medals for his works in America and Europe. He was eventually persuaded to come to Australia by the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria by offering him a lucrative painting commission and the post as examiner of art teachers. Later, in June 1882 he accepted the post of ‘Master in the School of Painting’ at the National Gallery School and that September, Folingsby became director of the National Gallery. Folingsby would go on to have a great influence on McCubbin’s art.
One of Frederick McCubbin’s closest friends at the time was fellow artist Tom Roberts whom he had met whilst studying at the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria in 1874. Roberts was also to influence McCubbin’s art for he had been brought up close to Studley Park in the Kew suburb of Melbourne and he and McCubbin would often go exploring the area and would paint en plein air in this beautiful and wild part of the country. However painting plein air was not everybody’s favoured style. McCubbin’s tutor Folingsby had been strictly a studio painter and saw no merit in plein air painting. He never stopped his students working in the open air but was adamantly against such a practice and in James MacDonald’s book, The art of Frederick McCubbin, he quotes Folingsby’s as saying:
“…the man who paints landscape in the open air is a fool…”
McCubbin and Roberts were apart for four years between 1881 and 1885 when the latter went to London and enrolled on a three-year course at the Royal Academy Schools in July 1881. Whilst away from Australia, Roberts had also taken the chance to travel around Europe visiting Spain and Venice. On Tom Roberts’ return to Melbourne in April 1885 the two friends resumed their friendship. It was also a time when the two artists decided to continue with their great artistic love of outdoor painting and between them they hatched a plan to set up an artist’s camp in the wilderness where the surroundings would become their artistic inspiration and so, in the summer of 1885/6, their plan came to fruition.
The site they chose for their camp was Box Hill some nine miles east of Melbourne and there in the paddock of land owned by David Houston at Damper Creek they pitched their tents. Although their camp was in the “bush”, less than a mile away there was a nearby railway station, which had opened three years earlier, and it made the journey from Melbourne easy and soon a number of other young artists joined Roberts and McCubbin’s weekend and summer camps. One such visitor was Jane Sutherland, the New York-born Australian landscape painter and pioneer of the plein air painting movement in Australia. She was to become a vociferous champion of female artists and fought hard to have them accepted and for them to have equal professional standing with their male colleagues. Whilst at the Box Hill Artists’ camp Roberts and McCubbin produced numerous works although Roberts was by far the most prolific. So, what was it like at this artists’ camp? There is a letter in the archives of the National Gallery of Victoria from a Mme. Nancy Elmhurst Goode, a visitor to the camp, who describes what she saw:
“…In the vicinity of the Homestead belonging to the Houstons was a patch of wild bush, tall young saplings with the sun glistening on their leaves and streamers of bark swaying, groups of tea–tree, dogwood and tall dry grasses. A fire was lighted and we were invited to share an alfresco lunch, The Don (Abrahams) earnestly frying eggs on a piece of tin, the Prof (McCubbin) busy with billy tea, and the Bulldog (Roberts) joyously cutting bread and butter and taking full command…”
Tom Roberts captured life at the camp in his painting entitled The Artists’ Camp, which he completed in 1886 and can now be found in the National Gallery of Victoria. In the work we see Frederick McCubbin seated by their tent drinking his billy tea while Louis Abrahams is bending over the camp fire grilling chops. There is a relaxed and intimate atmosphere about the scene and we cannot doubt the happy camaraderie that was felt between the artists.
One notable work produced by McCubbin during this time was entitled Lost, sometimes referred to as The Lost Child. The painting by McCubbin is based on a true event of a twelve-year old girl, Clara Crosbie, being lost in the bush. The Argus newspaper reported the incident in May 1885:
“…In the almost trackless wilds of the Lilydale district, intersected by reedy ferns, like an Indian swamp, Clara Crosbie, a girl of 12, was lost nearly a month ago … A town-bred girl of warm affections and quick impulses, she pined in the unaccustomed solitudes of the bush, and she resolved to find her way, though she did not know her way home…”
Clara Crosbie was found alive after being lost in the bush for three weeks.
The young girl we see in the painting, although she has lost her way home, seems fixated by the mistletoe she has collected and which is now held in her apron. There is no sense of fear about her demeanour. Maybe she has yet to realise that she is lost and is still fascinated by the wilderness all around her. I particularly like the way McCubbin has depicted the peeling bark on the trees. There is a light and airiness about the depicted location which gives one no sense of foreboding about the possibility of having got oneself lost. The girl in McCubbin’s painting was his younger sister, Mary Anne, affectionately known as “Dolly”. This is a beautiful work of art which brings out the ingenuousness and vulnerability of the young girl who finds herself alone in the wilderness. People who viewed the work were reminded of the dangers of straying into the bush and becoming disorientated and in some ways reinforced the belief of people, who had left their home back in Britain, that life in colonial Australia was a challenge.
All the time the two were together McCubbin was learning from Roberts especially when it came down to the effect the changing light had on the landscape, à la Impressionism. The following summer (1886/7) McCubbin, Roberts along with two other young artists, Louis Abrahams and Arthur Streeton, rented a cottage near Mentone, a small town which lay about fifteen miles south-east of Melbourne. This was a small picturesque coastal town, which had derived its name from the French Riviera seaside resort of Menton. It was here in 1887 that McCubbin completed his beautiful work Moyes Bay, Beaumaris, sometimes known as The Shore, which is now housed in the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. The site of the painting was often referred to as Moysey’s Bay after James Bickford Moysey and his wife Susannah, who, in 1845, were the first European settlers at Beaumaris, (named after the North Wales coastal town, close to where I live). When the painting was exhibited the art review of the October 7th 1887 edition of the Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, commented:
“…There is a breezy out-of-door feeling about Mr McCubbin’s ‘The Shore’, the tone of the picture strikes us as not warm enough for the season indicated by the attire of the figures. Although the work is impressionist in its general character, the execution of the broken rock, shingle, herbage, and pools of water in the foreground betokens attention to detail…”
Despite the “Impressionist” tag it was given the reviewer is quick to draw our attention to the detail McCubbin has incorporated into his painting. It is full of features, such as the rock pools and the various sea grasses, which we see in the foreground, as well as the well-crafted reflection of the two main characters depicted in the painting, the woman and the boy.
In 1889 this band of artistic friends decided to hold an exhibition of their work. Many put their names down as willing to exhibit but as the date of the exhibition neared, many potential contributors dropped out. This then put pressure on the main protagonists, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, and Charles Conder who between them exhibited almost 150 pieces. Frederick McCubbin, was a minor contributor putting forward five of his works for the exhibition. The majority of the works were plein air landscapes but there were also a few cityscapes, still-lifes, portraits and genre pieces. The month before the exhibition opened was chaotic with Roberts, Streeton and Conder having to hurriedly complete more works to fill the gaps caused by the withdrawal of some of the other artists. The problem of course was that July in Victoria was a wet period of the year and so many of the exhibited works had a “rainy” feel about them, such as Charles Conder’s aptly named work, Windy and Wet.
The location of the exhibition was the Buxton Rooms gallery in Swanston Street, Melbourne and the title given to the exhibition, which opened on August 17th, was the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. There were 182 paintings in all on display. The title of the exhibition derived from the size of the works (9 inches x 5 inches), which were exhibited, most of which had been painted on cedar cigar-box lids. On the title page of the catalogue was a quotation from the French painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme:
“…When you draw, form is the important thing; but in painting, the first thing to look for is the general impression of colour…”
In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the cover of which was designed by Charles Conder, there was an explanation of the style of the work on show:
“…An effect is only momentary … Two half-hours are never alike … it has been the object of the artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain the first record of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character…”
All the oil sketches on display had been swiftly painted en plein air. What the artists had been aspiring to was a ‘truth to nature’ feel about their works. They had initially made quick sketches and then added the oil paints and this they believed would encapsulate instantaneous impressions of what they observed. In some cases they had an unfinished appearance about them but the artists involved maintained they were simply impressions but were completed works. The public loved what they saw but the press critics were divided. The art critic of the The Evening Standard was enthused by what she saw and urged people to attend, saying:
“…These daring young Impressionists, who are making an effort to engage amateur art-lovers by presenting, for the first time in Australia, a series of their ‘impressions’, aim at conveying in their pictures a broad effect of tone and colour without the eye being attracted by detail. Some of the ‘impressions’ were caught and painted in a quarter of an hour…Persons interested in art should not fail to visit it. If they have no other satisfaction it will be again to have ocular demonstration of what an artist’s ‘impression’ means…”
However more critical of what he saw was James Smith, the leading art critic of the time and the art critic of The Argus newspaper. Not only that but he was also a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria. His vehement and vociferous condemnation of the works on show was brought about because of his belief that they were unfinished works and he was affronted by the artists involved for trying to pass them of as the finished product. Of them and the artists, he wrote:
“… The modern impressionist asks you to see pictures in splashes of colours, in slap-dash brushwork, and in sleight-of-hand methods of execution leading to the proposition of pictorial conundrums, which would baffle solution if there were no label or catalogue. In an exhibition of paintings you naturally look for pictures, instead of which the impressionist presents you with a varied assortment of palettes. Of the 180 exhibits catalogued on the present occasion, something like four-fifths are a pain the eye. Some of them look like faded pictures seen through several mediums of thick gauze; others suggest that a paint-pot has been accidentally upset over a panel of nine inches by five; others resemble the first essays of a small boy, who has just been apprenticed to a house-painter…”
There is the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity and the artists decided to use James Smith’s statement to their own advantage and even had it posted at the entrance to the exhibition. It worked just as they had hoped as people poured in to see these so-called “slap-dash” works that had been so heavily criticised. Furthermore the artists wrote an open letter to the editor of The Argus defending themselves and their exhibition work, in which they ended up by saying:
“…It is better to give our own idea than to get a merely superficial effect, which is apt to be a repetition of what others have done before us, and may shelter us in a safe mediocrity, which, while it will not attract condemnation, could never help towards the development of what we believe will be a great school of painting in Australia…”
The 9 by 5 exhibition which caused such controversy and so many diverse views is now looked upon as one of the most famous exhibitions in the history of Australian art. It was also around this time that McCubbin decided to focus his attention on the Australian bush and the struggle that pioneer settlers had in establishing a home on this virgin territory. In my third and final blog about Frederick McCubbin I will conclude his life story and look at some of his works featuring the pioneering spirit including his most famous painting, the triptych, simply entitled The Pioneer.
A couple of years ago I was in Northern Queensland, Australia on holiday and I had hoped to get an insight into Australian art. Unfortunately, because we were in the far north of the country, most of the art on display was indigenous art and I have since been told that to get an insight into Australian art of the nineteenth and twentieth century one would have had to be in the major cities of the south such as Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. The other week however, whilst in London, I took the opportunity to attend an exhibition of Australian art which is currently running at the Royal Academy and finally I came face to face with the art I had been searching for. The Royal Academy exhibition could be divided into three parts – the indigenous art, the more modern art and the 19th century art, the latter being what I was most interested in. In my next few blogs I want to introduce you to one of the greats of 19th century Australian art, Frederick McCubbin.
Frederick McCubbin was born in Melbourne on February 25th 1855. He was the third of eight children of Alexander McCubbin, a master baker who, along with his English wife of four years, Anne, née McWilliams, had immigrated in April 1852 to Australia from the Ayrshire coastal town of Girvan, Scotland. He had two older brothers, William John and James Alexander and one younger brother, Robert. He also had four younger sisters, Mary-Anne, Harriet, Wilhelmina and Helen. Frederick McCubbin went to the William Willmott’s West Melbourne Common School and later to St Paul’s School in Swanston Street. So what kind of child was Frederick McCubbin? In a book written by a family friend, Recollections of Elizabeth Colquhoun, the author wrote:
“…He had a gentle presence, and the air of a poet and dreamer. He was kindly, sincere and single-minded in his outlook. He was energetic, fun, warm and gregarious—and would gesticulate freely with his arms and hands. He was a thinking man, and he liked to make others think and laugh; an extensive and discriminating reader, particularly of biography and high fiction, he enjoyed talking on a wide range of topics. It was his habit to memorise what he read and to deliver it to the first receptive friend he came across—whether at the opening of an exhibition or at a chance meeting on a tram…”
Although Frederick McCubbin’s early life was a happy one he was constantly aware of the hardships endured by his parents in this new land as they would often talk about the better life they had had back “home”. There is a manuscript held by the Australian Manuscript Collection entitled Autobiographical reminiscences of Frederick McCubbin and in it is his recollection of those early days at home:
“…Everybody who was grown up spoke of Home, the old Country—Memories of strings of immigrants—coming up from the wharves—talks of ships and the sea—boarding houses … innumerable boxes—with titles such as not wanted on the voyage—sailors—and the maid servants—who told us stories of old Ireland and sometimes Scotland, then people from Home staying with us each bringing their quota of romantic stories of the Old World. …people said this was a dreadful country and why did they ever come to such a dreary land—and then—the awful Hot Winds that blew in summer—and the fearful dust storms—and the dreary monotonous bush—all the same—no variety, so sad—and sombre—They were a Home sick people…”
McCubbin remembered these times well and the struggle people had to make to survive in this new land. These thoughts were to remain in his mind when he first started painting some years later. Frederick never remembered with fondness those early years at school and he left school in 1868, at the age of thirteen, when his father got him a job as a clerk working in Wither’s solicitor’s Melbourne office. His father had some hope that his son would take an interest in the workings of a solicitor’s office which would then lead him on to training to become a solicitor. However this employment did not last long as young Frederick found the work boring and uninteresting and spent his time idly sketching instead of working, which eventually caused him to lose his job. Although his time during the day had been taken up working at the solicitor’s office, his mother was determined to nurture her son’s interest in art, and so in 1869, she arranged for his enrolment at the evening classes at the Artisans School of Design in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. It was here that he was tutored in figure drawing and landscape work. Those who taught him included the school’s drawing master, Thomas Clark, the London-born artist and art teacher who had immigrated to Australia in 1852 and Abram-Louis Buvelot, a Swiss-born émigré landscape painter. This was Frederick’s first formal artistic training.
Following his dismissal from the solicitor’s office, he returned home and went to work for his father, driving the baker’s horse and cart around town and the surrounding countryside delivering bread. Although there may not have been anything edifying about making daily deliveries of bread, young McCubbin was amazed by the countryside scenery around the Yarra River area he saw whilst making deliveries and knew that one day he would put all his memories down in paint on canvas.
Frederick McCubbin may have been contented gaining artistic inspiration during his bread delivery round but his father was neither happy with the way his son’s future was panning out nor was he comfortable with his son’s lack of ambition so he decided to take control of the situation. In 1871, when Frederick was sixteen years of age, and unbeknown to him, his father signed his son up for a five year apprenticeship with Stevenson and Elliot, a firm of coach painters and wheelwrights. Frederick’s father felt no guilt about his underhand action as he had convinced himself that he had merely aided Frederick’s artistic ambitions. Alas, Frederick did not appreciate the gesture and found the work monotonous albeit he did marvel at the craftsmanship and skill shown by his fellow workers.
In 1872, at the age of seventeen, McCubbin, whilst still working at the firm of coach painters, enrolled for twice-weekly evening classes at the School of Design at the National Gallery of Victoria, which had been formed five years earlier. It was here that he was tutored in draughtsmanship, figure drawing and plein air sketching. One of his tutors, the school’s drawing master, was once again Thomas Clark, who had moved to this new establishment in 1870. When Clark retired from teaching in 1876, McCubbin studied under Oswald Rose Campbell, who, like Clark, his predecessor, had only arrived in Australia in 1852, having been born on the Channel Island of Jersey and who had received his artistic training in London. The Australian artist Tom Roberts enrolled at the school in 1874 and he and Frederick became firm friends.
In 1877 McCubbin and Roberts attended the National Gallery of Victoria’s School of Painting which had been formed in 1867. However Frederick’s artistic studies were suddenly put on hold in May 1877 with the sudden death of his father, Alexander. The cause of death was given as severe apoplexy which had been triggered when he fell down a flight of stairs. The McCubbin household was in shock and the future of the bakery business was suddenly in jeopardy. Frederick’s older brother William was fully occupied as a miller and the next eldest brother was not at home having joined the navy. It thus fell to Frederick to return home and concentrate all his time on helping his mother run the family bakery. After a short while the bakery business was once again on a firm footing and Frederick withdrew his help and returned to the National Gallery’s School of Painting. The McCubbin family was to suffer a further family tragedy four years later, in 1881, when the eldest son William was killed in an industrial accident at the family flour mill.
From 1880 to 1882, McCubbin was taught by the great Eugène von Guérard, an Austrian-born artist and then by his successor, the Irish-born and Munich-trained, George Frederic Folingsby and it was he who, in 1883, organised an annual student’s exhibition. McCubbin exhibited some of his works and won the first prize of £30 at the inaugural event and followed this up in 1884 by winning second prize and £20 the following year. McCubbin, who was always searching for artistic inspiration, also attended the Victorian Academy of Arts which was formed by a group of like-minded professional and amateur artists in 1870. McCubbin attended classes here, and exhibited in their annual exhibitions from 1876. He sold his first painting, View near Fisherman’s Bend at the Academy’s 1880 exhibition.
During his days as an art student between the late 1870’s and the early 1880’s, Frederic McCubbin earned much-needed money by submitting black and white illustrations for inclusion in two popular Melbourne periodicals, the Australasian Sketcher andtheIllustrated Australian News. These black and white sketches, which featured depictions of public and social life of the both Australia and New Zealand, were the forerunners to photgraphy. The periodicals were well read by the local middle-classes who wanted to keep up to date with the never-ending progress of the fledgling colony and who wanted to see the latest “new-builds” such as buildings, bridges and the thriving port and railway system. But it was not just modernity which was depicted in these journals as articles often focused on settlers moving ever-further inland into the new frontier lands as well as the inhabitants who already lived on this new land, the Aboriginal people.
In 1879 McCubbin, whilst at the National Gallery’s School of Painting, completed a narrative work entitled An Old Politician. The work depicts George Elliot who had part owned the firm of coach builders which Frederick had earlier worked for. In the painting McCubbin has bestowed an aura of wisdom upon his sitter and although he was never a politician, McCubbin is pictorially informing us that George Elliot was a wise and well read man who had all the qualities which would have made him an excellent politician.
In 1884 Frederick McCubbin produced a wonderful painting which featured one of his younger sisters, Harriet, who was always known by her nickname “Polly”. The painting which is housed at the Art Gallery of Ballarat is entitled The Letter. The setting, which is thought to be on the up-stream banks of the Yarra River could well have been painted en plein air by McCubbin who then added the figure of his sister later. Harriet, who was six years younger than her brother Frederick, also studied art and she would often model for him.
She also modelled for Frederick’s friend, Tom Roberts. In one of Roberts’ most endearing paintings entitled A Summer Morning Tiff, which he completed in 1886 we see her as the female involved in the aftermath of a lover’s quarrel. It is a hot sunny day and tempers have flared. In the background we can just make out a man with his horse heading into the woods. He and the girl have had a falling-out and he has stormed off, leaving her to follow him. When the painting was first exhibited at the Australian Artists’ Association in 1886 it was accompanied by a label, on which was written this poem:
Only a word at the splitter’s track
A thoughtless blunder.
She is fair and haughty and answers bade,
So they part asunder.
With a jerk he loosens the fastening rein –
And she turns her back with a fine disdain
Ah me! sigh the saplings in sad refrain
As she passes under.
In my next blog I will continue with Frederick McCubbin’s life story and look at some of his art which featured the struggle people faced to survive in this new frontier land.
In the first part of my blog about the Australian painter, John Peter Russell, I told you about his early life in Australia and how his father and brothers had started a foundry and engineering works in Sydney. He then went to England and was apprenticed at a Lincoln engineering company, qualified as an engineer but on the death of his father and the inheritance he subsequently received, gave up his engineering career to become an artist. He studied at the Slade School in London and the Atelier Cormon in Paris.
Russell had previously made painting trips to the Breton isle of Belle Île in 1883 and 1886 and fell in love with the island scenery and the light which offered up the myriad of colours of the island’s nature and the surrounding seas. For Russell, his aim was to capture in his paintings the unadulterated purity of nature’s colour that the light highlighted at different times of the day. To do this Russell realised that making quick preliminary sketches, later to be finished in his studio, would lose the purity of the colour and so he decided that the work had to be completed en plein air if he was to capture the true colour that the light had offered him. He was not alone with this idea as many of the French Impressionists came to the region in search of the rugged beauty offered up by the island. For these artists the island of Belle Île offered them a remote and secluded painting haven with its spectacular cliff configurations and outlying rock structures which had been shaped and whittled away by the unrelenting ferocity of the sea.
Russell summed up his love for Mother Nature and capturing in his works the changing light he experienced on the island when he said:
“…I am a painter of nature, of nature’s moods, of sunlight and the changing temper of the sea”
His good friend the sculptor Auguste Rodin wrote to him about this love of colour, light and his desire to capture every facet of nature’s moods, saying:
“…I am very happy, dear friend, for you that you cling so enthusiastically to nature. I am sure that your art is now full of sincerity and movement…”
One of the most famous Impressionist artists who spent time on Belle Île was Claude Monet. He lived on the island from September to the end of November of 1886, in the tiny village Kervilahouenne. The story goes that Russell met Monet one day, in the late summer of 1886, when Monet was perched high up on a windswept cliff top painting a seascape. Russell approached him and looked over his shoulder at his painting. On recognising Monet’s painting style Russell asked him:
“Ne seriez vous Claude Monet, le prince des impressionists?”
(aren’t you Claude Monet, prince of the impressionists?).
Monet was both amused and somewhat flattered by the question and this led him to allow Russell to sit awhile and paint with him and so an artistic friendship was formed. There can be no doubt that Monet’s work influenced Russell. Although the Australian artist believed in the Impressionist philosophy that the painting should be about light, Russell thought that form should not be disregarded. Monet was fascinated and in love with the island’s wild coastal scenery. He was in awe of the stark wilderness of the island’s landscape and, at first, quite unsettled by the frequent variations in the weather conditions. He knew that the best depictions would be the views of the sea and the rugged cliffs and often had to battle, with an obstinate determination, taking his life into his own hands, to try and gain the best painting position on the cliff edge, notwithstanding the state of the weather at the time. Monet wrote to his friend and fellow Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte of his joy at being on Belle Île and the artistic challenges it offered:
“…I am in a wonderfully wild region, with terrifying rocks and a sea of unbelievable colours; I am truly thrilled, even though it is difficult, because I had got used to painting the Channel, and I knew how to go about it, but the Atlantic Ocean is quite different…”
Monet completed a set of works in 1886, featuring the coastal scenery of Belle Île but when he presented them to his Paris art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, the latter was taken aback by the change in Monet’s work as seen in these new canvases. These were very different from the artist’s Normandy paintings of a decade earlier. Gone were the paintings bathed in sunlight for these Belle Île works were much more sombre and dark and Durand-Ruel was concerned as to whether they would sell. In one such work, The Pyramides at Port-Coton, which Monet completed in 1886, he has magnificently captured the dark craggy rock formations which have been formed by the slow but persistent erosion by the sea and which now stand out like ancient pyramids. The dark colour of these rock formations contrast with the superbly coloured waves which we see buffeting them. Durand-Ruel quizzed Monet about the wisdom of the change in style but the artist was adamant about having variety in his works, saying:
“… I’m inspired by this sinister landscape, precisely because it is unlike what I am used to doing; I have to make a great effort and find it very difficult to render this sombre and terrible sight…”
The art world, like Durand-Ruel were astounded in 1887 when Monet’s Belle Île paintings were first exhibited.
Another of Monet’s Belle Île paintings completed around the same time is entitled Les rochers de Belle-Ile, la Côte sauvage [The Rocks at Belle-Ile, The Wild Coast] which can be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This painting is one of five Monet completed featuring Belle Île. It is in landscape format, unlike the other four, and in it Monet has depicted the never-ending clash between the forces of nature, the sea, and the rocks which try valiantly to withstand its ferocity. Monet has used blues, greens and violets for the sea with white for the tops of the waves to give the stormy sensation.
In Paris Russell had become great friends with Auguste Rodin and through that friendship had met, in 1885, the sculptor’s favourite model, Marianna Mattiocco, whom the sculptor once described as “the most beautiful lady in Paris”. Russell and Marianne married in 1888 and it was now time for Russell to fulfil his much discussed desire – to move away from hustle and bustle of city life in Paris and move permanently to his beloved Belle Île. The year before he had written to his friend and fellow Australian artist, Tom Roberts and told him of his dream:
‘…I am about to build a small house on Belle-Ile, off Brittany. The finest coast I’ve ever seen…”
Russell and his wife moved from Paris to set up home on Belle Île in 1888. He was the first non-native to settle on the island and when he had built his new home, a large manor house, the islanders referred to it as Le Chateau de l’Anglais. The completion of their large and spacious new home, with Russell’s studio facing the Atlantic Ocean, was not just a place for the family to live it was to be the hub of Russell’s summer artist’s colony. Russell set to work on his own paintings of the shores of Belle Île and he would often depict the same type of scenes that Monet had done in 1886. Russell had the same ideas as Monet. He wanted to depict the coastline at different times of the day in different weather conditions always seeking the nuances of changing light. Monet once said that Russell’s Belle Île paintings were better than his own !
Ten years after settling down on Belle Île, Russell played host to another up-and-coming artist, Henri Matisse, during the three summers of 1895 to 1897. Russell spent many hours with Matisse and it is said that he introduced Impressionism to him. They spent hours discussing the importance of light and how light and colour could be captured at different times of the day and under different weather conditions. He also introduced Matisse to the work of his friend from Atelier Cormon, Vincent Van Gogh, who at this time was still to be recognised as a great artist. Matisse always recognised the debt he owed John Peter Russell and in later life said:
“…Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me…”
In 1908 Russell’s wife Marianna died. Russell was devastated by his loss. It is believed that such was his grief that he destroyed four hundred of his works of art. He buried Marianne next to Le Chateau de l’Anglais and decided his time at Belle Île was at an end and so returned to Paris. Later, along with his daughter Jeanne, (Madame Jeanne Jouve), a Paris singer, they travelled extensively through southern France and the Ligurian coast of Italy and for a time he set up home in the Italian coastal village of Portofino. Russell returned to live in Paris and in 1912, married his daughter’s friend, the American singer Caroline de Witt Merrill, whose stage name was Felize Medori. Russell and Caroline set up home in Italy and later Switzerland before moving to England where his sons were serving in the Allied forces. Six years later, in 1921, Russell returned to Australia, and the following year he travelled to New Zealand where he helped one of his sons to set up a business on a citrus farm. In 1923 Russell returned to Australia and bought himself a fisherman’s cottage at Watson’s Bay on Sydney Harbour. John Peter Russell died in April 1930, aged 71. The cause of death was a heart attack which struck him down whilst moving some heavy rocks outside his home. He was survived by his second wife Caroline, their son and six children from his first marriage to Marianna.
Russell was not one to have his paintings exhibited like his fellow artists of the time, such as Monet and van Gogh and so he is less well known but for those that knew him and his painting there was never any doubt about his ability as an artist. Rodin, in one of his last letters to Russell, acknowledged his reputation and his legacy. He wrote:
“…Your works will live, I am certain. One day you will be placed on the same level with our friends Monet, Renior, and Van Gogh…”
Last week I watched a documentary on television about the death of Vincent van Gogh. You have probably seen something similar or read a book on his somewhat mysterious death. Did he commit suicide? Was it an accident? Was he murdered? Why was the gun never found? What, if anything, did Doctor Gachet have to do with his death? Why did both Doctor Gachet and Vincent’s brother Theo allow Vincent to lie in agony for three days at his lodgings with the bullet still in his body rather than rush him to hospital to have it removed? However the subject of my blog today is not about Van Gogh’s death. During the documentary it showed a portrait of the great artist and said that it was Van Gogh’s favourite depiction of himself. What really stimulated my curiosity was to hear that the portrait was completed by a friend of his, an Australian painter by the name of John Peter Russell. I had never heard of this artist and I could not comprehend how an Australian artist could feature in the Dutchman’s life and so I decided to find out more about him. In this first of my two part blog on Russell I want to look at his early life and a couple of his portraits including the one of van Gogh. So come with me on a voyage of discovery and learn about how a former foundry worker in Australia came to paint a portrait of the great Dutch Master.
The story begins at the beginning of the 19th century in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. It was here that John Peter Russell’s grandfather, Robert Russell, had his foundry and engineering works. Robert and his wife Janet Russell (née Nicol) had eleven children, one of whom, John, was our featured artist’s father. In 1830 Robert’s business hit financial problems due to a downturn in demand and he decided to immigrate to Canada. His intended destination changed on the advice of a friend and instead of heading west to Canada he and his family took the steamer Anne Jamieson and sailed to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and arrived in the port of Hobart in June 1832. Robert Russell along with his sons, Robert, Peter and John started up an engineering works in Tasmania which proved very successful. In 1838 in order to expand the business the family moved to Sydney and established the firm, Russell Brothers with an engineering works and a foundry on the banks of the Tank Stream, a tributary of Sydney Cove.
John Russell married and English girl, Charlotte Elizabeth Nichol, and they went on to have four children of which John Peter Russell, the subject of today’s blog, was the eldest. He was born in June 1858 in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. John Peter was educated at the Goulburn School in Garrooriagang, a private boarding school for the “sons of gentlemen”. After completing his education in 1876, the eighteen year old travelled to England and was apprenticed at the engineering company, Robey & Co. of Lincoln and eventually became a qualified engineer. It was also around this time that he began to take an interest in sketching and painting. In 1879 John Peter Russell’s father died and left his children a sizeable inheritance.
In 1881, John Peter Russell who thanks to his inheritance was financially sound and did not need to continue as an engineer. He decided to pursue his love of art and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Arts at the University College of London. Whilst at the Slade he studied under the Dijon-born French painter and sculptor, Alphonse Legros. Legros would delight his students by showing them his quick preliminary oil sketches (known as ébauches) of the head portraits he had done and it was this type of painting which grabbed Russell’s interest.
In August 1883, after completing his art course at the Slade, Russell decided to set off on his travels. His fellow travellers were his brother Percy, an architect, Tom Roberts, a fellow aspiring artist who would later become a leading figure of the Australian Heidelberg School of Impressionism and who, like Russell, had emigrated with his family from the UK to Australia when he was fourteen years of age. Tom Roberts had returned to his birthplace, London, to study art at the Royal Academy Schools. Another person in the travel party was the physician and friend William Maloney who would later become a Labour MP. Their first port of call was Spain where they encountered two Spanish art students Laureano Barrau, who would become a leading Spanish Impressionist painter and the Catalan painter Ramon Casas who would later be known for his paintings depicting crowd scenes.
In 1885 Russell went to live in Paris and for the next eighteen months studied at the Atelier Cormon, which was run by the French painter, Fernand Cormon. It was an “academic” studio in which Cormon endeavoured to instil in his students the necessary artistic “rules” which would ensure that their paintings found favour with the Paris Salon jurists. Many great painters, such as Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin,and Toulouse Lautrec studied under Cormon during Russell’s tenure. Russell who had studied portraiture at the Slade School of Art was still interested in portraiture and would often paint portraits of his friends and fellow students. In March 1886 whilst Russell was attending the Atelier Cormon another student enrolled – Vincent van Gogh. Vincent had moved to Paris and went to live with his brother Theo in his apartment in rue Laval on Montmartre in order to study at Cormon’s studio. A great and long-lasting friendship developed between Van Gogh and Russell. In October 1886, Russell finally persuaded Van Gogh to sit for him. The resulting work was the beautiful crafted portrait of the Dutchman which I spoke about at the beginning of the blog.
Although Russell had painted portraits of his friends it is believed that he wanted to paint Van Gogh’s portrait as the depiction of the Dutchman’s face would be a challenge with its craggy and somewhat haggard appearance. Russell had seen some of Van Gogh’s own head and shoulder portraits and self portraits and liked the way the Dutchman had used an academic style in his portraiture, incorporating darkened background as a contrast to the lighter skin tones and so decided to use this same technique on his own depiction of van Gogh. He has given Van Gogh such a penetrating gaze as he stares out at us which in some ways makes us feel slightly uncomfortable. It is almost a censorious gaze as if he is questioning our presence. What I think adds to the beauty of this portrait is how Russell has got van Gogh to look over his shoulder for the pose and of course to remind every one of the sitter’s profession he had the Dutchman hold a paintbrush. Vincent van Gogh was delighted with Russell’s finished portrait. On September 6th 1889, ten months before his death, Vincent wrote to Theo and in it he mentioned the Russell portrait:
“……….Afterwards, what are we beginning to glimpse timidly at the moment that is original and lasting – the portrait. That’s something old, one might say – but it’s also brand new. We’ll talk more about this – but let’s still continue to seek out portraits, above all of artists, like the Guillaumin and Guillaumin’s portrait of a young girl, and take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.….”
The painting, which is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has itself darkened over the years as on a recent microscopic examination it was discovered that, above the head of van Gogh, there had been inscribed in red the words:
Also according to the Museum curators, a friend of John Peter Russell and van Gogh, the British artist Archibald Standish Hartrick, had seen the original portrait soon after it had been completed and he said that Vincent was depicted in the portrait wearing a striped blue suit ! According to the museum curators there is a hint of blue near the mid base of the work.
Russell and Van Gogh were great friends for the short time they were together and after they went their separate ways they continued to correspond. One of the last letters Vincent wrote to Russell on February 1st 1890 just five months before his death and when he was in the mental hospital in St Rémy.
My dear friend Russell
Today I’m sending you a little roll of photographs after Millet which perhaps you may not know. In any event, it’s to recall us, my brother and myself, to your good memory. Do you know that my brother has since married and that any day now he’s expecting his first-born? May it go well – he has a very nice Dutch wife. How it pleases me to write to you after a long silence. Do you remember the time when, almost simultaneously, you I think first and I afterwards, met our friend Gaugin? He’s still struggling on – and alone, or almost alone, like the good fellow he is. Am sure, though, that you don’t forget him. He and I are still friends, I can assure you, but perhaps you’re not unaware that I myself am ill, and have more than once had serious nervous crises and delirium. This was why, having had to go into an asylum for the insane, he and I separated. But prior to that, how many times we talked about you together! Gaugin is currently still with one of my fellow-countrymen called De Haan, and De Haan praises him a great deal and doesn’t find it at all bad to be with him. You will find article on canvases of mine at the Vingtistes. I assure you that I myself owe a lot to things that Gaugin told me as regards drawing, and hold his way of loving nature in high, very high esteem. For in my opinion he’s worth even more as a man than as an artist. Are things going well with you? And are you still working a lot? Although being ill isn’t a cause for joy, I nevertheless have no right to complain about it, for it seems to me that nature sees to it that illness is a means of getting us back on our feet, of healing us, rather than an absolute evil. If you ever come to Paris, take one of my canvases from my brother’s place if you wish, if you still have the idea of making a collection for your native country one day. You’ll remember that I’ve already spoken to you about it, that it was my great desire to give you one for this purpose. How is our friend MacKnight? If he’s still with you, or if there are others with you whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, give them my warm regards. Above all, please remember me to Mrs Russell and believe me, with a handshake in thought,
Vincent van Gogh
c/o Doctor Peyron
St-Rémy en Provence.
Whilst living in Paris, Russell had become very friendly with two Parisian sculptors, Auguste Rodin and Emmanuel Frémiet and it was whilst visiting their studios that he encountered one of Rodin and Frémiet’s’ favourite models, Marianna Mattiocco della Torre. Rodin had, in 1888, encapsulated her beauty in a bronze bust entitled Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) and Frémiet had used Marianna as the model for his bronze life-sized Jeanne d’Arc statue which is at the Place des Pyramides in Paris.
Marianne who was born in Cassino, Italy was in her early twenties when she met Russell in 1885 and three years later, on a cold Parisian day in February 1888, John Peter Russell and Marianna Mattiocco became husband and wife. By the end of the year the happy couple had left Paris and set up home at Belle Isle, the largest of the Breton islands, off the west coast of Brittany. It was here that Russell had their home built and because he was the first non-Frenchman to settle on the island his house was known as Le Chateau Anglais.
The second portrait by John Peter Russell I want to show you is entitled Dadone and was completed around 1900. The question is who or what is Dadone? The word “dadone” I believe, but I am by no means certain, is an old fashioned Italian slang for “ancestor” or literally “old one” and therefore indicates that the subject has some sort of family relationship with Russell.
The answer to the question can be found in a double portrait which was painted by Russell a few years later, entitled Les deux Mattiocco which has, at the top of the work, the inscription ‘Maria Peppa-Y-Pascal Mattiocco’. The painting, which depicts an elderly couple, is of Russell’s father and mother-in-law, Pasquale and Maria Mattiocco.
The date of the Dadone painting is thought to be 1900 as there is a preliminary sketch for the work in existence, inscribed, ‘JPR 00’ dating it at 1900 and it is thought that the final painting was completed shortly afterwards.
In the painting, Dadone, we see an inscription in the top right corner of the work:
The inscription indicates the title of the work, the initials of the artist and the word “fecit” meaning he or she made it and the word is used formerly on works of art next to the artist’s name.
This beautifully crafted portrait by Russell is an affectionate and personal depiction of his wife’s father. The main colours used by Russell in this work are white, blue and greys profile. The bony structure of his head is framed by the imperious greying hair and beard, which along with dark bushy eyebrows give his father-in-law such a distinguished appearance. His eyes are dark and there is a hint of tiredness about them, which has been brought on by age.
In my next blog, the second part of my look at the life and work of John Peter Russell, I will examine his newly found interest in seascapes and landscapes once he had moved out of Paris and went to live on the Breton island of Belle-Ile where he met with many artists such as Monet and Matisse.
For further information regarding Russell’s friendship with Vincent van Gogh there is a book you may like to read. As yet I haven’t read it but I am sure it would be fascinating. It is:
A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell by Anne Galbally
There is also an interesting short video on YouTube about the Van Gogh portrait and the inscriptions that were originally on it: