Masterpieces

Paintings  

Australian artists and France (1830–1940)

Initially a penal colony, throughout the nineteenth century Australia drew increasing numbers of free settlers, including numerous artists mostly of British origin. Moving to Tasmania in 1831, Englishman John Glover launched a manner attuned to the distinctive character of the Australian landscape and was considered one of the young colony's first major painters. The 1880s saw the emergence of the first generation of artists born in Australia and aware, largely through the development of professional art teaching, of being part of a specific national tradition. Nonetheless their attention remained firmly fixed on the Old Continent and most chose, naturally, to continue their training in England. Some, nonetheless, looked to Paris, then the unchallenged international art capital: Tom Roberts, John Peter Russell, Rupert Bunny and Iso Rae were the first of a long succession of Australian artists who, at the close of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth, attended the numerous ateliers and academies open to foreign painters and sculptors in the French capital. Few, however, gained admission—as Emanuel Phillips Fox did—to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux–Arts. Marked by the academic training dispensed by painters like Gustave Courtois and Jean–Paul Laurens, they were also influenced by other foreign artists, many of them American, living in Paris at the time: Bunny and Fox, for example, studied with American painter Alexander Harrison. The most talented showed regularly at the various Paris Salons and in 1904 the French state bought a Rupert Bunny for the foreign painting section at the Musée du Luxembourg. Following the example of their American counterparts, the Australians explored the French countryside and visited the artists' colonies outside the capital—Etaples, for instance, attracted some thirty of them.
 
In 1914 many Australians joined up as war artists or voluntary workers in France and in England, leaving uniquely poignant testimony to what life was like during the First World War.
 
At war's end a new generation of Australian artists arrived in France, many of them women. Bessie Gibson, Bessie Davidson, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Agnes Goodsir were part of a female contingent come to seek social commitment and a different way of life. Embracing the avant-garde European styles of the time, they produced over the next twenty years bodies of work as diverse as their sources of inspiration. Davidson and Goodsir were drawn to the Post-Impressionists Cézanne and Gauguin and to the Nabis, while Grace Crowley and Dorrit Black were strongly influenced by cubism and its last-ditch defenders André Lhote and Albert Gleizes. After their return home in the early 1930s some of these women artists ranked among the leading figures of the Australian modernist movement.

Anne Gérard