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Agnes enigma

by Karen Quinlan AM, 22 May 2019

Girl with Cigarette, c. 1925 by Agnes Goodsir
Girl with Cigarette, c. 1925 by Agnes Goodsir

In the late 1990s when I commenced work at the Bendigo Art Gallery as Curator, I came across five paintings in the collection by Agnes Goodsir. I was particularly struck by two portraits, Girl on Couch (c. 1915) and Girl with Cigarette (c. 1925), and these were retrieved from the art store and included thereafter in the Australian permanent collection hang.

Both oil paintings intrigued me, and I found myself driven to discover more. The concept of uncovering the Goodsir biography had extra resonance owing to a chance encounter I’d had with her great niece, Mrs Anne Sheppard, in 1997. My subsequent introduction to the family meant I was exposed to unseen paintings, drawings and archival material, helping me to piece together the story of this expatriate artist, essentially forgotten at home, despite her work earning great acclaim overseas. The following year Bendigo Art Gallery held an exhibition of Goodsir’s work, In a picture land over the sea, with the show attracting unprecedented media attention and strong visitation. 

Born in Portland in south-west Victoria in 1864, Goodsir lived a fairly conventional life for a woman in the period, painting still lifes initially before applying herself to the challenge of portraiture. During the late 19th century she studied at the Bendigo School of Mines in Victoria – hence her connection with the Bendigo Art Gallery – under the tutelage of the artist Arthur Woodward. With Woodward insisting that students be exposed to international cultural circles, Goodsir set her sights on Great Britain and France, venturing overseas to ‘find herself’ at the mature age of 36.

After studying at the Parisian academies of the day, her works featured in the seasonal salons, before she made her decision to move to London prior to the onset of the First World War. By all accounts she found shared lodging, connected with family, made a number of everlasting friendships and continued to paint and exhibit. Her painting Letter from the front was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1915, with the work later finding its way into the Bendigo collection, bearing the new title Girl on Couch.  

Resettling in Paris in 1921, Goodsir made her home in rue de l’Odeon with her companion and muse, Rachel Dunn. They lived a short walk from the Luxembourg Gardens, a few doors from the original home of Shakespeare and Company, and, as my investigative work revealed, in the same building (on the floor below) the famed literary couple Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier. The French capital in the 1920s was an epicentre of artistic activity, with writers, artists, performers and musicians from all corners of the globe congregating, especially those from Anglosphere nations.

It was here in the cultural ferment of Paris’ 6th arrondissement – aptly titled the Latin Quarter – that Goodsir painted arguably her strongest portraits, among them Girl with Cigarette. The work’s subject (Dunn) is stylish, with colourful wrap and chic accessories, yet dressed for comfort – the archetypal 1920s flapper enjoying her ‘café et cigarette’, poised and at ease. In 1926, the year after she painted the work, Goodsir was made a member of France’s Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, one of few Australians to receive the honour.

Despite unravelling some of the threads of Goodsir’s life, I’ve never been able to file the story away and forget it. It will always have an element of incompleteness and intrigue, with gaps in the narrative remaining – mysteries that I hope one day can be solved. My obsession arises from my admiration of her portraiture and my consternation at how a practitioner of such talent could have been so overlooked. Art historian Janine Burke included Goodsir – reproducing a portrait from the Queensland Art Gallery’s collection titled In a Paris Studio (1922) – in her 1980 publication Australian Women Artists 1840-1940. However, a century after her rise to prominence as a recognised portrait painter in London and Paris, we are still no closer to understanding why she chose the French capital, how she survived on her meagre income, who she mixed with socially and professionally, and why it took so long for parts of her story to materialise.

Goodsir certainly had societal connections, with the list of portrait commissions and purported commissions she undertook providing some insight: Banjo Patterson (State Library of NSW), Sunday Reid (Heide Museum), Ellen Terry (reportedly stolen from a London theatre), Benito Mussolini (never located), Nellie Melba (never located). And yet it is the paintings of Rachel Dunn that Goodsir is best known for. The Girl with Cigarette, the Type of the Latin Quarter, The Parisienne, the Girl on Couch – and the list goes on.

Born in Philadelphia, Dunn met Goodsir in London and, following the former’s divorce, the two moved to Paris where they set up home. An analysis of the paintings of Dunn aka ‘Cherry’ from 1915-1930 by Goodsir not only reflects the changing fashion of the period, it also illustrates the ‘new type’ to be found in the Latin Quarter of the 1920s: a bold and confident woman, a strong and liberated individual, at times painted with an androgynous persona, in direct contrast to the strict dress codes and societal norms imposed by the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The Parisienne, for example, sees Cherry in more modernist ‘masculine’ attire, cloche hat and high collar framing her face, hands relaxed in lap, and cigarette again wielded as symbol of self-assured autonomy.

My travels to Paris took me to the shared gravesite of Goodsir and Dunn at the Cimetière parisien de Bagneux. It’s worth pointing out that although Goodsir lived her life as an artist, exhibited alongside her male counterparts, supposedly mixed in artistic circles and established a reputation as a ‘portrait painter of international repute’, her death certificate in 1939 defined her by her marital status: ‘spinster’.

My research into Agnes Goodsir is ongoing, as all lifelong obsessions are. A few years ago, however, I stumbled across the work of American painter Romaine Brooks. Whilst I felt that I had exhausted all channels with Goodsir and found no comparable work by others of her generation, I became intrigued by Brooks’ paintings. Unlike Goodsir, she has had numerous biographies published and there is extensive documentation of her life and work. Although ten years apart in age and certainly having very different experiences as artists, the similarities in style of painting and palette excited me. I can’t profess to be an expert in the work of Romaine Brooks, but when I first saw her work in an exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2016 I don’t believe I’ve ever been so moved by a single artist exhibition. The portraits were so powerful, so commanding; and the voice spoke to me in the way the work of Goodsir’s did. The exhibition’s signature work, a Brooks self-portrait (1923), featured the subversive figure, androgynous style and monotone palette reminiscent of the Australian artist.

Born in Italy in 1874 to American parents, Brooks reportedly had her first successful solo exhibition at Galleries Durand-Ruel in Paris in May of 1910. Goodsir was also actively exhibiting at this time, and although I have no definitive cause to believe the two ever met, it’s possible, perhaps probable, that Goodsir saw an exhibition by Brooks back in the day, or vice versa.

As mentioned, Brooks’ biography is well documented, as she donated her paintings and memoirs to the Smithsonian. She died in 1970. It would appear from all accounts that her troublesome life manifested itself in a body of work that explored gender and the representation of women, reflecting her circle of acquaintances, her challenges and psychological state. It would be fair to say that both Brooks and Goodsir endured their respective struggles during a tumultuous period, incorporating two world wars, the great depression and significant social upheaval.

I have contemplated the idea of an exhibition about the two artists for some time: an exploration of the period, their collective milieu, their individual voices, their lives in parallel, the chance to uncover more hidden stories. And, with a pair of Agnes Goodsir portraits so inspiring me over two decades ago, I now find myself ensconced as Director at the home of portraiture in Australia. Perhaps this is one to consider for the future!

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Agnes Goodsir

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