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Give me five

by Karen Quinlan AM, 6 July 2021

Despite my love of contemporary portraiture in all its manifestations, it is renderings of trailblazing artists of the past – most particularly mysterious (even obscure) female practitioners, complete with remarkable historical narratives – that make up my top five portraits from the Portrait Gallery Collection.

The fivesome that follow just happen to be self-portraits executed during my favourite period of Australian art history: 1900 to 1940. This was a time when many artists made the decision to flee Australia, travelling vast distances in search of independence and freedom, and escaping the shackles of colonial upbringings. If study and travel was a priority, London was central to the journey, while Paris also figured highly on most itineraries. The much-anticipated trip was viewed as a sabbatical – a chance to view masterpieces; immerse oneself in other cultures; explore and pursue artistic creativity; and perhaps progress careers or forge new beginnings …

‘I painted myself because I knew her; I am only shy with people. Painting self-portraits is the one time when you can be with yourself absolutely and just paint; you don’t even have to get a likeness. With self-portraits you can be alone with yourself and not have to worry about another person.’

Nora Heysen AM (1911–2003) remains one of Australia’s great portraitists.

One of eight children of landscape painter Sir Hans Heysen and his wife Selma (also an artist), Heysen was surrounded by art as a child, with her parents encouraging her to paint and draw from an early age. As her career progressed, she moved away from her father’s favoured subject matter of landscapes, embracing both portraiture and a sense of independence and direction as an artist. Heysen enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in Adelaide in her mid-teens, developing the skills and confidence to subsequently exhibit with the Society of Artists in Sydney. Her career was marked by a number of significant milestones: travelling to London to study in the 1930s; becoming the first woman to win the recently established Archibald Prize (1938); and becoming an official war artist in 1943 (her three-year stint saw her produce over 170 artworks).

Heysen painted this self-portrait early in her career while she was still training, and it would remain in her private collection until purchased by the Portrait Gallery in 1999. I find the work compelling – Heysen’s face is nominally expressionless, yet the direct, close-up, almost intimidating gaze speaks to earnest purpose; to intensity and intent; to private, steely resolve. That such a young artist – in her early twenties at the time – has captured this more serious side of her identity is intriguing, and an instructive preface to Heysen’s pioneering, globetrotting career and life.

1 Self portrait (Hilda in the Chinoise hat), c. 1913. © Bronwyn Wright. 2 La robe Chinoise, c. 1913. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased with funds from the Sir Claude Hotchin Art Foundation 1994. Both Hilda Rix Nicholas.

Emily Hilda Rix Nicholas (1884–1961) left Australia for London at age 22, in 1907, having trained for three years at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. Moving on to Paris – accompanied by her widowed mother Elizabeth and sister Elsie – she attended art classes at the Académie Delécluse and the Grande Chaumière. Between 1910 and 1914, Hilda, drawing and painting prolifically, spent time in Morocco and the artist colony in Etaples, on the French north coast. She was still accompanied by her family, but tragedy struck after the trio returned to London in 1914 (having fled Paris to escape the onset of the First World War), with Elizabeth and Elsie dying in rapid succession from typhoid fever. Hilda later met and married Major George Matson Nicholas, an Australian soldier (in 1916), but just a few weeks later he, too, died – killed in action at Flers, France.

Hilda moved back to Australia, settling in Mosman, Sydney. In 1928 she began a new life as the wife of Edgar Wright, owner of the property ‘Knockalong’, near the town of Delegate on the Southern Monaro. She continued to paint, and to exhibit sporadically in Sydney and Melbourne, until the mid-1940s.

In Paris in 1913, Hilda painted Elsie in a lavish Chinese robe, with the resulting work, La robe Chinoise, now in the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s collection. The Chinese robe was a regular accoutrement for the artist; she appears in photographs in it, wore it to fancy dress events, and drew herself in its accompanying headdress. The latter work, Hilda in the Chinoise hat, demonstrates the artist’s passion for costume. I’ve included it in my top five, as I’m taken by its understated sense of confidence, underscored by her prominent lips – in the centre of the work – bearing the work’s most substantial splash of colour. Again, there is that self-assurance and self-awareness, at all of 30 years of age. The drawing was a gift of the artist’s granddaughter, Bronwyn Wright, following the 2013 NPG exhibition Paris to Monaro: Pleasures from the studio of Hilda Rix Nicholas, in which it featured.

This self-portrait by Agnes Goodsir (1864–1939) is a recent acquisition for the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a flashback to the start of the twentieth century, following the artist’s departure to Paris from Bendigo, Victoria at the age of 36. The work is a stately oil on canvas, a formal representation with a dark sobriety that Goodsir undoubtedly felt captured her seriousness and unbridled determination. Painted during her first year in Paris, while she was studying at the Académie Delécluse and the Académie Julian, the portrait echoes old master techniques, with its rich, dark background providing an appropriate backdrop for the artist’s pearly features and masterful draped hand. It’s a becoming combination – the projection of a determined, authentic self, along with the aforementioned aesthetic elements. And there is the historic narrative at play; the work is a bookend, marking the start of Goodsir’s exhilarating life and career in Paris, and her rise to acclaim.

A quarter of a century later, she would be made a member of France’s Société Nationale des Beaux Arts.

Agnes Goodsir’s paintings of the archetypal Parisienne have found their way into most collections in Australia, thanks to her companion and model Rachel Dunn, with whom she resided for more than two decades. Compared to this work, the artist’s later portraits are compositionally bright and highly decorative, showing the influence of years of further training and exposure to the Paris art scene. Although Goodsir was fond of her birthplace, it was Paris that she loved and where she would spend her final days with Rachel. The painting was gifted to the Gallery by Rosemary Neilson, Goodsir’s great niece, in 2021.

Stella Bowen (1893–1947) was born in Adelaide and commenced art lessons under Margaret Preston at the School of Design at a young age. She left Adelaide as a twenty-year-old, to escape the city she later characterised as a ‘queer little backwater of intellectual timidity’. Europe was Bowen’s destination, and she arrived in London in 1914 where she enrolled at the Westminster School of Art. She soon became part of a circle of artists, writers and intellectuals, including T S Eliot, Ezra Pound and W B Yeats, before meeting her future partner, English novelist Ford Madox Ford, in 1917. Their daughter Julia was born in 1920, whereupon Bowen essentially gave up painting, with her daughter (and Ford's career as a writer) becoming the focus.

The couple separated in 1928 and Bowen then had to earn an income from her art practice. She travelled to the USA in 1932, completing a number of portrait commissions there before returning to Europe and spending the rest of the decade making a living out of painting, reviewing and teaching in England and France. In 1944, she became an official war artist – only the second woman appointed to the role (after Nora Heysen) – and completed a number of celebrated works, for which she is highly regarded.

In her early forties, Bowen painted this self-portrait, which was purchased by the Portrait Gallery in 2003. For me, it’s another moving piece – one of engaging self-reflection, projecting undemonstrative wisdom and confidence, despite the artist’s ongoing financial struggles. It was a preface to a melancholy end for Bowen: she would die of cancer in London in 1947, having never returned to Australia. Despite seeking to come home, she was denied pension and rehabilitation rights and a passage on a troopship.

‘I think it is an overwhelming love of beauty which causes anyone to become an artist – an extra sensitiveness to line and colour, as musicians are sensitive to sounds. In artists and sculptors, it is called an aesthetic sense.’

Thea Proctor (1879–1966), was born in Armidale, New South Wales, and trained at the Julian Ashton School before leaving Australia for London in 1903. She would remain there, apart from a visit home in 1912–14, until after the First World War. Like her contemporaries she mixed in artistic circles whilst remaining connected to expatriate colleagues such as George Lambert.

Returning home from London for good in 1921, Proctor based herself in Sydney where she worked as an illustrator for magazines such as The Home and Art in Australia. She attained a status as something of an arbiter – an early ‘influencer’ – on matters of style and taste, with her authoritative opinions on interior design, fashion and related subjects widely published. Having pursued lithography in her second stint in London, decorative woodcuts became her specialty, and this is the medium she is now most known for.

Here, I am taken by the combination of the artist’s pioneering narrative with the aesthetic, personal elements of the work: it’s a strong self-portrait, created by Proctor mid-career, aged in her forties, depicting a serious, pensive practitioner – not to mention a consummate draughtsperson. The Gallery purchased the work in 2013 with funds provided by the Ross family in memory of Noel and Enid Eliot.

That’s my famous five, although it was not an easy selection process! For these artists, the initiation of a self-portrait may have constituted a variety of statements: an indulgence; an act of confidence; a personal proclamation; a timely reflection; or a honing of skills. The works demonstrate a moment in time of the lives of these women artists whose trajectories took them to far-flung places around the world, as they juggled individual challenges and opportunities. The five were notable contributors to the story of Australian art, and their self-portraits remind viewers of the artist behind the artwork. They are also great exemplars for our institution, because presenting this fusion of art, history and biography – striking portraits interwoven with the engrossing stories of their makers and subjects – is what lies at the heart of our mission at your National Portrait Gallery.

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