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 In Lifestyle

Agents at Leisure:

Women of Influence: Prominent Australian Female Artists of the Early 1900’s

Marshall White Director, James Redfern has a keen interest in Australian artists and in particular, female artists who have influenced society. Here he explores the works of Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith, Nora Heysen and Margaret Olley.

The impressive collection of works produced by the women of the Australian art scene in the early twentieth century expressed a creative and positive response to our changing society. Exploring new ideas about what art could be and what it could portray, these artists brought new movements back from Europe and their influence on art in our country was profound. The four women I have selected to spotlight for this article are superb examples of outstanding Post Impressionist and Modernist artists I admire.

Margaret Preston (1875 – 1963)

Perhaps the most prominent Australian female artist of the early 1900’s, Margaret Preston is regarded as one of Australia’s leading Modernists. She studied under the tutelage of a number of renowned artists in her formative years, including Frederick McCubbin, Bernard Hall and Hans Heyser. She spent time living in Paris and was influenced by French Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse as well as Japanese art and design.

Her works featured recurring motifs of geometric forms in a muted palette with stark lighting. She developed a fondness for asymmetrical composition and as a result of her desire to produce uniquely Australian images, many of her works focus on native flora as the subject matter. In addition, having spent many years living in Mosman, Sydney with her husband, the landscape of the harbourside suburb featured in many of her prints.

Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984)

Grace Cossington Smith is another of Australia’s most important artists. Renowned as a brilliant colourist, she was a pioneer of Modernist painting and was instrumental in bringing Post-Impressionism to our country. She produced a number of iconic urban images and radiant interiors, with a keen interest in the modern urban environment. Cossington Smith studied in Sydney and abroad in England and Germany and she took an interest in Modernist theories including investigating colour theory, illusion of depth, the use of expressive brush strokes and an abstracted composition.

She was one of the earliest Australian artists to be influenced by the European Post-Impressionist movement and lead a break away from Australian Impressionism.

A contemporary of Margaret Preston, her works were very daring for the time. Her painting is characterised by individual, square brush strokes with bright unblended colours.

I am very fond of her paintings of the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as it was being built. The works show her eye for detail and her ability to capture a scene in a photo realistic manner. She also sometimes painted important events such as the World Wars and the arrival of the Prince of Wales in Sydney in 1920. The ability for art to show a broader view of what was happening at a particular point in time is one of the things I find fascinating.

Nora Heysen (1911-2003)

The first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize in 1938 for portraiture and the first Australian woman appointed as an official war artist, Nora Heysen’s contribution to the art world was immense. From an early age, Heysen was determined to be an artist and the most significant formative influence on her practice was that of her father, the acclaimed landscape artist, Hans Heysen.

Growing up in a family focused on art, Heysen commenced her studies at the School of Fine Arts in Adelaide under the guidance of F. Millward Grey and learned to draw from plaster casts and live models. She also travelled to London at a young age to study under renowned artists including Bernard Meninsky, James Grant, Alfred Turner and John Skeaping, expanding her exposure to drawing, composition and tonal realism.

Heysen established a reputation as a distinguished portrait and still life painter. Within her works, there is a particular emphasis on fusing elements of tone, form and light, evoking a sense of immediacy.

As the first woman to achieve the distinction of an official war artist during the Second World War, she completed more than 170 works before being discharged. Her paintings have a lot to say about the social and cultural evolution of twentieth century Australia and are particularly useful for understanding our national identity.

Margaret Olley (1923-2011)

One of Australia’s most significant still life and interior painters, Margaret Olley was well respected and loved. A widely recognised figure in Australian art, she was the subject of two Archibald Prize winning portraits. As a mentor for some of Australia’s most renowned contemporary artists, Olley’s contribution to the local art industry is incredibly significant.

Having studied under many renowned artists in both Australia and Paris, the latter from which she brought back a colourful, fluid style influenced by Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, Olley is famed for producing vibrant still lifes in a Post Impressionist style.

Olley’s highly collectable paintings are almost exclusively still lifes and interiors for which she drew inspiration from her home and studio. Her studio, a Paddington terrace in Sydney became as famous as the painter herself, filled with everyday objects like vases of flowers, jugs, decanters and bowls of fruit. With an innate ability to find the beauty in everyday objects, these items became the subjects of her still life paintings.


About the Author
James Redfern, Marshall White Director

Renowned for his sense of integrity and sheer professionalism, James is one of the industry’s most innovative practitioners. As a director at Marshall White, he also heads-up our training program, passing on his accumulated knowledge to new generations of real estate practitioners.
View more about James here.

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