Siena, Italy 1863 – Nervi, Italy 1926
Miss Myra Kemble
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Myra Kemble was one of Australia’s best-loved stage actresses. She arrived in Australia with her family in 1864 from Sligo, Ireland and ten years later made her acting debut at age seventeen in the pantomime Twinkle twinkle little star at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne. Kemble was a talented actress, adept at performing a wide variety of roles. She was particularly successful in musical theatre and light comedy, and was also noted for her performances as Lady Macbeth and Ophelia in Shakespearean productions. The combination of talent, natural charm and phenomenal beauty secured her a special place in the hearts of the Australian public.
In Miss Myra Kemble, Girolamo Nerli conveys to the viewer a sense of Kemble’s character, flair and beauty. She appears as if on a spot-lit, darkened stage. Playfully peeking out from behind a flamboyant pink ostrich-feather fan, she may be about to break into song or deliver a flirtatious monologue. Kemble appears stylish, her luxurious mantle draped open to display a chic, neatly corseted and bustled green day-dress. One wonders, what is costume and the actress and what is really Miss Kemble’s character and her own sense of style?
Nerli sought to reject class distinction in academic portraiture by simplifying his backgrounds and eliminating any objects or settings that might reveal the social status of his sitter. His portraits featuring such simplification carry a more casual air than many of the same era, and concentrate our focus on the sitter’s face and body. In this way, Miss Myra Kemble can be seen as an example of Nerli’s egalitarian desire to free his sitter from a class-conscious setting.
J F Archibald, founder of the Archibald prize for portraiture, commissioned this portrait of Myra Kemble for the Criterion Theatre in Sydney, where it hung for many years. It is one of the larger and more ambitious portraits painted by Nerli during his time in Australia. The work was first exhibited in the 9th Annual Exhibition of the Arts Society of NSW in September 1888, and won critical praise for its rich colouring and Nerli’s bold originality as a painter.
Italian born, Nerli was the son of an aristocrat. He travelled to Australia in his mid-twenties and while in Sydney in the 1890s associated with Australian painters Charles Conder and Tom Roberts. Nerli returned to Europe in 1904 and died in Nervi, Italy in 1926.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010