Liverpool, England 1859 – London, England 1935
Under the studio window: Grace Thomson [The artist's wife] c.1910 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Bernard Hall was known for his figure paintings and his interiors. He often favoured the highly tonal style popular at the time, in which a picture’s composition was defined with contrasting tones of light and dark and in which colour was of secondary importance. Tonal works were often low key and sombre, with a highlighted subject emerging from a muted background.
Depicted seated under a window, this woman appears to be reading a magazine although one can also sense her consciousness of the painter’s scrutiny. The subject is thought to Grace Thomson, who became Bernard Hall’s second wife in 1912. Bathed in the window light which reflects starkly off her long dress, her figure stands out dramatically from the dim surroundings. Sunlight reflects also off the magazine pages towards her shadowed face, etching brilliant highlights on chin, nose and eyebrows. Above and behind the subject is a mantelpiece with ornaments and she sits among them, perhaps feeling as if she is on show, like an ornament herself being appraised as a potential wife.
Bernard Hall moved from England in 1892 to take up the directorship of the National Gallery of Victoria. His contract required him to run the Gallery and the Art School in the afternoons and included a free studio in which to undertake his own work in the mornings. Among the students he taught and influenced were Hugh Ramsay, George Coates and Max Meldrum.
Bernard Hall died in 1935 while in London on a purchasing trip. The riches of the Felton bequest had fuelled a time of rapid expansion for the National Gallery of Victoria and, during his 40 years as director, he was responsible for many important acquisitions. After his death, his widow, Grace, was left with no pension and the burden of supporting school-age children. She found herself then in difficult circumstances, perhaps a contrast to her carefree magazine-reading days when she posed for this portrait.
Susan Hall 2002.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002