Stella BOWEN

Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 1893 – London, England 1947

  • England, Europe from 1914

Mary Widney 1927 Place made: Paris, Île-de-France, Ville de Paris department, France
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on wood panel

Dimensions: 46.0 h x 37.5 w cm framed (overall) 594 h x 511 w mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2004
Accession No: NGA 2004.104
  • ‘Stella was the most courageous, vital and harmonious personality that I have known ... she had so much to live for and such a genius for living.’[1] The Australian expatriate artist Stella Bowen was a remarkable woman with a passion for both art and life. She sought her own form of visual expression in her portraits and believed that ‘this gift of creating life at a touch is the most enviable gift that a painter can have’.[2]

    Bowen studied art in Adelaide, before travelling to London in 1914 to further her training and to pursue her dreams of becoming an artist. In London, the American poet Ezra Pound befriended her and introduced her to many avant-garde writers and artists, some of whose portraits she painted. In 1917 she met the novelist Ford Madox Ford, a man almost twenty years older than she, and they began a nine-year relationship. Bowen gave birth to their only daughter Julie in 1920, and in 1922 they moved to Paris where they mixed with leading literary figures of the day.

    Among their friends were Mary and Bill Widney, wealthy Americans living in Paris, with whom Bowen and Ford often played bridge. Portrait commissions were an important source of income for Bowen and it is likely that Mary or her husband commissioned the portrait with this in mind. The Widneys owned two other paintings by Bowen, Ford playing solitaire 1927 (AGSA) and Ford’s chair c 1928 (private collection).

    Bowen depicted Mary Widney from two viewpoints, a three-quarter profile and from behind, using the device of a reflected mirror image of the back of the sitter. The two views do not, however, present alternative aspects of Widney’s appearance; rather they suggest a public and private persona, with the back view alluding to the existence of a separate and hidden self. There is an austere quality to this work; the palette is limited to sombre browns and black. Widney’s appearance is solemn and tranquil, her hair is neatly tied back and a mysterious smile plays at the corner of her mouth. The fur collar of her coat frames her face. Her blue eyes do not meet the viewer but look towards her right, as if Widney’s attention was directed elsewhere or she was absorbed in thought.

    Anne Gray

    [1] Keith Hancock to Julie Lowe, 30 October 1947, quoted in L Wilkins, Stella Bowen: art, love & war, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2002, p 3.

    [2] S Bowen, Drawn from life, quoted in Wilkins, as above, p 4.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010