East Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia 1920 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1999

The baby drinking 1955 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: Signed and dated l.r. 'John Brack 55'
Dimensions: 38.4 h x 46.2 w cm framed (overall) 450 h x 525 w x 50 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1993
Accession No: NGA 93.1475
Image rights: © Helen Brack
  • You know with a newborn baby that it has a future and it comes from the past … John saw it as the next chance.[1]

    John Brack’s The baby drinking conveys a state of being. Although his young daughter Charlotte provided the starting point for the painting, he wanted to go beyond a straightforward likeness to convey an understanding of the human condition of childhood.

    The idea of integrating the particular and the general was not uncommon in Brack’s oeuvre. He understood that to bring a deeper perspective to bear upon human nature, it was important to observe people closely. This observation involved capturing particular psychological traits and, at times, the essence of the activities his subjects were engaged in: a conversation, a ballroom dance, the act of drinking.

    The brilliance of this compact painting is the way Brack reveals the child’s total absorption. The eye that conveys a steady gaze is a vital element here—completely at one with the ‘guzzling’ of the milk. The baby is drinking from a cup, not a bottle, and there is a keen sense both of being fed and the act of feeding. Helen Brack recalls that the easiest way to feed the child was to stand up. ‘It is like feeding a lamb.’[2]

    John Brack was a master of composition and intricate balance in his paintings. Each part of the whole is always carefully considered and it is no coincidence that the mother’s firm hold on the cup is echoed by the child’s small hand curled around the chair’s arm. The fulsome curves of the baby’s shoulders and face, the circular base of the cup and the soft tresses of hair contrast with the angular edges of adult body and chair. Tones of dark and light bring vitality to the whole while the warm and bright whites impart a feeling of milkiness and purity.

    Brack’s baby drinking has taken the first steps in life’s journey yet we still have a sense of her newness; of the miracle and strangeness of a new life intimately observed. The future lies ahead, filled with possibility. In the act of drinking the baby is in the moment, untroubled by complexity. With considerable insight, Brack suggests the way young children encapsulate something that we have lost as adults and keep trying to regain—a meditative sense of simply ‘being’ in the world.

    Deborah Hart

    [1] Helen Brack, in conversation with Deborah Hart, 6 October 2009.

    [2] Helen Brack, as above.

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