Ballarat, Victoria, Australia 1884 – Delegate, New South Wales, Australia 1961
Les fleurs dédaignées
Paris, Île-de-France, Ville de Paris department, France
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
She stands proudly with chilly hauteur, wearing an ornate eighteenth-century-style floral dress. What is she thinking? Is that an expression of disdain or petulance? She has just spurned a bouquet of flowers, throwing them on the ground at her feet. Is it just by chance that these flowers are similar to those on her dress? Who is she looking at out of the corner of her eyes? And is that a pout, or the glimmer of a smile on her lips?
Who is this moody lady? Why is she wearing this sumptuous dress? And what is going on behind the scenes? She holds herself rigidly, with an apparent sense of control, but we perceive both arrogance and vulnerability. Her small head is made to look even smaller by the bulk of her dress.
In Les fleurs dédaignées (The scorned flowers), Australian expatriate artist Hilda Rix Nicholas created a polished sixteenth-century-style Mannerist portrait reminiscent of the work of Agnolo Bronzino. In Mannerist fashion, Rix Nicholas gave her painting a surface coolness, but we feel a considerable emotional heat emanating from the subject. Rix Nicholas painted it in Paris in 1925, wanting to evoke the atmosphere of the works of earlier artists without copying them. Like the artists she emulated, she achieved a consciously artificial style, concentrating on details of costume and decoration—as well as obtaining acute psychological observation. The precise, rigid position of the woman’s arms, combined with the shape of her wide symmetrical skirt, form the silhouette of a vase. The subject’s pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, as though she herself was made of porcelain.
Les fleurs dédaignées is Rix Nicholas’s most arresting portrait and the largest canvas by the artist. Rix Nicholas painted the work to submit it to the Salon in 1925, to impress by its size as well as through its accomplished technique and presence.
The subject of this portrait was no lady, but a Parisian professional model and a prostitute, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous. The dress was not her own but a costume created by the artist specifically for the purpose of the painting. She stands indoors before an early twentieth-century pastiche of a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry—a tapestry once owned by the artist but incinerated by a bushfire in 1985 which destroyed the artist’s house along with about 60 of her paintings and drawings.
Rix Nicholas was one of a group of prominent early twentieth-century women artists. In 1907 she travelled abroad with her mother and sister to study art. She visited France and became interested in depicting the peasants, already popularised by established artists. Visits to Morocco in 1912 and 1914 liberated her brushwork and especially her use of colour. During the First World War she fled France for England, where her mother and sister died from typhoid. In 1916 she married Australian Major George Matson Nicholas but, within weeks, he was killed in action on the western front. After her return to Australia in 1918 she painted works of Australian rural life. In 1924, Rix Nicholas returned to Europe. In Paris, she hired a studio overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens (which had once belonged to Rosa Bonheur), where she painted Les fleurs dédaignées. She returned to Australia in 1926 and, in 1928, married a young grazier, Edgar Wright. She remained on the property at Knockalong, near Delegate, for the rest of her life, working in a large studio (which still exists) near her (now destroyed) house.
The painting was recently purchased for the national collection from Rix Nicholas’s son, Rix Wright, and is now on view to the public for the first time in many years.
in artonview, issue 57, autumn 2009
Australian artist Hilda Rix Nicholas painted The scorned flowers in Paris in 1925, wanting to evoke the atmosphere of the works of earlier artists without copying them. In Mannerist fashion, Rix Nicholas gave her painting a surface coolness, but we feel a considerable emotional heat emanating from the subject. Like the artists whom she emulated, she achieved a consciously artificial style, concentrating on details of costume and decoration—as well as obtaining acute psychological observation. The subject’s pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, as though she herself was made of porcelain.
The scorned flowers is Rix Nicholas’s most arresting portrayal and the largest canvas by the artist. The subject of this portrait was a professional model, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous. The dress was not her own but a costume created by the artist specifically for the painting.
Rix Nicholas is one of Australia’s most important women artists, as well as a significant Canberra region artist. She trained at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, and in Paris, and had work purchased by the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris. From the age of 42, she lived on the land in the Canberra region with her farmer husband and painted her immediate environment.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014