Grace Cossington SMITH, Study of a head: self-portrait Enlarge 1 /1

Grace Cossington SMITH

Neutral Bay, New South Wales, Australia 1892 – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 1984

  • England, Europe 1912-14
  • England, Italy 1949-51

Study of a head: self-portrait 1916 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas on board

Primary Insc: signed lower left, in black: 'G. Cossington Smith'
Dimensions: 28.6 h x 23.4 w cm framed (overall) 467 h x 418 w x 35 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased with funds from the Marie and Vida Breckenridge bequest 2010
Accession No: NGA 2010.383

Art is about … expressing things unseen—the golden thread running through time.[1]

Grace Cossington Smith’s jewel-like self-portrait shines with an external and inner luminosity. Painted while she was a student with Anthony Dattilo-Rubbo, the high-key palette of pinks, blues and greens and animated brushstrokes reveal the influence of British Post-Impressionists like Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. It is possible that Cossington Smith had seen works by these artists while she was living in England between 1912 and 1914. Dattilo-Rubbo’s classes and the Post-Impressionist images he showed them had certainly inspired her. Norah Simpson, a fellow student who studied in London, also brought reproductions back to the classes. Cossington Smith recalled Simpson saying that the students needed to attain an effect of light and colour, like ‘crushed diamonds’.[2]

Vibrant colour began to feature early in Cossington Smith’s art. When she returned to Australia in 1914, she was delighted to find that her father had built her a light-filled studio in the garden of their Turramurra home on Sydney’s North Shore. It was a vote of confidence in her potential as an artist. It was a space of her own—a space to freely experiment. As the title Study of a head: self-portrait suggests, the work was a way of applying lessons taught at art school. More significantly it is a self-portrait of a dedicated, thoughtful, passionate young artist pushing the boundaries of convention.

Cossington Smith, Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre became known as Australia’s first Post-Impressionists, praised and reviled in the 1920s for their inventive modern works. Cossington Smith’s ravishing paintings of radiant flowers, trees, gardens and still-life subjects during this decade, along with her daring depictions of the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, are now widely recognised as among the most significant modernist works in Australia. Later in life she became well known for paintings of interiors of her Turramurra home, filled with mosaic-like touches of shimmering colour, like ‘compressed sunlight’.[3]

The scene had been set from her student days. Around the time she painted her early self-portrait, Datillo-Rubbo said: ‘I can’t understand why you’ve kept off painting for so long, because you have such a wonderful colour sense.’[4] One might imagine her fired up by these comments when she painted her poignant, luminous self-portrait, gazing into the distance; a burgeoning artist on the threshold of her dream.

Deborah Hart

[1] G Cossington Smith in conversation with Daniel Thomas, quoted in D Hart (ed), Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, p 77.

[2] Cossington Smith interviewed by Alan Roberts, quoted in Grace Cossington Smith, as above, p 12. Cossington Smith was also keen to point out that while Norah Simpson made a contribution, it was a myth that she introduced them to Post-Impressionism in 1914, because Dattilo-Rubbo had brought back reproductions from his European travels as early as 1906.

[3] J Gleeson, quoted in Grace Cossington Smith, as above, p 80.

[4] Cossington Smith interviewed by Alan Roberts, quoted in Grace Cossington Smith, as above, p 11.

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