Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 1893 – London, England 1947
Cagnes-sur-Mer, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Alpes-Maritimes, France
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
‘Stella was the most courageous, vital and harmonious personality that I have known … Her death is a waste, for she had so much to live for and such a genius for living’ , wrote Keith Hancock to Stella Bowen’s daughter at the time of the artist’s death in 1947. An Australian expatriate artist, Bowen was a remarkable woman with a passion for both art and life who sought her own form of visual expression in her portraits. Provencal conversation is one of Bowen’s most engaging works and is from a period at Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France, where, as she notes in her memoir Drawn from life, she set up her ‘easel for six weeks of blissful uninterrupted work’.
The painting depicts her friends, London journalist Ruth Harris (the dark-haired woman) and fellow artist Tusnelda (the red-haired woman), and possibly Tusnelda’s partner, Sandy. It encapsulates elements that were important to Bowen: friendship, warmth, and conversation. She described the scene: ‘I found Ruth in a little square-walled garden, overhanging a cemetery that lay deep in the valley below. There were four orange trees under whose interlacing boughs was set an oval table with yellow cloth. A goldfish pond was fringed with pot-plants and pink bath-house in the corner contained a shower, a basin, a lizard and two spiders … It belonged to Sandy and Tusnelda’.
Drusilla Modjeska suggested in Stravinsky’s lunch that Provencal conversation ‘more than any other of the late 1930s paintings that we know of captures the flavour of intimacy and conversation,’ and ‘it is a patterning of male and female … Like a dance. Or a conversation. Right now these are the chairs they inhabit, but the pattern will rearrange. One or other will stand and move, the table will be left empty, or rejoined’.
The Gallery is immensely grateful to the artist’s niece Mary Alice Pelham Thorman AO for gifting this painting for all to enjoy and share.
Anne Gray Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 76, Summer 2013