Ballarat, Victoria, Australia 1884 – Delegate, New South Wales, Australia 1961
Snow, Tombong Ranges c 1942 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Hilda Rix Nicholas was the first landscape artist of the Canberra region. Until recently, there were no Australian paintings by her in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, despite the fact that she spent her last thirty five years in Australia and in the Canberra region. The recent acquisition of a group of fourteen oil paintings from the artist’s family, together with a group of drawings and prints, means that the Gallery will finally represent the artist as she deserves.
Members of the National Gallery can also contribute to this collecting initiative by supporting the Members Acquisition Fund. The subject of this year’s fund is Rix Nicholas’s remarkable oil painting The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains 1921–22 (see page 32), which she painted during a visit to the Blue Mountains in the 1920s. With this work, the artist ably met the challenge of turning a popular scenic view into art.
Among the works acquired are three paintings from Rix Nicholas’s visits to Morocco in 1912 and 1914 (now the subject of a book by Jeanette Hoorn, Moroccan idyll). She painted bold, adventurous images of Morocco, revealing her considerable sensitivity to colour and form. Moroccan loggia 1912–14 is remarkable in its use of an almost abstract arrangement of forms and bold colours, recalling the Moroccan work of Henri Matisse. As Hoorn writes of Moroccan loggia: ‘The splashes of colour created by “blobs” of thick impasto applied across the canvas give this work a remarkably experimental, almost fauvist aspect … The work’s simple structure and relaxed framework allow a wonderful evocation of both the building’s elements and the light to dominate the picture plane’.
The Canberra subject Molonglo River from Mount Pleasant, Canberra 1927 is one of Rix Nicholas’s most remarkable Australian paintings, displaying her strong colour sense and bold design. The tall, vertical Japoniste-like tree in the foreground contrasts with the Molonglo River’s zigzagging through the composition. Here, Rix Nicholas pays homage to the much-loved works of Arthur Streeton and Sydney Long, ‘Still glides the stream and shall forever glide’ 1890 and The valley 1898 respectively. But, more than this, it is an early image of our own place, Canberra.
Rix Nicholas was, like her Queensland contemporary Kenneth Macqueen, a farmer-artist. From the age of forty-two, she lived on the land with her husband, Edgar Wright, and painted her immediate environment, the people and places she knew and loved. Among the group of works recently purchased are Studio and garden, Knockalong c 1930, Snowy River country, Tombong c 1935 and Red shed yards, Knockalong c 1935, all painted on the family property and all reflecting Rix Nicholas’s affinity with and love of the land she lived on.
A key painting among the group is Snow, Tombong ranges 1942. Here, Rix Nicholas created a grey-white painting—an image of deep, thick snow, lying on the ground. She used thick impasto to convey the texture of the snow. And she contrasted this with thin paint to conjure up the icy river, and scumbled paint to convey the troubled cloud-filled sky. Looking at this painting, we can feel the silence, the stillness of the scene. We also sense Rix Nicholas embracing this landscape, enjoying the opportunity to paint white on grey-white and to depict a place she knew well. There are few such paintings in the Australian landscape tradition. Eugene von Guérard painted his celebrated North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko in 1863, and Imants Tillers much later made his version of this subject. But von Guérard’s is a grand romantic vista, celebrating the awe inspiring aspects of the landscape and the power of natural forces, with small figures of men looking in wonder at the scene. Rix Nicholas, on the other hand, depicted her snowy landscape from the ground, presenting it as a familiar place. And, to her, it was a well-known scene, a view from her metaphorical backyard. Although Snow, Tombong ranges might at first appear to be a traditional snowy landscape, it is, in fact, a highly original view of the Australian snowfields, with a minimal palette of white on grey-white—and a few colour highlights.
Rix Nicholas does not fit neatly into the canon of Australian art. She did not even paint similar subjects or work in a similar manner to the women artists among the Sydney modernists. And yet, Rix Nicholas is a major Australian artist much deserving of better recognition over all and, in particular, of a better representation in the national art collection. The acquisition of this group of fourteen paintings will substantially improve our representation of her work and finally enable us to show her range of achievements. It has been made possible through the generosity of John Hindmarsh AM and Rosanna Hindmarsh, the National Gallery of Australia Foundation Gala Dinner Fund and the Ruth Robertson Bequest Fund.
In this year of the Centenary of Canberra it is fitting that we have improved our representations of this important artist of the Canberra region.
Anne Gray Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 75, Spring 2013