Dorchester, England 1856 – Kallista, Victoria, Australia 1931
Miss Minna Simpson
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas Support: canvas
Miss Minna Simpson is one of the most delightful and charming of Tom Roberts’s portraits and one of his first major portraits to be painted after he returned to Australia in 1885 from his travels and studies in Europe. The subject, Minna Simpson, was the five-year-old niece of the artist’s future wife, Lillie Williamson. Her fresh face is carefully rendered and framed by her dark hair and white bonnet. She looks directly at the viewer, holding firmly onto her white cat (which looks as if it would very much like to escape her clutches). There is a delightful dynamic in the contrast between the child’s placid face and apparent stability, confident in her firm grasp of the cat, and the movement created by the animal, its facial scowl and paws reaching out toward the bowl of milk. The cat’s action is mirrored to some extent by the two horse-and-rider figures galloping to the right of the table (Roberts clearly made the cardboard cutouts to hold Minna’s attention while her portrait was painted).
Roberts painted the portrait when he returned to Australia, after studying at the Royal Academy in London and travelling to France and Spain between 1881 and 1885. In Europe, he had viewed works by Diego Velásquez, Edouard Manet, James Whistler and others and was obviously keen to put his knowledge about new ways of painting portraits into practice.
He painted Miss Minna Simpson with a tonal palette much admired at the time by Manet, Whistler and others and in homage to Velásquez, the dark background setting off Minna’s white apron, bonnet and lace, the white cat, toys and dish and the cream tablecloth. As well as using this restricted but contrasting palette, he delighted in juxtaposing the various textures: the crisp softness of the bonnet and apron, the delicacy of the lace, the fluffiness of the fur and the solidity of the dish.
He exhibited the portrait soon after it was painted, at the first annual exhibition of the Australian Artists’ Association at the Buxton Art Gallery in Melbourne in September 1886, in which he also showed significant works such as The artists’ camp c 1886 and A summer morning tiff 1886.
Roberts was Australia’s most important artist and the finest portrait painter of the late nineteenth century. He quickly became Melbourne’s leading portrait painter and was one of the celebrated group of artists who painted landscapes outdoors around Melbourne from the 1880s. Between 1889 and 1898, Roberts spent much of his time visiting outback stations in New South Wales, painting rural works of a national character. He was commissioned in 1901 to make a vast representation of the opening of the first Federal Parliament in Melbourne, and he moved to England in 1903 to complete the painting (on loan to Parliament House, Canberra, from Her Majesty the Queen). He visited Australia in 1919–20 and returned permanently in 1923 to paint landscapes in a low-key palette.
Anne Gray, Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 80, Summer 2014