St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1864 – 1947
Femme au chapeau brun (Woman in a brown hat)
c.1917 Title Notes: former exhibited title: The Straw Hat Portrait of the artist's wife
Place made: France
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
A woman in a brown straw hat is looking at you. Framed beneath the wide brim her gaze is steady yet imperturbable; the warmth of the day belied by a faint flush on her cheeks and chin. She is Jeanne Heloise Morel, wife and muse of the artist Rupert Bunny.
Jeanne had met Bunny over twenty years earlier at art school in Paris where she painted and modelled. Noted for her French beauty, she became his favourite sitter and they married in 1902. In his earlier paintings, Bunny often depicted her in romantic surroundings, wearing elaborate dresses and with her hair pinned up with flowers and ribbons. However, in this postwar portrait the carefree girl of la belle époque is now a middle-aged woman whose hair is contained under a practical sunhat. The impersonal title and domestic setting suggests that this painting was perhaps a formal exercise exploring the interplay between colour and pattern. Bunny echoes the blue-green of Jeanne’s eyes in her looped beads and floral kimono-style jacket. The fabrics are thinly painted with deft brushstrokes, the canvas showing through in the cut-lace blouse at her throat. These textures evoke the smoothness of Jeanne’s pale skin, painted in creamy opaque tones, with pale green highlights across her brow. She rests her arms on an embroidered tablecloth, while behind her is the shimmer of a woven grass wall.
Bunny painted an almost identical version of this portrait titled In a summer house: portrait of the artist’s wife c 1917 (NRAG). While the composition shows a wider view of the domestic setting, it also includes more detail such as a white cuff at Jeanne’s wrist and a patterned hatband.
Born in St Kilda, Melbourne in 1864, Rupert Bunny began studying civil engineering and then architecture before enrolling in 1881 at the National Gallery School. He sailed for Europe in 1884 where he continued his art studies in London and Paris. Over the next fifty years, Bunny established his career in France as a painter of elegant portraits and large-scale allegorical compositions drawn from myths and literature. Jeanne modelled for many of his paintings until she suffered a stroke in 1929. She died in April 1933 whilst Bunny was briefly painting and teaching in Melbourne; he returned permanently to Australia later that year.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010