Zurich, Switzerland 1898 – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 1993
The artist's wife (Paulette)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas mounted on composition board
Sali Herman was born in Zurich in 1898. Primarily known for his urban subjects, Herman travelled extensively in Australia and around the world painting landscapes, still lifes and portraits both as a civilian and during his time as an official war artist in the Australian Army.
French-born Paulette Briand married Herman in 1929. They migrated to Australia in 1937 along with his two children from a previous marriage, leaving Europe as part of an exodus in response to the rise of Nazism. These European émigrés settled in many corners of the world, not always receiving a warm welcome in their adopted homes. The Hermans initially settled in Melbourne, later moving to Sydney to escape what they (and many other migrants) felt to be a stultifying parochialism. Russell Drysdale, Herman’s fellow student at Melbourne’s George Bell School, followed shortly thereafter. Drysdale told Herman that if he wanted to paint Australia he would need to have been born here—an attitude that the migrant family no doubt encountered on a regular basis.
Whilst at first glance her large blue eyes and relaxed hands give an impression of self-assurance, Paulette is withdrawn, with arms crossed, a slumped posture and a touch of anxiety about the mouth. In other contemporary portraits by Herman the subjects appear at ease in their surroundings, occupying the picture plane with confidence. An exception to this is The artist’s mother 1944–54 (AGNSW) in which the sitter, who also migrated to Australia, seems similarly uncomfortable.
The artist’s wife (Paulette) is a portrait of contrasts. On the one hand, with her steady gaze, black hat and ‘going out’ clothes, Herman has created a portrait of a strong and capable woman who faced life with courage, raised children and attained the fluency and poise she needed to take up a teaching post in her new home. Yet in her subtle discomfort the painting also encapsulates the migrant experience of being part of, but never quite at one with, a new culture.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010