George W. LAMBERT, The sonnet Enlarge 1 /2
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St Petersburg, Russia 1873 – Cobbity, New South Wales, Australia 1930

  • Australia 1887-1900
  • France and England 1900-21
  • Australia from 1921

The sonnet c.1907 Place made: 2 Rossetti Studios, Flood Street, Chelsea, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: signed lower left in oil 'G W Lambert'. not dated.
Dimensions: 113.3 h x 177.4 w cm
Cat Raisonné: Gray(1996),P77
Acknowledgement: John B. Pye Bequest 1963
Accession No: NGA 63.18
  • Collection of John Pye.
  • Bequeathed to the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (C.A.A.B, by John Pye, 1963.
  • Transferred to the Australian National Gallery Collection, 18 July 1990.

In The sonnet, Lambert created a dreamlike allegory in which a man reads a sonnet to his female companion, who gazes contemplatively out of the painting. They seem unaware of the nude young woman who sits between them; she exists, as it were, on another plane, a metaphysical construct conjured up by the poet in the lines of the sonnet.

As in his other allegorical pictures, in The sonnet Lambert drew on well-known works by other artists – in this case the open-air idylls Giorgione/Titian’s Le concert champêtre c.1509 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe 1863 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).

The painting might also present an image of the two sides of woman – the sacred and the profane – with the clothed woman acting the role of sacred love. Both her pose and her puffed sleeve have a resemblance to the figure of sacred love in Titian’s masterpiece Sacred and profane love c.1514 (Museo Galleria Borghese, Rome).

Kitty Powell was the model for the nude, Thea Proctor for the clothed woman and Arthur Streeton for the man. Lambert wrote: ‘the model had been posing for my private classes. Thea Proctor got instruction from me while she carried on professionally. Streeton was a frequent and honoured visitor to the studio. One day when I saw these three people together … it seemed to me a modernized version of Giorgione [possibly Titian’s] “Fete Champetre”’ (Lambert, ML MSS A1811 MSS p.73).

When Proctor viewed the painting some years later she remarked, ‘There are lovely blacks and whites in the picture – Streeton is in dark grey – the nude flesh is golden – I am in black and white’ (Engledow 2005, p.27).

Despite the many precedents, some critics objected to the juxtaposition of the nude with figures in modern dress in a landscape setting. They were more accustomed to the traditional practice of artists depicting the nude in classical themes. They objected to Lambert’s departure from the norm on the basis that the nude was too realistic to be proper. 

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

George W. Lambert received the New South Wales Travelling Scholarship in 1899, and studied in Paris between 1901 and 1902. Lambert, who had painted heroic images of bush life in Australia in the 1890s, focused almost entirely on figure painting once in Europe.

The sonnet reveals the vogue for sophisticated quotations from art of the past, prompted by a scene Lambert glimpsed in his London studio when fellow-expatriates Arthur Streeton and Thea Proctor, and his life-class model Kitty Powell paused momentarily in the same space. ‘[I]t seemed to me’, he wrote, ‘a modernized version of Giorgione’s “Fete Champetre” [sic, now attributed to Titian]’, in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2013
From: Miriam kelly, Capital & Country: The Federation Years 1900 – 1913, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2013