The pleading butcher, one of Peter Purves Smith’s last works, portrays a large woman in a green dress embracing a butcher in a blue-striped apron. The figures are entwined, merged together as one form. The artist’s widow, Maisie, suggested that these figures were herself and her husband, and that it was a joke about the rules of painting. ‘He was experimenting with surfaces and patterns … [his teacher] Old George [Bell] forbade what he called breaking the picture plane so Pete naturally fiddled with it’.1 But as Mary Eagle has commented, ‘the humour is heady and … as deadly as a surrealist nightmare’.2 In playing with the rules, Purves Smith turned the solid forms of the figures into flat planes, the room into a giddy puzzle space with the floor slanting in two opposite directions, and the flat plane of the magical moon landscape on the back wall into an almost three dimensional perspective – like a view through a window. What is more, he created a sense of foreboding through the third, black silhouetted figure behind the woman.
Purves Smith painted The pleading butcher in 1948, after he returned from war service and married Maisie. In the 1940s he had been considered one of Australia’s most promising young artists, along with William Dobell and Russell Drysdale, with one of his paintings acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (New York). In a career that spanned only two decades, owing to his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1949, he made a significant contribution to Australian art, producing a number of powerful and evocative works that convey his wicked sense of humour and warm humanity.
We can view The pleading butcher as a modernist exercise but, in the light of the artist’s biography, it is hard not to see it also in terms of his life – as conveying the new-found happiness of his marriage, haunted by the shifting ground of his illness, and the shadow of death. The small figure of the butcher seems to be clinging on to the large woman for all his life, while she supports him with her big body and strong arms (her generous spirit and large heart).
1Maisie Drysdale, letter to Felicity St John Moore dated 27 July 1991, Quoted in Felicity St John Moore, Classical Modernism: The George Bell circle, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1992, p.124.
2Mary Eagle, Peter Purves Smith: A painter in peace and war, Sydney: The Beagle Press, 2000, p.168.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002