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On display on Level 1

E. Phillips FOX

Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia 1865 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1915

  • Europe, England 1887-92
  • England, Europe 1901-1913

Mrs James Pirani 1893 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: signed and dated lower left: 'E.P Fox / Oct.'93'
Dimensions: 102.2 h x 75.6 w cm framed (overall) 1200 h x 951 w x 90 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased with the assistance of Nicolette Benjamin Black 2010
Accession No: NGA 2010.333

Mrs James Pirani appears to be sitting, watching, waiting calmly for life to flow to her. She is shown to be a stately, elderly woman, whose patience might be equalled by her confidence. She looks out of the picture with a steady gaze, and gentle smile. Her neat hair, dress and glint of jewellery suggest that she was mindful of her appearance. Mother of ten children, she is portrayed here as an archetypal dignified matriarch. Clothed in black, emerging from a dark background, with a large white handkerchief in her right hand, we might ask whether she was in mourning. Or does the black dress indicate her sobriety or piety? Certainly the solidity of the composition suggests a steady character.

Abigail Davis (1821–1897) was the daughter of Gabriel Davis, a Jewish optician of Leeds and his wife Ann Aaron. In 1842, at the age of 21, she married the clothier James Cohen Pirani from London. They migrated to Melbourne in 1858, with their five children Frederick, Sophia, Regina, Annie and Samuel. After their arrival in Australia, James worked as the manager of a men’s clothing and outfitting business and later as a bank manager. They had five more children. This portrait was commissioned by Abigail’s son Samuel, when she was aged 72, perhaps in gratitude to his mother and for her dedication to her children. She lived with him during her last years. Samuel was a pianist and a friend of the artist E Phillips Fox; he frequently socialised with Fox and the commission may also have been to express his support of the artist.

Fox painted this sensitive portrait soon after his return to Melbourne in 1892, after studying in Paris and France and working at the artists’ colony at St Ives in Cornwall. He achieved a reputation for his sensuous and stylish works celebrating light and colour. However, while in Madrid, Fox copied Velasquez’s works. Mrs James Pirani reflects Fox’s admiration of  Velasquez’s paintings in the way he captured the flesh tones of Abigail Pirani’s face and hands, as well as the manner in which he offset her silvery hair against the dark dress. The portrait is a work of great clarity that evokes the presence of a strong and gracious woman.

Anne Gray

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010