The turn of the twentieth century was a crucial time for women artists in Australia. By 1900, women were a visible and active presence at the country’s major art schools, including at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, where female students outnumbered their male peers. Works by women artists were hung at major exhibitions and women slowly began to enter the managing ranks of art societies.Travel to Europe to pursue further study and professional opportunities was commonplace. While prejudice and bias against female artists remained widespread, more women gained recognition and respect as ‘professional artists’ in this period than ever before.

Modern Australian Women: Works from a Private Collection explores the life and work of over fifty artists who worked in Australia and abroad between 1880 and 1965. Almost all of these women were professional working artists, often supporting themselves and their families via the sale of art through public exhibitions, commercial galleries and private commissions. The works on display provide insight into women’s professional and economic strategies, as well as their role in introducing Post-impressionism and modernism into Australian art. These works were acquired over a period of forty years and reflect the singular vision and connoisseurship of their passionate collector.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women artists were regarded by art critics as ‘naturally’ suited to flower painting, which was considered a minor entry in the traditional hierarchy of painting genres. While this characterisation was artistically limiting, women like Violet McInnes and A. M. E. Bale used it to their advantage. Small canvases and floral subjects suited the homes and tastes of middle-class buyers, so producing a large number and selling them at a modest price was a shrewd economic strategy.

In the 1920s and 1930s some women artists used floral studies as a vehicle for radical experimentation. Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith used everyday ‘feminine’ objects like flowers and tableware to develop their modernist aesthetics, incorporating graphic, geometric and decorative elements into traditionally domestic ‘minor’ subjects. These artists were at the forefront of Post-impressionism and modernism in Australia.

The window, c. 1916, painted during Margaret Preston’s six-year stay in London in the 1910s, foreshadows the structural geometric modernism she fully developed in the 1920s and 1930s. While exhibiting regularly at the New English Art Club and the Royal Academy, Preston embraced the principles of British decorative art and Japanese woodcuts in still-life compositions like this one, notable for their flattened perspective, tonal colour harmonies, contrasting black and white and the introduction of decorative elements.

Kathleen O’Connor also used still-life floral compositions to experiment with new, modern styles and techniques. She received her initial art training in Perth before travelling to Europe in 1906, where she was influenced by the theories of Post-impressionism and the work of Dutch painter Isaac Israels and French painter Édouard Vuillard. O’Connor’s expressive and energetic application of paint is evident in Still life, 1936, in which a bowl of peaches is almost obscured by vigorous brushstrokes and a subtle blending of tones.

Portraiture was the other commercial staple for women artists and provided a reliable source of income to artists including Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Stella Bowen, Florence Rodway and Dora Wilson. Working predominately in pastel, Cumbrae Stewart and Wilson depicted the female nude in works that were praised by critics for their tastefulness and subtlety. These works convey an understated sexuality while carefully negotiating expectations of what was ‘appropriate’ for a female artist.

Adelaide-born artist Stella Bowen turned to portraiture as a fast and reliable way to earn a living while she lived in England with her daughter in the early 1930s. Bowen developed a method for quickly producing oil sketches on cardboard, which allowed portraits to be completed within a couple of days; Raymond Postgate, 1934, is an example of the technique. The spontaneous, effortless style of the portraits was popular with sitters, but at odds with Bowen’s preference for tight, formal compositions on panels.

Portraiture and figure painting were also a means for women artists to explore and depict women’s inner lives and growing social and economic independence. South Australian–born, Paris-based artist Bessie Davidson produced a number of decorative portraits depicting female models in Parisian interiors, which record the autonomous, urban lifestyle made possible for women at the time, in part by the modern apartment building. In these spaces, women enjoyed new found privacy and the freedom to set their own professional, social and leisure routines. In works like Jeune fille au miroir, Davidson’s Montparnasse studio apartment is positioned as a space of burgeoning female modernity, where women’s interior lives and independence are privileged.

The charm of Europe, in particular France, has always attracted Australian artists, and the turn of the twentieth century saw an increase in female artists travelling overseas to exhibit their work and to study. For many, including Bowen, Davidson, O’Connor, Alison Rehfisch and Hilda Rix Nicholas, the experience of living abroad was the first time they had felt liberated from the established rules of Australia, and they became fully immersed in their new environments.

Alison Rehfisch’s devotion to modernist ideals of colour, form and design, for example, was reinforced during her time studying at London’s Grosvenor School of Modern Art under Iain Macnab. Her stylised compositions were shown at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in London and the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, and she travelled extensively through Spain, Germany and France in the mid 1930s, where she painted Sailing boats, Brittany, 1938.

Morocco, with its exotic sights and different light, was a major infuence on the work of Hilda Rix Nicholas, who made two trips to North Africa in the early 1910s. As her painting style moved towards Post-impressionism, her approach to form and her use of colour became more liberated. Rix Nicholas spent most of her time painting the open-air market in Tangiers, and these Moroccan paintings and related drawings by Rix Nicholas are among the earliest modernist works by an Australian artist.

Female artists also looked to the Australian outback and countryside for inspiration. For example, Violet Teague travelled to the Hermannsburg Mission in the Northern Territory, and Hilda Rix Nicholas conducted extensive driving excursions across rural New South Wales. Her strong and vibrant pastoral scenes, characterised by their vivid use of colour and confident, dynamic handling of paint, often saw Rix Nicholas labelled by critics as a ‘masculine’ painter. In The picnic, early 1920s, likely painted during this period, she represents the Australian landscape as a peaceful idyll for female leisure and relaxation.

Jane Price and Clara Southern, who shared a studio in Grosvenor Chambers in Collins Street, Melbourne in the late 1880s, were advocates of painting the Australian landscape en plein air. Price worked with the artists of the Heidelberg School at Eaglemont and Heidelberg, including Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts, and her role in the development of Australian Impressionism is clearly visible in the work Children playing in a landscape, c. 1888. Southern helped establish a small community of landscape artists at Warrandyte, Victoria, and her lyrical depictions of the Warrandyte landscape reflect her enduring love of the region and its flora, which she captured in soft, intimate and atmospheric works.

Many women artists of this period who studied in London and Paris were drawn to printmaking as a medium that suited their decorative aesthetic. Margaret Preston, perhaps Australia’s most famous printmaker, heralded a new direction for the medium with her bold and roughly carved woodcuts. Similarly, Thea Proctor’s prints had a strong emphasis on design, and both she and Preston championed modernist relief prints.

Ethel Spowers, Eveline Syme and Dorrit Black each travelled to London to study at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art with Claude Flight, who promoted the colour linocut as a modernist medium. His students learnt to use three or four different colour blocks to build up dynamic images that expressed the energy of a new age with a strong sense of rhythm and movement. Syme wrote: ‘Here was something new and different, I had seen nothing more vital and essentially “modern” in the best sense of the word’. Upon their return to Australia, these artists helped to promote the colour linocut and used the technique to create images of distinctively Australian subjects.

Australian women artists of the early and mid twentieth century did not share universal aesthetic principles and artistic outlooks. Nor can this ‘women’s art’ be defined by a particular style, colour palette or subject matter. Rather, the women showcased in this display represent the competing approaches and myriad influences that made this period one of the most exciting and dynamic in the history of Australian art. It is largely their work that has come to define the style and aesthetic of these decades, and represent the optimism, openness and ambition of the ‘modern woman’.