Maria Elizabeth O'Mullane and her children

William Strutt
Maria Elizabeth O’Mullane and her children
1854

It appears to be a scene of pleasant family life – a young girl with her doll, a playful boy and his bow and arrow, and of course a loyal hound – but this portrait of Maria Elizabeth O’Mullane and her children is rather a snapshot into a family plagued with unfathomable loss and heartache.

Maria married her husband, Arthur, in 1840, and within the decade the couple had five children, four sons and a daughter. By 1866, Maria had buried her husband and four of her children. Their first loss was their son, Frederick, who died in 1851, shortly before this portrait was painted. Ann Eliza O’Mullane, the little girl seen in the portrait’s far left, went on to marry William Garrard, a Melbourne surgeon, and have five children of her own; however, in 1883, both Ann and William also passed away, leaving their children to be raised by Maria.

Amid the active positions of her children, Maria sits pensive and composed, attempting to cope with a loss that would only become impossibly worse. And though a historical reading of Strutt’s portrait is saturated with pain, it also reminds us that such tragedy is impossible without first an abundance of love.

By Sophie Gerhard, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 5, Level 2, NGV Australia
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The arbour

E. Phillips Fox
The arbour
1910

Depicting a spot of tea in the afternoon shade, E. Phillips Fox’s The arbour allows us an intimate gaze into one family’s everyday. Nobody has noticed our presence, aside from the young boy who stares at us, questioningly. He is well dressed and privileged, with rosy cheeks brimming with health and abundance.

His vacant stare echoes his neighbour, Florence Fuller’s Paper boy, displayed close by. Close in age and perhaps with similar dreams and fears, the two boys may have even been friends, should their paths have crossed. One boy is surrounded by love, the other sits alone. One holds his spinning wheel, the other works before his time. Like the boy in the arbour, the paper boy is smartly dressed for his circumstance. Wearing an ill-fitting jacket and white necktie – items chosen to impress his wealthy patrons – his efforts are notable.

Phillips Fox and Fuller show us the product of one’s environment. The two will lead lives at odds, running the same race with different starting points.

By Sophie Gerhard, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 6, Level 2, NGV Australia
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The young mother

John Longstaff
The young mother
1891

An intimate depiction of motherhood, John Longstaff’s The young mother portrays the artist’s wife, Rosa Louisa ‘Topsy’, tenderly waving a fan over their first child. Through Longstaff’s use of subtle tonal harmonies, the painting shows the influence of James McNeill Whistler, and was awarded an honourable mention by the Paris Salon in 1891. Idyllic images of mother and child were a popular theme for many artists in the 1880s and 1890s; however, this personal illustration is quite detached from the hardship in which the family was living.

A gifted student, Longstaff was awarded the National Gallery School’s inaugural travelling scholarship in 1887. In an impulsive decision, Longstaff and seventeen-year-old Topsy married just two months before departing to London in September 1887. They arrived in Paris in January of the following year, and Longstaff commenced studies at the Atelier Cormon in Montmarte. Ralph was born in Paris in 1890, and the trio struggled to live on Longstaff’s meagre allowance, living in a small one room apartment which lacked both heating and running water. With the imminent arrival of their second child, Topsy came back to Australia in 1893, and the family was reunited on Longstaff’s return in 1895.

By Beckett Rozentals, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 6, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Ceremony with Rainbow Serpent

William Barak
Ceremony with Rainbow Serpent
c. 1880

William Barak’s Ceremony with Rainbow Serpent, c. 1880, is a paen (freshwater) picture of what this Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta (Headman) and true hero of Narrm (Melbourne) held most dear: his connection with and love of Country, community and culture. Barak is single-minded in his concentration on Wurundjeri affairs and the business of ceremony. Men dancing on Country in nargee (public ceremonies), with ritually adorned women and children, loom large in his vision. His iconic drawings capture the imagination of the viewer because he renders visible and tangible what matters most in his world.

Ceremony with Rainbow Serpent is distinguished by Barak’s startling use of Reckitt’s blue paint and red ochre pigments and his sensitive pencil drawing, apparent in the details of the faces, fingers and lyrebird feather headdresses of the men and women. In parts of this drawing, which has a stark white ground and some negative space, Barak has left the pencil line unadorned, allowing the viewer the intimacy of a glimpse of his way of sketching arms, legs, patterns, poses and faces in profile, prior to applying dark outlines. The emphatic Reckitt’s blue markings on the cloaks are expressions of Barak’s identity in the land and his honouring of culture.

By Judith Ryan AM, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 6, Level 2, NGV Australia
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In the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

Ethel Carrick
In the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris
1908

You can almost hear the buzz in Ethel Carrick’s In the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, a bustling hive of gossiping bourgeoisie. The liveliness of the scene captures a passing moment of conversation and connection; the flecks of sunlight and quick strokes giving movement to the fashionably dressed women and their children.

What might Carrick have overheard, as she sat and painted this scene? Amusing tails of impropriety, secrets between friends, or perhaps friendly disputes on Parisian politics. Might the children have been punished, for dirtying their fresh clothes?

Carrick lived close by to the Gardens, at 65 Boulevard Arago, with her husband, E. Phillips Fox. There, she painted a number of works, often accompanied by her friend and fellow Australian artist, Rupert Bunny. Bunny and his French wife, Jeanne, also lived close by, the four sparking a close friendship.

By Sophie Gerhard, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 6, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Untitled (Two young boys)

Ruth Hollick
Untitled (Two young boys)
1920s

Photography continues to play an active role in sharing and celebrating with family and friends. In the 1920s and 1930s, a time when the sharing of personal photographs was not the ubiquitous daily activity it is for many of us today, a visit to a photographer’s studio was a special event.

Portraits of children became a specialist area of photography, and in Melbourne Ruth Hollick had an unequalled reputation for it. Her photographs were so highly regarded that a 1928 review of her work declared that ‘in Miss Hollick we have one of the world’s most gifted photographers of childhood’. In an era of formal photographic portraits, she created images that were fresh and charming, injecting a lively quality that captured her youthful subjects’ personalities. In the works displayed here, Hollick has captured children who appear ready to burst with joy, irrepressible imps and sassy ‘young ladies’. The best of Hollick’s photographs show something special in the personalities of each of her young subjects, which made them treasured mementos to be proudly displayed in people’s homes and shared with distant loved ones.

By Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator of Photography

20th Century Australian Art
Gallery 7, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Sydney quilt

David McDiarmid
Sydney quilt
1978

Political and gay-community activists David McDiarmid and Peter Tully were lovers for a number of years. They remained close friends following their break-up and continued to work together on numerous artistic collaborations until Tully’s passing of an AIDS related illness in 1992. McDiarmid had first studied film and television in Melbourne before moving to Sydney in the early 1970s, where he was introduced to Tully. In 1974, McDiarmid and Tully travelled together, returning to Sydney the following year, where they resumed a close friendship with fashion designer Linda Jackson.

McDiarmid first exhibited at Hogarth Galleries in 1976, which was one of the avant-garde centres for Australian art. In his works he explored gay sexuality and protested restrictions on the public expression of homosexuality. In the late 1970s, McDiarmid began creating quilt works based on folk craft techniques combined with non-traditional materials to comment on contemporary issues. Sydney quilt was included in Tully and McDiarmid’s exhibition, New works by David McDiarmid and Peter Tully, in 1978. While in New York in 1986, McDiarmid was diagnosed as HIV positive. Returning to Australia, he dedicated himself to raising understanding of the AIDS epidemic and giving power to people who were HIV positive through his art.

By Beckett Rozentals, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

20th Century Australian Art
Gallery 8, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Chattering

Rupert Bunny
Chattering
1908

Rupert Bunny’s Chattering contains two stories of love and friendship. The first takes place on the canvas, between a pair of friends sharing confidences in an idyllic garden setting. The Edwardian era was a great period of sociability, and many of Bunny’s paintings from this time capture scenes of fashionable and artistic companionship within which literature, music, dance, and idleness are presented as shared pleasures. This way of life ended abruptly with World War I in 1914, and viewed within this context, these works are imbued with an air of poignant fragility.

The second story is not literally depicted but is perceptible – the admiration of the artist for his wife and muse, Jeanne Morel. Pictured on the left, Morel was Bunny’s principal model. The couple met in 1895, when both were art students in Paris, and married in 1902. Some uncertainty remains as to the reasons for the marriage and its happiness; however, in artistic terms, theirs was an enormously generative relationship. Morel was the subject of numerous paintings, many of these inspired by the British Pre-Raphaelite taste for luxurious interiors and garden scenes inhabited by beautiful women. Though some of these compositions may appear generic, Morel is always recognisable within them, her distinctive features rendered with Bunny’s characteristic sensuousness and luminosity.

By Dr Angela Hesson, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

The Joseph Brown Collection
Gallery 9, Level 2, NGV Australia
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The artist’s wife

William Frater
The artist’s wife
1915

What can a portrait tell us about the relationship between artist and sitter? We might seek out clues in the subject’s expression and the artist’s treatment of their features, in the relaxation or formality of their pose, in their distance or proximity. William Frater’s portrait of his wife offers few such indicators, and in their absence lies, perhaps paradoxically, much of the work’s sense of intimacy, and much of its appeal. Frater and Winifred Dow were married in 1915, the year this work was painted. Dow was a tailor, and here we see her plying her trade, occupied but at ease. Her turned head and unguarded posture suggest a familiarity that a more conventional portrait composition might fail to capture. There is a subtle eroticism, too, in the play of sunlight on her exposed neck and the mystery of her hidden face.

Frater’s nuanced approach to vernacular subjects had strong artistic precedents. He had studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and the influence of this training is identifiable in his limited, carefully considered palette and enigmatic subject matter. The deep blue, earthy brown and crisp white, in combination with the domestic subject, also evoke traditions of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. The portrait is therefore interpretable as a document of Frater’s diverse artistic reference points, but also as a quiet celebration of a newfound love and between sitter and artist.

By Dr Angela Hesson, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

The Joseph Brown Collection
Gallery 9, Level 2, NGV Australia
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