In 1970 thousands of neglected paintings by artist Clarice Beckett (1887-1935) were rediscovered in a farm shed in rural Victoria. What circumstances led to a significant Melbourne artist of the early 20th century being largely forgotten for over thirty years? To begin, during Beckett’s lifetime, Australia suffered the economic and social effects of the Boer War, WW1 and the Great Depression. In 1903 women gained the right to vote, were represented more in the workforce, but were often paid half a man’s wage. The rising independence of women was threatening to many men, who were comfortable with established conservative attitudes regarding gender roles. Unemployment after WW1 was up to 29%, and Australia was dealing with loss of a large proportion of the male population, caring for the returned wounded, and supporting families of those killed in action (Anon 2014). Additionally the arts were male dominated, making exhibition, promotion, and sales difficult for women artists experimenting with new movements like Modernism from Europe (Dever et al. 1994). Books, articles, or journals mentioning women artists reflect how few were acknowledged (Garrish-Nunn 2003-2004). Male art critics who wrote about women’s art, were often scathing in their reviews and Clarice Beckett was no exception (Jordan 1993). Her training and association with Max Meldrum (1875-1955), exemplified by the adoption of his tonal methods, plus intrusive expectations from her family, are integral to any discussion of Beckett’s body of work.
Clarice Beckett was born in Casterton, Victoria, into a middle class family that enjoyed some social status. She initially fulfilled social expectations by reading and learning drawing, partially from her mother who was an amateur painter (Hollinrake 1979). She had little positive input from her father (McGuire, 2012). Beckett attended boarding college in Ballarat, and during her stay became ill prompting her mother and sister to move and care for her. Inspiring visitors to the home in Ballarat were artists Ola Cohn (1892-1964) and Walter Withers (1854-1915) (Hollinrake 1999). Beckett completed her general education at Melbourne Girls’ Grammar Merton Hall in 1904, followed by private drawing lessons in Ballarat. From 1914 to 1916 she attended the National Gallery School in Melbourne before training with Max Meldrum in 1917. Education for young ladies in the middle classes was seen at the time as good preparation for a woman in polite society. Beckett’s rejection of suitors, and persistence with tonal painting in Melbourne, however, became an annoyance for her father, and a target for the press and critics who were still biased against women artists. Parochial attitudes towards new movements that contradicted those of the established art institutions, and the role of women, were still firmly embedded in middle class Australia.
In 1919, Beckett’s parents moved to Beaumaris, creating the biggest hindrance to her art career. Now retired, and without servants or her sister who had married and moved away, Beckett’s ailing parents imposed family responsibilities on her. As their unmarried daughter she was made responsible for caring for them. Her time for art studies, practice, and exhibiting was now severely limited especially considering her father’s intolerant attitude (Peers 2000). To cope with her limited circumstances, Beckett developed a cart which allowed her to take materials with her to paint on site, but in the house her father restricted her to painting to the kitchen table saying that it was all she required (Lock-Weir 2008). The days when she was able to go on long day trips or attend camps to paint as she did with Meldrum were now over (Hollinrake, 1995). Any trips away to paint had to be carefully scheduled around the demands of her parents. Her middle class status both protected her from the worst of post WW1 social problems, whilst preventing her from developing an independent arts career.
Although Beckett’s paintings were initially influenced by her training in the National Gallery School in Melbourne by Impressionist Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), substantial influence came later via Max Meldrum’s tonal methods of painting (Mendelsohn 1967). Meldrum was often supportive of her work, advising her well after she began experimenting with ideas that became the foundation of her unique style (McGrath 1986). Beckett exhibited paintings in the yearly exhibitions of the Meldrum group in Melbourne in 1919, 1920 and 1921, and held her first solo exhibition in 1923 in the Antheneum Gallery in Melbourne. She went on to hold them yearly until 1932, along with annual events at the Twenty Melbourne Painter’s Group 1923-1935 (Perry 1996). She joined the Melbourne Society of Women Painters in 1926 and exhibited with them until the early 1930s. As a former student of Meldrum, Beckett was often a target for cruel and unwarranted attacks by art critics who persisted in negative appraisals of her soft atmospheric application of his tonal methods. In the catalogue for the 6th Annual Exhibition of the Twenty Melbourne Painters, Beckett wrote of her objectives in art. It reflects her goals better than the opinions of male critics.
“To give a sincere and truthful representation of a portion of the beauty of Nature and to show the charm of light and shade, which I try to set forth in correct tones so as to give as nearly as possible an exact illusion of reality.” Clarice Beckett. (Perry 1996, 78-79)
Beckett related that she had a clear goal based on the understanding and practical application of tonal methods and observational skills. Examination of a selection of her paintings testifies to her dedication, and willingness to endure limited time, weather, and objurgating by male art critics, journalists, and gallery directors, to produce work indicative of her interpretation of Meldrum’s methods of tonal painting in the development of her unique style.
Figure 1. Portrait Study Hilda 1918 Figure 1A. TheArtist’s Wife
Max Meldrum 1916
Figure 2. Carnations. 1923 Figure 2A. Flowerpiece. Max Meldrum 1925
Figure 3. Wet Evening. 1927 Figure 3A. Roadway. Max Meldrum 1940
Figure 4. Boatshed Beaumaris. 1928 Figure 4A. Pont Neuf. Max Meldrum 1929
Figure 5. The Red Sunshade. 1932
There is very little written about paintings by Clarice Beckett compared to male colleagues and competitors. The few articles by critics were often negative, ridiculing Beckett’s use of Meldrum’s tonal painting techniques (Christian 1999). More favourable comments are from recent retrospective exhibitions of her work written in 1957 and 1971. To indicate her process in painting, examples of works by Meldrum have been placed above to allow comparisons. The softer tonal and atmospheric effects in Beckett’s work, in contrast to the sharper and broader range of values in Meldrum’s paintings, reveal her departure from directly copying his methods. Beckett, who was painting in the early morning and late evening, uses softer light at each end of the day. In Figure 1, an unusual portrait by Beckett, many of the mid tones are omitted taking away some of the detail and form of the face, most of the figure is bathed in a soft glow of light with a dreamy far away expression as if caught mid thought. Figure 2, in some respects adheres more closely to the principles of modern tonal painting than the Meldrum painting next to it, by giving the impression of viewing the scene through a haze or fog. Figure 3 also shows the atmospheric treatment of early evening and rainy weather with neutral tones and soft edges. The only things pulling attention into the painting are the single red tail light on the car and the reflected light coming from the background on to the road. Figures 4 and 5 show Beckett’s development as she continued to experiment with colour and tone. As with her other works, these are painted for viewing from a few metres away (Anon 1995). The soft treatment of edges and values display Beckett’s departure from established Realism or Impressionism to a Modernist method of tonal painting. Because of her association with Meldrum Beckett was often overlooked or not included as a member of the Modernist movement by critics, and rejected by some artists as non-representational of its goals. Her contribution to Australian art of the early 20th century was largely ignored until recently.
In Framing Clarice Beckett, Drusilla Modjeska (1999) describes Beckett’s method of painting exemplified in the illustrations above, stating that she painted an illusion of her reality. Figures 3 and 4 allow objects to run off sides, the cropped image gaining power by indicating that there is more to be seen outside the frame. Objects and people stand in the distance, positioned as if their attention is caught by something with little to do with the painter. It has been argued that Beckett’s work reflects the isolation she experienced due to her duties as carer to her parents. Paintings like The Red Sunshade portray people disassociated from engagement with the viewer, disappearing from view, or lost in a hazy distance. Her insistence on what she called her ‘exact illusion of reality’ however, may have more to do with composition rather than her frame of mind, just as her organisation of framing and hanging when holding solo exhibitions indicates how she wanted themes to be followed for particular paintings (Modjeska, 2014). The Red Sunshade incorporated the wider use of high key colours and a different topic to her atmospheric scenes like Wet Evening, hinting that she was experimenting and applying new ideas which unfortunately weren’t fully realised due to her early death, the result of being caught in a storm whilst out painting (Allem 2014). In her vigour to capture the atmosphere that became her identifiable style, she had disregarded her own health.
It has been suggested that Beckett made no effort to live at the end, after falling ill with pneumonia, something that should not happen when only forty-seven years of age. This begs the question; did the restrictive nature of her home, inability to expand her arts practice or attract sales, and aspersions by critics contribute? Beckett’s father refused to let artist friends visit, she mostly painted alone, had few opportunities to mix with fellow artists other than when she held or participated in exhibitions, was often attacked by art critics in the press, and either due to the economy, being a female artist, or her tonal methods of painting, sold very few works in her lifetime. The culmination of conditions in Australia during the 1920s and 1930s, added to her home life and association with Max Meldrum, led to her work being largely forgotten until she was rediscovered over thirty years after her death. Beckett was described in 1971 as a remarkable Modernist, pure and unrivalled. William Dargie said in 1971 that her work was trivialized in Melbourne during her lifetime, and had she lived in France instead of Melbourne, she would have been far better appreciated.
Clarice Beckett’s life is an example of the difficulties women artists have faced during trying social, political, and financial times. The art word in Australia during her lifetime was parochial, and biased against women painters as well as Meldrum’s students, which left Beckett un-mentioned in much of the formal recording of art history of the time. The fact that she continued to paint despite her father’s intolerant treatment of her career, her few supportive outlets and lack of commercial success is a credit to her. Without a supportive infrastructure, as Beckett was, many women would be torn between family responsibilities and working towards being a competitive artist on an equal footing with men. Beckett had the single-mindedness to continue to paint rather than marry and have children, but without financial independence was never able to travel overseas to train as several of her peers did. The strict constraints from her father closed off her ability to freely network or promote her work, or create a studio space suitable for a professional arts practice, further inhibiting her potential. The impact of wars and the depression were contributing reasons for lack of sales, as were the negative reviews in the press, but not the main conducive factors to her largely being forgotten for three decades. Apart from her association with Max Meldrum, Clarice Beckett’s most significant barrier came from the one person who should have been her most supportive champion, underpinned by persistent social expectations of the role of women of the time.
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Figure 1. Clarice Beckett. Portrait Study Hilda. 1918. Oil on Board, Size Unknown. Cleveland Museum of Art, city/state. Reproduced from http://www.artstor.org. (accessed July 21, 2015).
Figure 1A. Max Meldrum. The Artist’s Wife. 1916. Oil on Canvas on Cardboard. Size 60.8 x50.5cm. Reproduced from http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5921/.
Figure 2. Clarice Beckett, Carnations, 1923. Oil on Board, 43.5x29cm. Ruth Prowse Collection, Victoria. Reproduced from Drusilla Modjeska, 2014. Clarice Beckett. Melbourne: Niagra Galleries.
Figure 2A. Max Meldrum. Flowerpiece. 1925. Oil on Canvas on Plywood. 40.7x31cm. Reproduced from http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5923/. (accessed July 27, 2015).
Figure 3. Clarice Beckett, Wet Evening, 1927. Oil on Cardboard, 25.7×30.4cm. Castelmaine Art Gallery, Victoria. Reproduced from Perry, John and Peter Perry, 2013. Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum: History & Collections. Castlemaine: Castlemaine Art Gallery.
Figure 3A. Max Meldrum. Roadway. 1940. 32×39.5cm. Oil on Board. Reproduced from http://auctions.leonardjoel.com.au/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=LJ5769++++15+&refno=40198383&saletype=. (accessed July 27, 2015).
Figure 4. Clarice Beckett, Boatshed, Beaumaris, 1928. Oil on Cardboard, 30.5x36cm. Castelmaine Art Gallery, Victoria. Reproduced from Perry, John and Peter Perry, 2013. Castelmaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum: History & Collections. Castlemaine: Castlemaine Art Gallery.
Figure 4A. Max Meldrum. Pont Neuf. 1929. Oil on Canvas Board. 32.8×40.8cm. Reproduced from https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5932/. (accessed July 27, 2015).
Figure 5. Clarice Beckett, The Red Sunshade, 1932. Oil on Board, 14.2x22cm. Private Collection. Reproduced from Alexander, Jane, 2014. Part Two: Sea of Dreams Port Phillip Bay 1915-2013. Mornington: Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.