The most quietly distinguished of Australia's early modernist painters, Bessie Davidson was born in Adelaide, where she received her initial training under Rose McPherson (later Margaret Preston). In 1904 she and Preston travelled to Europe together, where Davidson studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, began a close friendship with the established Australian expatriate Rupert Bunny and had her first work exhibited at the Paris salon, in 1905. Back in Adelaide at the end of the following year, she shared a studio, a teaching practice and an exhibition with Preston, and showed regularly at the South Australian Society of Arts, before returning to Europe in 1910. In Paris she established her 'Studio in Montparnasse'1 in the Rue Boissonade; this would remain her home until her death in 1965.
Davidson worked in France as a Red Cross nurse throughout World War I, cementing a commitment to her adopted country which was warmly reciprocated. In 1922 she became the first Australian woman to be elected an Associate (and then a full Member) of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (the New Salon), she was a founding member of the Société Nationale des Indépendants (the Salon des Tuileries) (1923) and was founding Vice-President of the Femmes Artistes Modernes (1930). In 1931 the government of France appointed her a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur for her services to Art and Humanity, the only Australian woman to be so honoured.
Though undated, the present work can be assigned on stylistic grounds to the 1930s, when Davidson's loose, bright, sketchy post-impressionist naturalism began to increase markedly in painterly density. Paintings from this period are carefully constructed mosaics of small, Cézannesque tesserae, an approach which registers simultaneously both a monumental formal stability and a shimmering chromatic vitality. One of the artist's Paris friends, the young British art student Mary Burges Watson (later Mary Whinney) recalled that '...she applied the paint with an extraordinary little knife out of a manicure set... placing patches of colour, thickly, with enormous consideration, warm against cold, building up the image very slowly and carefully, a sort of variation of the pointillist system, only much less rigid.'2
As her biographer Penelope Little has noted, by the 1930s 'Bessie had reached the peak of her career. A steady murmur of critical approval followed her work, confirming her position as a consistently respected member of the Ecole de Paris. Words like spontanéité, sensibilité, richesse, harmonie, luminosité recur in the reviews, and it seems that scarcely an exhibition went by in which she didn't rate a mention.'3 In this period she elevated modest interiors and still lifes to a real grandeur of mood and scale, in works such as the 'large and masterful still life'4 she showed at the 1938 exhibition of the Femmes Artistes Modernes, The Pheasant (Salon des Tuileries, 1939), and the present work.
Suspended between subtle vertical striations of background wallpaper and fleshy swags and folds of foreground drapery, Davidson here presents a harmonious arrangement of three masterly object studies. In front, anchoring the composition just below its centre horizon, a couple of plumply conical Green Anjou pears sit weightily on an elliptical plate. Behind and to the right a bunch of cubic roses wilts slightly in a jug, the flowers' whiteness reflecting off the dark vessel below, while on the left a cylinder vase holds a couple of poppies and the ghostly grey stain of evaporated water.
The present work is a particularly fine example of the artist's mature work, and strongly supports the opinion of the French critic Edouard Sarradin, who wrote: 'Bessie Davidson [gives] in her still lifes... the full expression of her rich palette and of that full-blooded craftsmanship which generously contains the essence within a harmonious whole.'5
1. Penelope Little's definitive account of the artist's life and work is entitled A Studio in Montparnasse (subtitled Bessie Davidson: An Australian Artist in Paris, Craftsman House, Melbourne, 2003)
2. Letter to A. Ribadeau Dumas, Guernsey, 27 November 1992, quoted ibid., p. 103
3. ibid., p. 107
4. ibid., p. 111
5. Journal des Débats, 14 February 1937
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