“The painting works on several levels. A fine artistic statement, it incorporates the high-key colours and stippled brushstrokes associated with Sydney Modernists such as Grace Cossington Smith. This is seen in the ‘painting within a painting’, where the hues and textures enliven the landscape, and in the heightened colours Wakelin has used for his wife’s jacket and dress. The portrait itself is stylised but retains intimacy and immediacy. We are given a glimpse into the couple’s domestic and intellectual life, particularly through the inclusion of the magazine, The Listener, which rests in Estelle’s lap. The BBC publication featured broadcast talks, previewed literary and musical programs and included book reviews.”
– Samantha Littley, Curator, UQ Art Museum
About the artist
Roland Wakelin was one of a significant group of Modernist artists, including Margaret Preston (1875–1963), Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984) and Roy de Maistre (1894–1968), who revolutionised Australian art in the decades between the wars. Wakelin was born in 1887 in Greytown, New Zealand. He studied painting at the Wellington Technical College and exhibited with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Australia in 1912 at the age of 25. He continued his studies at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales taking life drawing lessons with Norman Carter (1875–1963) and Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo (1870–1955), with whom he painted on weekends. Dattilo-Rubbo was an influential teacher who imparted to his students the tenets of Post-Impressionism and encouraged them to use ‘high-key’ colours and expressive brushstrokes. He brought a European sensibility to his classes, an influence that was reinforced by one of his pupils Norah Simpson (1895–1974), who had studied in England under the Camden Town painters and seen works by Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Henri Matisse (1896–1954) in Paris.
As Wakelin described, ‘It was about the year 1913 that the first glimmerings of what is now called “modern art” came to us in Sydney … Colour was the thing it seemed – vibrating colour, and there were new ideas in composition – unorthodox … We commenced to heighten our colour, working in stippling touches, and to make severe cubistic drawings.’1 Wakelin was quick to implement the methods that Dattilo-Rubbo advocated. Wakelin’s Down the hills to Berry’s Bay (1916) is considered an important precursor to Australian Modern painting. Other more innovative works, including Synchromy in orange major (1919), followed.
In 1967, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) presented a retrospective of Wakelin’s work that toured to the Newcastle City Art Gallery and, in 1987, the monograph The art of Roland Wakelin was published by Craftsman House. His work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, most state galleries and in the regional galleries of Bendigo, Castlemaine and Newcastle.
About the work acquired
Roland Wakelin’s Portrait of Mrs Wakelin (1935) is a vibrant painting that shows the influence of his earlier experiments with colour. His wife Estelle’s crimson jacket is contrasted against the royal purple of her dress and the cobalt of the curtains that act as a backdrop to the scene. These strong blocks of colour work in tandem with the Impressionistic hues of the landscape seen through the adjacent window. A ‘painting within a painting’, the vista recalls artworks such as Wakelin’s brightly coloured sketch Berry’s Bay (1919) and landscapes by his contemporaries, in particular, Grace Cossington Smith. The contrast between the liveliness of the vignette and Estelle’s restrained pose creates a tension that gives the work its presence – the portrait is one of the most engaging paintings that the artist made of his wife, and is more animated than a similar work from around the same period, Portrait of Estelle Wakelin (c.1935). Small details such as the copy of the radio guide, The Listener, which lies in Estelle’s lap, provide the viewer with a glimpse into her private world, as well as the one visible from the family home. In this sense, and notwithstanding Wakelin’s Modernist intent, the painted silhouette set against the landscape beyond is reminiscent of Renaissance ‘profile portraits’ such as Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452–1519) Ginevra de’ Benci [obverse] (c. 1474/1478).
Prior to the acquisition of Portrait of Mrs Wakelin and Wakelin’s Self portrait c. 1940, which was acquired at the same time, the University’s holdings of the artist’s work were limited to his landscapes. The purchase of these paintings enable us to represent an important aspect of his practice.
Samantha Littley, Curator, September 2015.
- Roland Wakelin in “Down the hills to Berry’s Bay (1916): Roland Wakelin, Australia (1877–1971),” Art Gallery of New South Wales, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/OA18.1961/.