Grace Cossington Smith (1892 – 1984)

As a chief instigator of the Australian modernist movement Grace Cossington Smith is believed to be one of Australia’s most significant artists. Portraying scenes from both the public and private spheres of everyday life she used her bold artistic skills and spiritual outlook to illustrate contemporary Sydney living creating some of the most iconic images in Australian art.

Born in Sydney in 1892 to a middle class family Grace Cossington Smith was blessed with an education focused on the arts. She studied under Dattilo Rubbo at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1910 and traveled Europe from 1912-14 attending drawing classes at the Winchester School of Art in England and at Steteine in Germany.

As a woman who lived a rather quiet and reclusive life Cossington Smith used her art to effectively portray her own accounts of the suburban middle-class world she resided in. With her primary concern being for form, vibrant colour and evocative light her subject matter was very diverse ranging from Sydney streetscapes and landscapes to scenes of domestic life with a particular emphasis on such objects as flowers, furniture and crockery.

Chronicling seventy years of Sydney’s progression of change, the art of Grace Cossington Smith has become well-known today for the way it has acted as a reliable and significant account of Australian history. Her most famous painting, The Bridge in Curve (1926) shows the Sydney Harbour Bridge in near completion. Two ends of the bridge rise up to meet however are separated by a large gap in the middle. This image has played an important role in showing how the Sydney skyline was changed forever.

Her 1915 portrait of a woman entitled The Sock Knitter is also bursting with details unmistakable of her time. Showing a girl knitting socks it is a reflection of feminine labour and the type of work undertaken by many women during WW1, who would often knit garments, especially socks for the Australian soldiers fighting abroad. With its form and sentiment relevant to the time, this image by Cossington Smith has been regarded as Australia’s first work of Modernism as it began to break away from distinctive Impressionist styles.

As Cossington Smith’s images were complemented with the extensive use of prismatic colours, broken brush strokes and a particular warm and friendly element, it is perhaps made most evident in her trademark interiors. Following the death of her father in 1938 the artist moved from her garden studio to one inside the house where she began to paint a series of personalised views of her room. In such works as Interior with Verandah Doors (1954) and Interior with Wardrobe Mirror (1955) she provides a viewer with glimpses into her ordinary suburban home by focusing on mirror reflections, doorways and window sills and in doing so, effectively conveys the intimacy of life within the private sphere.

Although the art of Grace Cossington Smith is today considered to have been greatly beneficial for the progression and recognition of the talent within the Australian art world, the artist was not always the subject of such worthy praise. She was not taken as seriously as her male contemporaries, receiving scathing reviews and often being held up for ridicule. The critic George Galway was perhaps the most harsh in his condemnation of Cossington Smith’s work. Entitling his Evening News column, ‘Modernist again. Dodging True Art’ he wrote of the exhibition’s complete lack of appeal.

As the artist expressed reluctance for self promotion, the Australian public did not respond well to the work of Cossington Smith until she grew old in age receiving recognition as one of the first and finest Australian modernists. She died aged 92 in 1984 leaving her work to be displayed in many of Australia’s finest galleries.

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