Rupert Bunny (1864 – 1947)

As a dexterous, eclectic painter whose work varied from large-scale compositions to highly decorative scenes of feminine familiarity, Rupert Chales Wulsten Bunny became celebrated as one of Australia’s finest artists and a key player in the modern art movement.

Born at St Kilda, Melbourne in 1864, Rupert Bunny received an extensive education focused on the arts. He initially studied architecture and civil engineering at the University of Melbourne in 1881 before going on to become one of the very first pupils to study at the Melbourne National Gallery School. Guided under the instruction of O.R Campbell and G.F Folingsby, Bunny’s fellow students included the likes of Frederick McCubbin, E.Phillips Fox and Louis Abrahams.

Surrounded by these many strong influences, his time at this prominent art school proved to be greatly significant to Bunny’s artistic development, and thus served to prompt his move to Europe in 1884 where he resumed his art studies.

During his time in Europe, Bunny attended the Caledron’s Art School in London and after 18 months, he travelled to Paris to study at the atelier of Jean-Paul Laurens. Many of Bunny’s early canvases produced during this time have been described to have clearly reflected an inspiration from the masters of the Renaissance, French Impressionism, Puvis de Chavannes and the neo-classic painters of the French Salons. Ultimately it was this element of his work which made Bunny a notable and well-recognised Australian representative of painting in France.

Acting as a reflection of his many successes within the international art world, from 1888, Bunny exhibited at the Salon de la Societe des Artistes Francais and became the first Australian painter to receive an honourable mention for his painting The Tritons. He also went on to exhibit with renowned British societies and galleries including London’s Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Institute of Painters in Oil-Colours, the Fine Art Society , and the New Gallery, Grosvenor and the Grafton Galleries. Bunny was awarded a bronze medal at the Paris exhibition in 1900 and was represented in the Bendigo Victorian Gold Jubilee Exhibition of 1901-02.

As Bunny’s artistic career flourished, he married French woman and fellow student, Jeanne Heloise Morel in 1902, and made France his home up until 1933 when he permanently returned to Australia and settled in South Yarra, Victoria following the death of his wife.

During his time in France, Bunny’s paintings became more French in both subject and style and as a result, solo exhibitions of his work were held at the Galerie Silberberg and the Galerie Graves, Paris. It has been reported that Bunny created some of his most successful works during this first decade of the twentieth century. For example, his painting, Apres le Bain was the first of many to be purchased by the French government for the Jeu de Paume, followed by Endormies which was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria, and Summer Time and A Summer Morning, which were both held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ collection.

Bunny was an artist who turned to the classics for inspiration, coming to produce an exceptional series of “mythological decorations” which are strongly considered to comprise his finest of works. Many are said to reflect stylistic influences from classical Greek art, Art Nouveau and Fauvism. Bunny’s interests also lay in music, which is clearly reflected in his many stylized portraits of such famous musicians as Nellie Melba, Percy Grainger and Ada Crossley.

Bunny spent forty-nine years of his life as a French resident, only making short visits home to Australia in 1911 and 1928. However, in a somewhat paradoxical yet truthful reflection of the nature of Australian art at the time, Bunny became the leader elect of the modern art movement and consequently, in 1936, he was appointed the position of vice president of the newly formed Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne.

In the last years of his life, Bunny devoted much of his time to another of his lifelong passions; music and composed several ballets. In 1946, the National Gallery of Victoria held a major retrospective of his work before the prolific artist died in Melbourne on May 25th, 1947.

Today the work of Rupert Charles Wulsten Bunny is represented by all Australian state and provincial galleries; Luxembourg , Paris and Philadelphia, U.S.A.

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