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Develop skills needed for the senior Visual Arts HSC assessments by expanding your ability to identify and understand the contextual frames embedded in artworks through consideration of the artist in the setting of their life, time and work.
Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was born at Neutral Bay in Sydney. She boarded at Westwood in Point Piper then finished her schooling at Abbotsleigh (1908-1909), where she studied art with the encouragement of the headmistress and where the Grace Cossington Smith Gallery stands today. In 1910 Cossington Smith enrolled in drawing classes at the studio of Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, where she was introduced to the works of the European post-Impressionists such as Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, and Still Life (above) was painted as she began to use oils. She studied there until 1926 with other modernist artists such as Roy de Maistre and Roland Wakelin.
Still Life (c 1915) - Like Cézanne, who sought to 'treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone’, these elements can be viewed as the building blocks from which she made this painting, using small, even brushstrokes of colour. The dazzling white cloth in fact consists of bands of pale pastel pink, yellow and blue strokes, with each object backed and linked by deep mauve shadows. The bulbous earthenware jug is not quite ‘earthed’, yet it makes a convincing foil for the dazzling centrepiece, a metal mug, its reflective cylinder of high-keyed, almost abstract colour revealing the artist’s future mastery of that medium.
Cossington Smith’s father practised as a solicitor, and was Crown Solicitor in NSW from 1891-1894. Her only brother joined their father’s firm after service in the First World War and study at Oxford, while two of her three sisters left Australia to live in England. Mabel married a British officer on the brink of World War One, and in 1948 Margaret (Madge) travelled to England with Cossington Smith, but after her sister’s return to Australia stayed on to live with relatives to whom she had become close during an earlier visit in the 1920s before being summoned back to Sydney to help run the household. Charlotte, the youngest of the sisters, who was known by her family nickname of Diddy, trained as a nurse and then served in Burma during World War Two. In her later years she lived with and was cared for by Cossington Smith until her death in 1962.
It was during this period when, largely restricted to the house, Cossington Smith painted a series of luminous interiors with mosaic like feathery brush stokes such as Garden from the Studio (above). The family was very close, with strong ties to their relatives in England and to the Anglican Church, but though Cossington Smith visited England and Europe in 1912-14 and again from 1948-1951 when From Assisi was painted, unlike many artists who felt stifled here she preferred to live in Australia "[...] as a country, I would rather live in Australia because it interests me from my art point of view ... I think Australia is absolutely wonderful, the country, the animals, the flowers, everything … is more intense and brilliant".
The family house was called Cossington after her mother’s home in Leicestershire, England, and Cossington Smith lived and painted there for almost 65 years until she entered a nursing home in 1979. Still Life with Black Vase was one of her last paintings.
Black Mountain (above) was painted in Canberra around the time of the death of Cossington Smith’s mother. The sky and foreground around the black mountain which clings to the tilted earth pulse with movement and energy, seemingly drawn to the electricity poles in the foreground.
"All form – landscape, interiors, still life, flowers, animals, people – has an inarticulate grace and beauty; painting to me is expressing this form in colour – colour vibrant with light – but containing this other, silent quality which is unconscious, and belongs to all things created."
Cossington Smith had been encouraged in her pursuit of a career as a working artist by both of her parents – her mother ensured that her daughters were well educated after the standards of the time, and her father built her a small studio in the garden of Cossington on her return from Europe in 1914. Hints of her quiet determination to go her own way might be seen in her decision to enrol at Dattilo-Rubbo’s studio rather than the more traditional Julian Ashton School, and then much later to leave him when he didn’t support the direction in which her art was evolving. Critics were not kind to her early work – these paintings, now seen as amongst the earliest of the modernists in Sydney, with their flattened planes and blocks of colour, were described as being deliberately frightful.
Her first solo exhibition was in 1928, and she exhibited in group shows and then in solo shows at the Macquarie Galleries until the early 1970s. At this time public galleries began to acquire her paintings, and in 1973 a retrospective of her work was held at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Cossington Smith painted what she saw and how it made her feel, and was to say in 1965 that “my chief interest, I think, has always been colour, but not crude flat colour, it has to shine, light must be in it.” There were few shadows in her work, rather she built her forms with colour.
This landscape features Canberra’s dominating natural backdrop, which was in the 1930s bare and treeless. A thick red band skirts the foreground, offset by complementary bands of green to indicate hedges and bushes. Thin red tracks, maybe fencing, form part of a larger spiral of lines that fan out, animating both sky and mountain. The pale ground contrasts with the blocky black silhouette along the high horizon.
‘When is a work modern? When it represents the age it is painted in.’ Margaret Preston
Modernism in visual art was part of a broader movement in design, architecture and literature starting at the beginning of the twentieth century which used new techniques and materials to mirror the realities and hopes of modern societies.
In Australia from the 1920s onwards, modernism could be experienced as a total environment by visiting a series of modern display homes and exhibitions filled with modern interior design and modern books and magazines. The idea that form should follow function, so that appearance should reflect the functions of a building, and that the design should be true to the materials used, was key. Engagement with modernism was not restricted to avant-garde city dwellers but extended to the regional cities in the form of modern architecture and even the milkbar, with its streamlined silver hygienic surfaces. Modernism in design was not just a style but a world view, forward looking and utopian, though some derided growing American influence as cultural dependence.
The reception of modern art in contrast was more nuanced – some critics raged against the modern, and especially early in the twentieth century it was noticeable that the resident of a modern house, dressed in modern clothing, could condemn modernist painting even if it was modernist only in colour and form while more traditional in subject.
More information on the artwork featured at the top of the page and the other artworks reproduced on this page is available through our Collection Search.
For a guide on how to use the collection search please see our Search Tips.
When using objects from museum collections as part of your research it is essential to include the reference information just as you would for a written source. You need to cite the name of the object (or artist and title of an art work), the associated date (or date range), where it comes from, as well as the museum identification number (also known as inventory or registration number) and the name of the collection or museum itself. For artworks it is also convention to include the medium or the materials used to make the artwork.
For the artwork featured at the top of the page the necessary components are:
In a picture caption, in-text reference or footnote you can write this information as:
Grace Cossington Smith, The Ballet No 1, 1937, Painting - oil over pencil on board, Australia, NM2012.88, Chau Chak Wing Museum, The University of Sydney.
To reference the object and its information from our collection search in your reference list or bibliography you can use the same information but make sure to include the dedicated link to the object: https://www.sydney.edu.au/museums/collections_search/?record=ecatalogue.81400
Many referencing styles also require you to include the date you accessed the information from the internet.
· Who else was amongst the group now known as the Sydney Moderns?
Compare their paintings to those of Cossington Smith, and look for similarities and differences in their subjects and in the formal aspects of their painting: line, shapes and forms, the use of space, colours and brushwork. Hint: start by using the Chau Chak Wing Museum collection search button to look for paintings in the collection by Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre, with whom she studied, and her contemporary Margaret Preston.
· What was changing in Australian society during CGS’s career?
Discuss for instance industrialisation, the impact of the First World War on families, the ways in which women participated in society, and the growth of Australian patriotism. How was Cossington Smith directly affected by these changes, and are they reflected in her art? (You should also look at other examples of her art such as the paintings in the Art Gallery of NSW collection.)
· Look at Warden’s Meeting, 1943. Describe the formal composition (line, shape, focal point) and also the colours and way the paint has been applied. What is happening in this painting, and how does it relate to the artist’s personal experience of war? How do you think Cossington Smith viewed the contribution of the suburban air raid wardens to the war effort? Does your view differ from that of Cossington Smith? Are gender roles reflected in the painting, and have they changed since it was painted? (Cossington Smith was a warden, and described hearing the bombing of the harbour by Japanese submarines, and her role in ensuring that everyone was accounted for if her suburb was targeted.)
· The Australian art historian Bernard Smith wrote that “Early modernism emerges around the turn of the century as a critique of […] modernity, and ends around 1960 as the accepted cultural expression of it.” He gives as an example of early modernism Picasso, and at the end Andy Warhol. (Look at the way modernism evolved over the first half of the twentieth century – do you agree with Bernard Smith’s comment about modernism? How might it apply to Cossington Smith’s work, and to its reception?)
· Garden from the Studio, 1961 is a view from Cossington Smith’s studio into the garden at Turramurra. In a poem that some friends wrote for her birthday, one of the verses mentions the colours that she favoured:
"Squeeze, O squeeze the paint out, / Slap it on the board
Cadmium chrome and lemon / Such a golden hoard."
Investigate the types of paints described – what are cadmium and chrome? How is the paint applied to the canvas? Discuss the ideas of Barbara Irwin, who wrote a book studied by Cossington Smith called The New Science of Colour (1916). Irwin discussed the psychology of colour, and divided colours into a scale under the headings of Physical, Mental and Spiritual. Cossington Smith’s paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, made as she spent more time at home with her invalid sister, depict interior views or the interface between the indoor and outdoor worlds, flooded with golden colour and light.
· "I’m always so anxious to get the feeling of penetrating light […] Nothing to me is solid colour. There must always be light in it. I saw things as a pattern expressed in colour. I don’t force myself to do it […] I believe you’ve got to have a feeling about what you want to paint. It’s half unconscious, but you do know what you don’t want to do" Grace Cossington Smith.
Why is Cossington Smith sometimes described as Australia’s first modernist? Were her subjects modern or was it her focus on colour and light? Why do you think that the term modernism was used to describe her work? (Look at “Sock Knitter” in the AGNSW and Cossington Smith’s drawings of the construction of the Harbour Bridge as well as her paintings in the Chau Chak Wing Museum collection as you form your response.)
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Featured image (top of the page): Grace Cossington Smith, The Ballet No 1, 1937 (detail). © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith