Facing the Unknown: The Modern Female Portrait

TOM ROBERTS (1856-1931) Portrait of a Lady c.1880s
oil on canvas, 60 x 50cm | $60,000-80,000

Throughout shifting cultures, societies, and tastes, portraiture has remained one of the most popular, prosperous, and personal choices of artistic subject matter. Britain’s obsession with portraiture infiltrated Australian art from its colonisation in the 1780s. Our first artist professionally trained as a portrait painter was Richard Read Senior, who arrived in Sydney as a convict in 1813. He painted small watercolour portraits and miniatures of settlers. However, by the late 19th Century, portrait painting was no longer so forcefully intertwined within art practice as the advent of photography steered many artists to other subject matter. With this shift in focus came a newfound freedom for artists. No longer constrained to the requirements of commissioned portrait painting, artists could explore and renew the creativity of portraiture. They painted their friends and lovers in whatever way they pleased and by the 1880s we began to see the beginnings of the modern portrait.

In their creative exploration of modern portraiture, artists of the time introduced new methods of identifying and individualising their subjects, especially female subjects. One of Australia’s most recognised and revered artists of this time was Tom Roberts. The artist’s portraiture of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was considerable, keeping quantity with those of males. The majority dated between 1885 and 1900 when Roberts had returned from the Royal Academy and his European travels. Most of these portraits adopted a freer approach, with subjects largely recorded as unnamed women who were willing to allow him to paint their profile in exchange for a glass of wine or food rather than by commission.

(1856-1931) A Spanish Beauty

Tom Roberts’ first significant portrait, A Spanish Beauty, was painted either during his trip to Spain in 1883 or immediately upon his return to London, and is indicative of the many complexities of portraiture of women that Roberts encountered throughout his artistic career. For example, costume could highlight social identity but also those subtleties of beauty and desire attributed to the gaze. The black lace frames her soft and sensual face while the dappled light illuminates her delicate complexion. The black clothing was a sign of mourning for her husband, and her gaze remains to the side as though contemplating the gravity of her loss. The background, dark in colour, is simple – reduced to a backdrop to permit the subject complete focus. This simplification of setting Roberts learned from the Spanish painters.

In the 1880s Tom Roberts also produced Portrait of a Lady, another powerful yet intimate portrait of an unknown female. Through the realist brushstrokes, oval bordering, and close perspective, the viewer is captivated by the sitter. Similarly to A Spanish Beauty, her gaze is aside in contemplative thought. This redirected gaze was utilised thoroughly by Roberts in these portraits of the modern woman. No longer is she there to acknowledge our presence as the viewer, but rather we are driven by intrigue to identify and acknowledge her. Whilst many of Tom Roberts’ portraits remain recorded with unnamed subjects, this seems somewhat inconsequential to their powerful presence. His portraits exemplify his compassionate eye and define the intensity of the interaction between painter and subject.

We are pleased to present Tom Roberts Portrait of a Lady c.1880s in our forthcoming March Fine Art Auction and invite you to experience its powerful presence at our viewings in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Olivia Fuller  / Head of Art

February 2021