Hilda Rix Nicholas: From Ballarat to Tangier

Leonard Joel’s annual Women Artists Auction is a much-anticipated event for collectors, showcasing an exciting collection of works by female artists that are now demanding the academic and commercial recognition they so rightfully deserve. This year’s exhibition continues to focus on artists of the early 20th Century, a turning point for many artists when overseas travel and study became more accessible than ever before.

Establishing success early in her career, Ballarat born Hilda Rix Nicholas exhibited locally in Melbourne at The Austral Salon and at the Victorian Artists’ Society, while studying under Frederick McCubbin. After her father’s tragic and sudden death, Hilda and her family made the decision to travel to Europe. This fateful decision not only brought hope of a fresh start but also exposed Hilda to Europe’s most influential art movements which would have a profound impact on her oeuvre.

Hilda Rix Nicholas sketching in the marketplace, 1914

Visiting North Africa twice, Hilda was one of the first Australian artists to follow the trend and undertake what was known as the ‘artist’s circuit’ throughout French North Africa, also known as the Maghreb. The unique qualities of the sun and striking architecture served as a challenge to western artists with formal European training. During her first visit to North Africa in 1912, Rix Nicholas travelled to Morocco and Spain for three months, basing herself out of Tangier, and then returning in 1914 with her sister, Elsie. Fascinated by this region, these trips offered her the opportunity to paint en plein air in a new environment. Experimenting with style and colour, she produced intimate scenes of local villagers, public spaces and town life. Working quickly to avoid the notice of passers-by, Rix Nicholas honed her swift handling of paint to capture the light, movement and shapes of the busy street scenes unfolding around her in a matter of minutes. Her works acted as a glimpse into life in North Africa, an exotic and dreamy destination for many back home.

The Arab Sheep Market,
Tangier 1914
oil on canvas

Sadly, a house fire claimed many works from her African series with the majority of oils remaining now secured in institutional collections. Leonard Joel is honoured to offer The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier 1914 in our October sale, as one of the rare remaining oils of this series to ever come to public auction. The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier 1914 is executed with brilliant pictorial movement – the play of sunlight glistens across the surface, the powerful African sun illuminating the whitewashed architecture and textured garments. Her colour palette became liberated, with bursts of pinks, purples, and oranges in line with her Fauvist influences. The warmth of her creams and yellows are felt not just seen, a true testament to Hilda’s distinctive post-impressionist style.

The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier 1914 has been much-admired in many significant exhibitions, loaned from the significant Rasmussen Family Collection in whose care it has been for many decades. Hilda Rix Nicholas’ works were celebrated for much of her lifetime, but the art world slowly began to exclude her from important discussions of 20th Century Australian art. Her work is rightfully now re-emerging from the plethora of Australian female artists unjustly left behind, and we are pleased to showcase this painting as the leading work of our Women Artists auction on the 21st of October.

LUCY FOSTER / Fine Art Specialist

October 2020