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Grace Cossington Smith

Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was a leading Sydney painter in the Australian modernist movement, and her painting The Sock Knitter(1915) is generally regarded as Australia's first modernist work.

Recognised for her vibrant use of colour, Cossington Smith depicted scenes of every day and domestic life in Sydney, where she lived in her family home in Turramurra for most of her years. Her subject matter was diverse and included everything from street scenes and bustling crowds to bush landscapes and still lifes.

Cossington Smith is best known for her interior scenes. These depict an intimate and personal world in radiant colours, lending a spiritual quality to the oil paintings.

Works of Cossington Smith

Image of Grace Cossington Smith

Grace Cossington Smith, The Bridge in-Curve, c.1930, tempera on cardboard 83.6x111.8cm. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria

Cossington Smith's most famous painting The Bridge in Curve(1926) shows the two ends of the Sydney Harbour Bridge rising up to each other in near-completion. According to Jennifer Phipps of the National Gallery of Victoria the bridge itself is a great symbol of modernism.

The engineering feat of the bridge in this case is less important than it is a symbol of the triumph of modernism for Australia. Australia is a great modernist society, and so that's why it is reaching up into the sky, elevating the country. [Cossington Smith] is putting together the modernist ideal with the spiritual ideal. That's why there's the light radiating out like a halo.
Jennifer Phipps, curator of Australian Art (Late Modernism), National Gallery of Victoria. Interviewed 28 May 2004.

When Cossington Smith painted the The Sock Knitter in 1915 she was only 23-years-old. Despite her youth, the bold picture - showing a girl (believed to be her youngest sister, Charlotte, or Diddy, as she was known) knitting socks during wartime - is considered by many to be the first post-impressionist work carried out in Australia and a key picture in the modernist movement.

Image of Grace Cossington Smith

Grace Cossington Smith, The Sock Knitter, 1915, oil on canvas 61.6 x 50.7cm. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW

Above all Cossington Smith concerned herself with depicting scenes of everyday life. Soldiers Marching(1917) juxtaposes an urban Australian street scene with the timely relevance of soldiers marching off to war in Europe, while paintings like Centre of a City(1925) show people dwarfed by towering skyscrapers.

In works like Interior with Veranda Doors(1954), Interior with Blue Painting(1956), and Interior with Wardrobe Mirror(1955) the viewer is offered glimpses and snapshots into an intimate, interior world.

[Cossington Smith] really went beyond her art school training and for her time was quite a radical artist. She was a great colourist and also a painter of light. That sense of light that emanates from her later works of the bush and particularly in the late interiors - there's a fantastic sense of luminosity that comes out of those works.
Deborah Hart, Senior Curator (Australian Painting and Sculpture), National Gallery of Australia. Interviewed 28 May 2004.

Cossington Smith's life

Image of Grace Cossington Smith

Self-portrait by Grace Cossington-Smith in 1948.
Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery: 2002.65.

Grace Cossington Smith was born in Neutral Bay, Sydney, on 22 April 1892. At school she studied with Albert Collins and Alfred Coffey and in 1909 started at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales under Dattilo Rubbo.

From 1912-14 she travelled in Europe and attended drawing classes at the Winchester School of Art in England and also in Germany. She then returned to Australia, and her studies with Dattilo Rubbo continued.

While her 1915 oil painting The Sock Knitter is considered a key modernist work, it wasn't until her association with fellow students Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre - leading to the formation of the Contemporary Group in 1926 - that the bulk of Cossington Smith's contribution to the modernist movement really began.

Following her father's death in 1938, she moved from her garden studio to a room within the family home. It was then that she began painting a series depicting intimate views of her room.

It is possible that the wider art community may have been slow to pick up on her work because of her reluctance for self-promotion.

It's interesting that compared to an artist like Margaret Preston, who was very outspoken and had a very forceful personality, Grace is quite the opposite. She was quite retiring and worked away (by herself). She enjoyed that, in a way, as well. Having a measure of isolation for a lot of artists is something that helps them get on with their work.

Deborah Hart, Senior Curator (Australian Painting and Sculpture), National Gallery of Australia. Interviewed 28 May 2004.

Cossington Smith died on 10 December 1984, aged 92.

Exhibitions

  • Walker Gallery, London, 1932
  • Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, about 12 exhibitions between 1932-72
  • New English Art Club, Redfern Gallery and RA in 1950
  • Australian retrospective tour of State galleries, 1970
  • Her work has appeared in numerous survey exhibitions, including Australian Women Artists Ewing & George Paton Galleries, University of Melbourne and touring public galleries, 1975
  • The Great Australian Art Exhibition, 1988
  • A Century of Women Artists 1840s -1940s Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne 1993
  • A retrospective was held at S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 1984
  • A major retrospective was held at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005

Awards

  • Bathurst prize, 1958, 1960
  • Mosman prize, 1952
  • OBE (services to art), 1973

Works by Grace Cossington Smith can be viewed in the National Gallery of Australia, most Australian state galleries, and at many galleries in regional centres.

Useful links

Offline resources

  • McCulloch, A 1994, The Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Allen & Unwin.

Last updated: 11th December 2007
Creators: Jackie Thomas

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