Tahitian lily, whichMary Cockburn Mercer painted while she was living in Tahiti in 1938, captures the essence of her bohemian, nomadic life. She painted a seemingly fragile lily, its delicate white petals and overt spiky stamens arising from a strong and sturdy stem. The lush tropical flower, shimmering in the sparkling light from the open window, bends to the world outside where the ocean stretches endlessly to the horizon. On the wall is a map of Moorea, an island to the west of Tahiti.
Mercer was born into a wealthy Victorian family, giving her the freedom to live the life she desired. At the age of 17, she ran away from school in London to Paris, to live in the artists’ community of Montparnasse, mixing with artists such as Chagall and Picasso and later working as a studio assistant to André Lhôte. In the 1920s, she lived in Cassis with American artist Alexander Robinson and later moved to Capri to mingle with the fashionable lesbian set. Here she fell in love with a German photographer and travelled with him to Spain, but was forced to escape by ship during the rising unrest of the Spanish Civil War and ended up halfway across the world in Tahiti.
By 1938, Mercer had made her way back to Australia. She studied with George Bell, exhibited with the Contemporary Art Society and gave classes to artists in her studio apartment in Bourke Street, Melbourne. Mercer returned to France in 1952, where she remained until the end of her life.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002