A convert to Modernism after several month’s study with the charismatic cubist painter Andre Lhote, Grace Crowley noted that it was the first time she had heard about dynamic symmetry and the section d’or—that it was necessary to make a PLAN for a painting ...’
Crowley’s Portrait study shows how well she had absorbed Lhote’s teaching. The placement of the figure, the position of her hands and the angle of her shoulders all conform to an underlying geometric scaffolding based upon the proportions of the golden mean (section d’or). Crowley did not record who the sitter for this work was. However, it is possible that the subject was Lucie Beynis, a professional model in Paris, whom Crowley used on at least one other occasion for her Portrait of Lucie Beynis 1929 (AGNSW), a work which was first exhibited simply as Portrait. They share the same dark colouring, heavy-lidded eyes, full lips and long nose, and both have a similar stylish, languid look. Like many modernists, portraiture was an important genre for Crowley yet even when painting people who were close to her, such as her cousin in Miss Gwen Ridley 1930 (AGSA), Crowley’s principal interest always lay in pictorial construction, in solving the problems of painting, rather than in depicting individual identity.
In the pose of the sitter and Crowley’s use of the round-backed chair, Portrait study also makes conscious reference to Madame Devaucay de Nittis 1807 (Musée Conde, Chantilly) by nineteenth century neo-classical artist Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. Lhote encouraged his students to analyse the composition of the old masters, and Crowley’s high regard for Ingres is borne out by a postcard of Madame Devaucay de Nittis which she kept with her throughout her life.
On her reluctant return to Australia in 1930 after four years in Paris, Crowley became a champion of Modernism and an influential teacher, introducing cubist principles and eventually pushing her own work towards total abstraction.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010