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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Clarice Beckett

Princes Bridge, 1930, Clarice Beckett
Evening light, Beaumaris,
1925, Clarice Beckett
Although I've mentioned it a few times in the past, most recently a week ago with regard to the American Im-pressionist Reynolds Beal's brief flirt-ation with the style back during the early 1900s, I've never talked much about Tonalism. I suppose one reason I've never written much about it is that, as compared to a number of other art styles/movements from that period, Tonalism was relatively unimportant. The best that can be said about such work is that they are somewhat fas-cinating for the first two or three you see, but any more than that can put you into blissful, dreamy sleep. Per-haps that is the reason you don't often find artists having been involved with the style much more than just briefly. Although their works might not be overly impressive, their names and numbers are quite notable, including James McNeill Whistler, Edward Steichen, Albert Pinkham Ryder, John Twachtman, George Inness, Ralph Blakelock, and more than a couple dozen lesser-knowns whose listing would definitely put you to sleep. However, one name, a young Australian painter named Clarice Beckett, not only "flirted" with Tonalism, she could easily be said to have been married to it.

Church Street Bridge, Richmond, Clarice Beckett
Even in its prime, Tonalism was not particularly popular, either among artists or the general public. For the most part, Tonalism spanned only the English-speaking art world, leaving the impression that Tonalist artists painted only in the fog, or that each and every one of the lot was badly in need of spectacles. It was a style appealing mostly to artists, and even at that, not rigidly. The style came and went, as did Clarice Beckett. No one particularly mourned its passing...or hers. She sold little and was continually ignored or denigrated by critics during her lifetime. Tonalism was always seen as an elitist form of Impressionism, and seemingly could not match the colorful brilliance of its lighter, brighter cousin.

Although Clarice Beckett painted a few portraits, the
profile at left seems to have been by another artist.
Tonalism was an artistic style which actually began as far back as the 1880s when American artists began to paint landscapes with an overall tone of colored atmospheric mist. Between 1880 and 1915, dark, neutral hues such as gray, brown or blue, dominated compositions by artists associated with the style. Clarice Beckett was born near the beginning of the Tonalist period in 1887. Her father was a Casterton, Victoria,(Australian), bank manager who wanted only what was best for his daughter--to marry a rich man. As a child around the turn of the century, Clarice showed drawing talent, but it wasn't until around 1914 that she began attending Melbourne's National Gallery School, where she completed three years of study under Frederick McCubbin. Later on she continued her studies under Max Meldrum, whose controversial theories became her major influence.

An example of Clarice Beckett's portrait efforts. As to whether
it's a self-portrait, there's no indication one way or another, though
a resemblance to her photo is obvious. (It's her sister, Hilda.)
In 1919, their health failing, Clarice's parents moved to the Melbourne bayside suburb of Beaumaris. Beckett found herself taking on housekeeping and caregiving responsibilities which largely dictated the structure of her life, and severely limiting her artistic endeavors. As a result, Beckett could only go out to paint during the dawn and dusk. Despite a talent for portraiture and a general public appreciation for her florals (bottom) and still-lifes, Beckett preferred painting alone. She painted endless seascapes and beach scenes, as well as rural and suburban vistas, nearly all of which were enveloped in the atmospheric effects of early mornings or evening. Beckett's subjects were usually drawn from the Beaumaris area, where she lived for the latter part of her life. She was one of the first of her group to use a painting trolley, or mobile easel (which she constructed herself) to make it easier to paint in different locations.

Beach Road, Clarice Beckett
In 1934, Clarice's mother died from a stroke the two having become very close. This left Clarice alone with her invalid father, who became jealous of anything which might take his daughter away from him. She stopped attending art classes or social events, and when friends came to the house, Mr. Beckett ordered them to leave. Clarice was now completely isolated. She continued to paint whenever she could. However one night, the following year she continued working outdoors even though a storm had set in. She caught a chill which developed into pneumonia. Her heart was already weak. Clarice Beckett died five days later at the age of forty-eight. Her doctor believed that she might have survived, had her will to live been stronger.

Motor Lights, Clarice Beckett
During her lifetime, Clarice Beckett was never taken seriously as an artist. Some Critic sneered at her “continual state of fog,” but most simply ignored her completely. Sales of her works were pitifully. Even Beckett's mentor, Max Meldrum, who was supportive of her efforts, made it known that there would never be a great female artist, inasmuch as women lacked the necessary capacity to be alone (a not uncommon attitude among male painters of his generation). Yet he praised Clarice for “working like a man,” and defended her fiercely. Her artist friends saw her as beautiful, unassuming, and intelligent; sharply witty, but extremely shy and aloof.

The Boatsheds, 1929, Clarice Beckett

Daffodils and Poppies
(detail), Clarice Beckett

Clarice Beckett's personal life remains something of a mystery. Her dedication to her art, and refusal of several marriage proposals pitted her against her family’s traditional Victorian view of a woman's role in society. In 1970, nearly forty years after her death, around two-thousand of Clarice Beckett's paintings were discovered in an open shed in rural Victoria. Many of these paintings were rotted and torn, unable to be identified or restored. Rosalind Hollinrake, a curator, former gallery owner, and Beckett's biographer, helped salvage the artworks. She began to piece together the life and work of one of Australia’s most unique landscape artists. Beckett produced over two-thousand landscapes between 1917 and the time of her death. It was not until 1971 that an exhibition of Clarice Beckett’s paintings was held. A leading critic hailed her as “a remarkable modernist”, and the Australian National Gallery purchased fourteen of her paintings. The public were so enthusiastic that viewing hours had to be extended. The exhibition sold out. Since then, there have been several more public exhibitions of her work. Beckett is regarded as one of Australia’s finest artists, and with this accolade comes the promised that she will never be forgotten again. Today her posthumous reputation grows as her vision of modern urban and coastal Australia is acknowledged by dozens of contemporary followers.

Ranunculi with Coral Beads, Clarice Beckett

Almond Blossoms, Clarice Beckett


  1. I'm a big CB fan, interesting to read your post. Incidentally that is not a self portrait but rather a portrait of her elder sister Hilda.

    1. Ben, Thanks for writing. I have made a change to the caption under the questionable self-portrait I posted initially. I hope I've changed the right one.