Clarice Beckett was born in 1887 in Casterton in regional Victoria. Today she is recognised as one of Australia’s most important painters of the interwar period, yet her contribution was almost completely lost to art history. Many of Beckett’s paintings were either destroyed or damaged after her premature death in 1935 from pneumonia which she contracted while painting in the rain near her seaside home at Beaumaris, Melbourne.
In 1914 Beckett enrolled at the National Gallery School in Melbourne where she studied drawing for three years under the tuition of Australian artist Frederick McCubbin. Beckett declined a fourth year of study in oils under Bernard Hall and instead joined controversial tonalist painter and teacher Max Meldrum in his newly opened private art school. In 1919 she moved from Bendigo with her parents to Beaumaris which is located in Bayside Melbourne, where she lived and painted for the rest of her life. She enjoyed painting at all times of the day, however towards the end of her life, as she cared for her elderly mother, she predominantly painted in the early mornings and evenings. Beckett also developed a strong interest in music and literature.
Beckett depicted everyday views of her local environment including transient subjects such as moving cars, trams, lone figures, waves and shadows. Her misty paintings of modern Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s captured the outdoors, including sea and beachscapes, and suburban street scenes, that often recorded the shifting effects of light– either in the quiet, early morning or in the stillness of the evening.
Her paintings of the local environment possess a sense of timelessness. No prior knowledge is required to appreciate Beckett’s paintings, anyone who has engaged with the outside world can relate to and experience a connection to these subtle and silent paintings of nature.
To give a sincere and truthful representation of a portion of the beauty of Nature, and to show the charm of light and shade, which I try to give forth in correct tones so as to give as nearly as possible an exact illusion of reality
Beckett exhibited her work for sixteen years, including in solo exhibitions every year between 1923 and 1933 at the Athenaeum Gallery in Melbourne. She also exhibited in group shows and was invited to join the Twenty Melbourne Painters, a group of break-away artists who were supporters or students of Meldrum. Her perceived alignment with the polarising figure of Meldrum saw her publicly ridiculed, and this, together with the modest and less heroic nature of her landscapes, resulted in limited critical attention during her lifetime. The critic Bruce James observed, her paintings, ‘are little evocations that build like musical phrases towards a greater and more compelling whole. That’s why groups of Becketts can be so thunderous’ - ‘Universal vision in dull suburbia’, The Age, 22 March 1995
Tonalism is a painting system without any preliminary drawing of a subject where artists record tonal impressions quickly onto a canvas with oil paints. This is done in the order that the impressions met the eye, often reducing a scene to large areas of light and dark. This is based on Max Meldrum’s theory that the mind can be trained to receive visual impressions in varying orders of importance, with the most significant being the majority tonal value. This is the first value that should be directly painted onto the canvas. The painting is then built up through recording these initial impressions.
The aim of tonalism is to create an illusion of nature, one that responds to the environment in an immediate way. It is an objective study of nature, with artists using a radically reduced colour palette and feathering brushwork. The method requires artists to use only five tones which are applied with a round brush and a generous amount of paint to ensure the transition between tones is seamless.
The systematic nature of Australian school of tonalism means that an identifiable soft impressionist style was created by Meldrum and his followers. At times this made it difficult to distinguish the work of different artists. Beckett’s work stands apart from other Meldrum Group artists (Meldrumites), who applied Meldrum’s Tonalism. Beckett’s work captured extraordinary spatial recession and smooth, velvet painted surfaces and were almost much brighter in colour. She was the finest colourist of the Meldrum Group and the first to develop signature motifs, such as the telegraph pole, roof tops and the motor car.
- Who was Clarice Beckett? Write a short biography describing Beckett. Use her paintings to build her profile.
- What is distinctive about Beckett’s paintings? Consider subject matter, style and technique. Identify three characteristics that define Beckett’s work. Share your findings with the class.
- What do you find to be strange about Beckett’s paintings and what do you find familiar?
- Select two works of art which were painted at different times of the day. What visual qualities suggest the time of day?
- Beckett’s paintings are quiet and capture a sense of stillness. How do you think she has achieved this? Examine the painting’s surface for clues.
- Select a work of art that reminds you of a fond memory. What was it about Beckett’s painting that reminds you of this time? Share your response with the class in the form of a poem about this recollection.
Artist and art critic Percy Leason advised when viewing Beckett’s exhibition in 1931:
“View[ing] ... from six or eight paces is important; this is the distance at which the artist weighed up the value of every brush stroke ... roll up your catalogue and view each picture through it. This might cause amusement to other visitors, but what matter? You will be rewarded with a wonderful suggestion of air and light and sufficient detail, and finish” - P. Leason, ’Current art shows’, Table Talk, 5 December 1931
Try viewing Beckett’s work as Leason suggests - roll up a sheet of paper and view each work of art through it. What do you think is the optimal distance to view Beckett’s work? How do her paintings change as your get closer or further away?
Beckett’s paintings depict her everyday local suburban environment. Do you think these are typically Australian images? What is an iconic Australian image?
Select one work of art by Beckett and one by another artist in AGSA’s collection that captures the essence of Australia and could be used for a marketing campaign to promote tourism in Australia to an international audience. For example, when we imagine Australian icons, the Sydney Harbour Bridge often comes to mind, perhaps The Bridge by Dorrit Black will be included as one of your selections.
Present your pitch to the class where you will all vote on which works of art will be used for this marketing campaign for Australia.
Recording the Present and Remembering the Past
Who was Clarice Beckett – the person? We know quite a lot about Beckett’s life as an artist but very little information exists about her actual life. The novel Night Street by Kristel Thornell, which won the Vogel Literary Award in 2009 draws inspiration from Beckett’s life, revealing a story about her life as young painter who defies conventions and art critics alike.
- What sources do we rely on today to inform us about a person’s history?
- How reliable are these sources?
Document the life of someone in your family. You might like to make a short film or written text.
- What important stories of this person’s life need to be told?
- Are there photographs, videos, journal entries, letters, maybe even your own observations, or perhaps their social media accounts that could be used to piece together their life? How reliable are these sources?
- What is the legacy they will leave behind? Perhaps it is something they made or a garden they cared for or perhaps this person had an impact in other ways?
Explore your local environment and make a series of sketches from different viewpoints. Back in the classroom create three works of art of the same scene using layered tones of chalk pastel on different textured papers. Which surface did you prefer using and why?
Generally, Beckett preferred adverse weather conditions – rain and overcast grey days – because it was easier to record tonal impressions. Find a work of art by Beckett that you think was painted in winter and one that was painted in summer. What are the winter and summer colour palettes where you live? Visit a paint store and select paint swatches that best represent two opposing seasons where you live. Using these colours create a work of art of that captures the essence of your favourite season.
Clarice Beckett had an extraordinary ability to convey a sense of distance in her paintings and surround her subjects in atmosphere. With this she depicted the presence of space and air which resulted in smoky or blurred representations. This quality was often misunderstood and referred to as fog.
Beckett’s dissolving of form creates a feeling of recessive space and distance. In this way she followed the ideas of Meldrum, who said that when standing ‘before a good picture the spectator should feel the ability to take a deep breath. There must be a feeling of depth and air’. The illusionary sensation of a breathy atmospheric moment was a well- known practice of the impressionists and of American painter James Abbott McNeil Whistler, who advised: ‘Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass’. Beckett made a tribute painting to Whistler titled Evening after Whistler, c. 1931.
Beckett’s painting approach was rapid and involved no preliminary sketching. She looked at her subject with her eyes blurred or semi closed and painted what she saw, without any interpretation or modification, to create an illusory ‘real’ effect. Squint while looking at a scene outside the classroom. What do you notice about what you see?
Working in all types of weather, Beckett was interested in capturing the ethereal effects of mist, rain, haze and smoke. Some of these phenomena can alter your vision.
Try to distort your view by creating interventions when painting an outdoors scene:
- Create an A4 viewfinder which has an inbuilt screen of baking or tracing paper.
- Using an old pair of eye-glasses cover the lenses with Vaseline and wear these while painting.
- Take a blurry photo, un-focus your lens, use Photoshop to manipulate (blur or pixelate) your image or move your device while taking a photograph. Use this image as your reference image to paint from.
The role of the curator
Piecing together the life of one of Australia's finest painters of the twentieth century
The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.
Art Gallery of South Australia staff Tracey Lock, Kylie Neagle, Thomas Readett and Dr. Lisa Slade contributed to the development of this resource.