National Gallery of Victoria – Leon Pole’s ‘The Village Laundress’

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

… continued from the previous entry …

National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part III) 

Leon (Sonny) Pole (1871-1951) had inscribed himself onto the pages of Australian art history with his celebrated masterpiece, The Village Laundress (1891), which was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. The clarity of its composition; the complexity of its narrative; the mature resolve of its colour gamut; painterly dexterity, and keen awareness of contemporaneous art movements belie the artist’s comparative youth (he was only 20 when he painted this work). The presence of a narrative subject matter, the implementation of plein-air landscape painting practice, the sensitivity with which the scene is depicted, and the incorporation of muted colour schemes posits the painting in the epicentre of the divergent late nineteenth-century art movements and underscores the painting’s importance in the annals of Australian art.

Pole depicts a woman with two daughters traversing the narrow path that leads away from a humble cottage. Quiet introspection reigns over the woman’s face, and permeates the overall mood of the painting. While her figure is somewhat reminiscent of the labourers in paintings by Jean-François Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage, she shares none of their robust physique, nor does her demeanour show the joy of physical labour celebrated in the works of French realist painters. Instead, it is a sensitive and personal depiction of a young family, which emphasises the melancholy fact that they are forced to undertake this physically-intensive chore. The woman’s elegant attire, with fashionably elongated corset and hair swept back and piled high, is more suited to smart streets of an urban metropolis than to the unpaved pathways of rural outskirts.

The sobriety of the woman’s dress and her melancholy introspection perhaps point to a narrative of a lady from an upper-middle class background, recently widowed and fallen onto hard times, forced to eek out her living as a humble village laundress. I believe Luke Morgan echoed this view when he wrote some years ago that “the painting documents the changing circumstances of a Victorian family.”

The narrative of the composition takes place within a landscape setting, which is unmistakeably reminiscent of Heidelberg and its environs. While the figures are carefully modeled within a studio environment, the landscape is executed in a freer and more immediate manner, an artist’s response to the Impressionism-inspired spirit of Streeton, Conder, and Roberts, and the tonal sensibilities of Withers and Davies. It is visibly informed by Streeton’s Still Glides the Stream (AGNSW), from the small rise the middle ground to the distant hills in the upper right. Lyrical floral passages, suggestion of plants and flowers, which echo the hues of the girls’ dresses, and hints of delicate embroideries on their aprons, forebode the nascent Art Nouveau movement.

… to be continued… 

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012. Where applicable, images are courtesy of the artists and their galleries. This entry is partially based on my essay which originally appeared in Annual Collectors’ Exhibition 2008, Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, 2008, 16-18.]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2012


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